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TGS 2012 COLLEGE FOOTBALL PREVIEW...SOUTHERN CAL TROJANS
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


Well, that didn’t take long, did it?

So it goes for Southern Cal’s exile from the college football mainstream, which ended after last season. Oh, there are still the last phases of the NCAA penalty phase to worry about, and they’re not insignificant, as the Trojans are still being docked ten scholarships (from 25 down to 15) for the next couple of years before SC is completely beyond the recent sanctions stemming from the Reggie Bush scandal. But the bowl ban, in effect the past two seasons, is now history. And once again, they’re talking big at Troy.

As in, we’re supposed to win the BCS title. Because, well, we’re SC!

No matter the familiar Cardinal & Gold bravado, the question that must be asked is if the bar is being raised a bit too high at the intersection of Jefferson & Figueroa. Which we think is probably fair, considering the runaway expectations.

But this is SC, where expectations are always high. Even when the Trojans weren’t a serious contender for national honors.

Indeed, it must be a bit unnerving to the many SC haters who were thinking that the penalties imposed by the NCAA two years ago meant that the Trojans wouldn’t have to be worried about for several years. The accompanying departure of wildly-successful HC Pete Carroll after the 2009 campaign seemed to signal the end of an era. Lane Kiffin, a former Carroll aide who had hardly distinguished himself in previous head coaching stints with the Oakland Raiders and University of Tennessee, not to mention bearing an uncanny resemblance to TV comedian Daniel Tosh (of Tosh.O fame), had not convinced Trojan Nation that he was a proper heir apparent to the school’s considerable gridiron legacy.

As it turned out, only the 8-5 mark in Kiffin's first season of 2010 turned out to be a gift for the anti-SC crowd. Now, even Trojan haters are whistling a different tune about Kiffin, whose team seemed to hit stride about midway through last season. By the time the 2011 campaign ended, the Trojans might have been the hottest team in the country, although the postseason ban meant that SC had nowhere to go despite a sparkling 10-2 mark that included a rousing upset of eventual Rose Bowl winner Oregon in mid-November and a delicious 50-0 bombardment of hated, but hardly worthy, crosstown rival UCLA in the season-ender.

That NCAA probation really took the wind out of SC’s sails, didn’t it?

But is it too soon to begin comparing Kiffin to Carroll, John Robinson, John McKay (left), Jess Hill, Howard Jones, and pantheon of Trojan football coaches, who began crafting the SC legacy long before Kiffin’s time?

Whatever Kiffin does this fall, we hope that some of the new-wave Trojan backers, who have conveniently forgotten (if they ever knew) that SC had mostly struggled in the decade before Carroll’s arrival in 2001, unceremoniously firing the three preceding coaches (Larry Smith, Robinson in his second stint, and Paul Hackett), realize not only that all of the winning is hardly a birthright, but acknowledge what sorts of special teams created the whole Trojan legacy in the first place. This new era of SC backer, including the hip-hoppers and other L.A. urban-area transplants also have no idea how exciting and charismatic (what’s that?) some of the old Trojan teams used to be, unlike the many self-flagellating Carroll and, for the last half of 2011, Kiffin squads that routinely ran up the scores vs. overmatched opposition.

Powerhouse sides need a foil to test their true worth, and it is in the regard that we believe some of the luster has been lost from the last decade of Trojan dominance. Whereas Muhammad Ali had his Joe Frazier, SC used to have old, nasty rivals UCLA and Notre Dame, against whom all Trojan progress used to be measured.

This new generation of SC backers cannot possibly relate to some of the thrills of days when the Bruins and Fighting Irish could compete on equal terms, if not do a bit better, against SC. They don’t know what they have been missing over the last decade; there was a lot of football played by the Trojans long before Lane Kiffin and Reggie Bush, or anyone knew of Kim Kardashian, who first gained her notice when saddling up to Bush at Trojan events.

It might surprise some modern Trojans that SC suffered an 8-game losing streak vs. the hated Bruins that endured throughout almost the entire ‘90s. Troy also had a 13-game winless streak vs. Notre Dame within recent memory (1983-95). But those weren’t even the days that defined the SC legend, which had been established even long before we began publishing TGS in 1957.

Interestingly, in our first TGS season, the Trojans were shackled by NCAA penalties (sound familiar?) resulting from the slush-fund scandals of the ‘50s. Had we stopped publishing after that first 1957 season, we would have only known of SC as one of the nation’s worst teams. The Trojans were not without some legendary names that season; linemen included Ron Mix, a future Pro Football HOFer, and Monte Clark, a long-time NFL star and coach, plus a fellow lineman named Mike Henry, who would play for a few years in the NFL before becoming an actor and joining Johnny Weissmuller, Buster Crabbe and others as those who played the role of Tarzan. The QB, Willie Wood, would go on to stardom as a DB for Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers; the HB, Don Buford, would go on to become a baseball star with the White Sox and Orioles. But those Trojans, under HC Don Clark, stumbled to a 1-9 mark, never scoring as many as 20 points. Maybe it was the tacky-looking gold helmets (above right) SC wore in ‘57, never to reappear.

The season concluded with a lopsided 40-12 loss in the freezing cold at Notre Dame (the Trojans always used to face the Fighting Irish at the end of the regular season; beginning in 1963, the games at South Bend began to take place in mid-October, although the renewals at the L.A. Coliseum continued to be played at the conclusion of the season). Irish end Monte Stickles, a future 49er, caught a pair of TD passes from Bob Williams, and a back named Bob Doyle ran back a kickoff 92 yards for another Notre Dame score. It might have been the all-time low point for SC football.

Perhaps reminding the new generation of SC fans that there were periods of such lowlights in the school’s football history will serve to humble them, if just a bit. Although we doubt it.

The series vs. UCLA also used to be a lot more interesting than what it has become since the Bruins went into their shell, toed the p.c. line, and almost graciously seemed to allow the Trojans to dominate them, as has been the case the past 13 seasons (SC has lost only once to the Bruins in that span).

A lot of Trojans, even the older ones for which we are far more fond, had trouble admitting that the UCLA game was, for decades, the real defining one for SC. Losses to Notre Dame were never easy to swallow, but defeats to the Bruins lingered, living as the Trojans were in the same town, where the previous result was inescapable for the subsequent year.

Not that SC has had to bother to worry about any of this stuff lately. But in the days when UCLA was good, real good, and there were such days, wins over the Bruins were always the most satisfying, for they often accompanied Rose Bowl invitations.

We are forever glad that we were around in Los Angeles in the ‘60s, especially the last half of the decade, when USC vs. UCLA elevated to another plateau. The arrival of Tommy Prothro as the Bruins’ coach in 1965 set the stage for a series of unforgettable chess matches vs. John McKay as the crosstown rivalry became so white-hot it would even keep the nation spellbound.

Yes, UCLA used to have that sort of football impact.

Prothro outfoxed McKay in the first two of their meetings, although anyone who saw Gary Beban rally the ‘65 Bruins to a late 20-16 win on a pair of long TD passes in the last four minutes to Dick Witcher and Kurt Altenberg still probably can’t believe what transpired. McKay finally got his first win over a Prothro-coached UCLA in the epic 1967 battle for number one in the polls, a game which immortalized O.J. Simpson for something other than what happened almost three decades later. Simpson, a juco transfer who had burst upon the scene that season, scored the deciding TD on an epic 64-yard run in the fourth quarter, giving Troy a 21-20 win and a ticket to the Rose Bowl, where McKay’s men claimed the national title after a 14-3 win over gallant Indiana.

We have always felt, however, that it was the 1969 game that might have been the greatest of them all in the crosstown rivalry. Both teams entered that one with 8-0-1 records (a better combined mark than the ‘67 classic, when SC already had a loss on its ledger), and ranked 5th and 6th, respectively in the country. The Trojans had survived a series of white-knucklers behind a wicked defense and soph QB Jimmy Jones (right), and were proving they could exist without the graduated Heisman winner Simpson, who was ably replaced by another juco, Clarence Davis. For Prothro’s Bruins, they had recovered from an injury-plagued 3-7 mess in 1968 behind juco (Long Beach City College) transfer QB Dennis Dummit, and the best UCLA stop unit in the past 50 years, which had shut out three teams that season entering the SC game.

By kickoff time that November 22, however, all also knew the polls were due for a shakeup the next week after top-ranked Ohio State had been upset by Bo Schembechler’s Michigan earlier in the day. That result catapulted the Wolverines, and not Mike Phipps’ Purdue (remember, the Buckeyes were banned by the Big Ten’s draconian no-repeat rule of the day), as the Big Ten rep for the upcoming Rose Bowl.

The college football world was spellbound, as the game kicked off at 6 PM Eastern time, televised nationally by ABC, which made sure its top announce team of Chris Schenkel and Bud Wilkinson were on hand at the L.A. Coliseum (Bill Flemming and Lee Grosscup were behind the ABC microphones for Buckeyes-Wolverines at Ann Arbor earlier that day). And between the two games, ABC’s Wide World of Sports televised, live via satellite, the middleweight title fight from the Palazzo Dello Sport in Rome, where Nino Benvenuti defended his title with a dramatic 11th-round knockout of Luis Rodriguez, action that was described by none other than Howard Cosell.

It was the first USC-UCLA game in which both sides entered unbeaten since the 1952 clash, which, ironically, was the first coast-to-coast live college football game televised by NBC. It’s also worth noting that the sides haven’t faced each other as unbeatens in the 43 years since.

UCLA drew first blood on its opening possession, as the clever Prothro fooled the SC defense when HB Greg Jones lofted a 41-yard option pass TD to wideout George Farmer, staking the Bruins to a 6-0 lead. With no confidence in PK Zenon Andrusyshyn, Prothro opted to go for a two-point conversion, but Dummit’s pass was tipped away by SC DE Charlie Weaver, one of the Trojans’ famed defensive “Wild Bunch” from ‘69.

The Wild Bunch (left; Al “A.C.” Cowlings...also later known as the driver of the white Bronco, Jimmy Gunn, Willard “Bubba” Scott, Weaver, and Tody Smith), however, would soon begin to exert its will on the game, which quickly turned into a defensive war for the ages. Dummit was pressured incessantly, and under duress midway in the 2nd Q, threw a pick deep in his own territory that was picked off by LB Gunn, whose TD return was called back due to a clip. But SC’s offense, not moving much itself, was nonetheless set up deep in Bruin territory, and a subsequent 12-yard TD run by Clarence Davis gave Troy a 7-6 halftime lead.

For most of a brutal second half, perhaps the most-physical thirty minutes of any USC-UCLA game in history, that 7-6 lead looked as if it would stand. As afternoon turned to dusk, and then evening, with bits of fog rolling in, Dummit would have his own lights turned out by the Wild Bunch, which played ping-pong with the Bruin QB, sacking him nine times and forcing five picks. Weaver, in one famous play, knocked a scrambling Dummit into the air and backwards a few yards (right); Dummit has said he recalled nothing of the game afterward, although he courageously stayed in the fray.

Deep into the 4th Q, with under five minutes to play, Dummit, though not recalling any of it after the game, was still firing away. On the play after his ninth sack pushed the ball back to the UCLA 33, Dummit hung tough and uncorked a long bomb to WR and track star Brad Lyman, who made an over-the-shoulder 57-yard catch and raced to the Trojan 10. Three plays later, on third-down from the seven, the wobbly Dummit, remarkably standing his ground in the pocket despite facing more pressure, coolly and dramatically hit WR Gwen Cooper in traffic for the go-ahead TD to put the Bruins up, 12-7, with 3:08 to play.

SC was forced to answer to save its Rose Bowl hopes. To that point in the game, Trojan soph QB Jones had completed all of one pass, but the Harrisburg, PA product was full of magic that season, and began to move the Trojans into UCLA territory. On 4th down from the Bruin 43, however, Jones’ pass flew far over the head of WR Sam Dickerson.

But as the ball sailed far over Dickerson, Bruin DB Danny Graham grabbed the Trojan wideout. Although the ball was uncatchable, rules of the day didn’t account for that fact; if the ball was anywhere in the air and the receiver was hit, a referee could throw a flag for interference. Graham, unfortunately, was victimized, and the Trojans had new life with a first down on the UCLA 32.

The way that season was going for the Trojans, one sensed a dramatic ending, and Jones delivered, heaving his next pass deep into the right-back corner of the endzone, which Dickerson chased down as he was going out of bounds (left)...touchdown?!?!? Yes! Or so it was ruled; those were the days long before video replays, so no review was in the cards to see if Dickerson’s dragging left leg was beyond the boundary, as later photo evidence suggested. The TD stood; SC led 14-12 with just 1:32 to play.

UCLA was not done yet, advancing to the SC 39 in the last minute, although we’ll never know if Prothro would have given his spooked PK Andrusyshyn (who had kicked field goals as long as 52 yards in his college career) a chance to win the game, as the woozy Dummit was picked off on the sideline by Trojan DB Ty Hudson. The final score was 14-12 in SC’s favor...ironically the same scoreline when the two faced off as unbeatens in 1952, seventeen years earlier! For the “Cardiac Kid” Trojans, it was also the 12th time in their last 20 games that they had rallied in the 4th Q for victory!

As for DB Graham, guilty of that crucial pass interference call, his postgame reaction summed up the feelings of the crestfallen Bruins. “I feel like my whole life just went down the grain,” said Graham, and perhaps Prothro’s best UCLA team would not even get to a bowl. Instead, McKay’s Trojans reached their fourth straight Rose Bowl and beat Michigan on New Year’s Day, 10-3.

These modern-day Trojan fans don’t know what they were missing, decades ago!

But the nouveau bunch of SC backers has a lot to be excited about this season, as 17 starters return from the team that finished so hot last November. Senior QB Matt Barkley, after passing for 3528 yards and a school-record 39 TD passes last fall, bypassed a chance to enter the NFL Draft (surprising more than a few) for a chance to stick around and complete his unfinished business at Troy, which was detoured by the bowl bans of the past two years.

Kiffin’s passing attack really began to click last fall when then-frosh Marqise Lee (73 catches) emerged as more than a diversion for soph Robert Woods (left) and his 111 catches. If Kiffin wants to add more speed to the mix, he can plug in soph George Farmer, the prize of last year’s recruiting class who got very little work as a frosh (only 4 catches) but remains the speediest player on the team. Some also believe blue-chip true frosh Nelson Agholor, via Tampa, could have the same sort of impact as Lee did a year ago...if he can get on the field.

Longtime regional sources suggest this is an NFL-caliber aerial attack with Barkley in the cockpit, and that Woods (already an All-American) and Lee could constitute one of the best receiving tandems in recent college history this fall.

If, that is, both stay healthy, a subject worth mentioning after Woods missed all of spring practice due to ankle surgery. Barkley also was mostly kept on ice in spring, with Kiffin not wanting to risk any potential hurts while giving the bulk of the snaps to inexperienced backups Cody Kesser and Max Wittek.

Therein, however, might lie an Achilles heel for the Trojans; should Barkley go down, the whole SC plan could unravel this fall, because no other QB on the roster has thrown a college pass. It should also be noted that Kiffin rarely pulled Barkley a year ago, even when SC had built up huge leads, and accused by some of blatantly padding the stats of his QB, which Kiffin had not admitted but also never denied. There were plenty of opportunities to give backups some live action last fall, which Kiffin bypassed.

We’ll give this to Kiffin, however; his play-calling (which he still handles for the offense) has been dynamic, with the influence of former mentor Norm Chow very visible. Although it was Kiffin who helped grease the skids for Chow’s exit from Carroll’s staff to the Tennessee Titans after the 2004 season, he studied the old master carefully. Kiffin’s play-sequencing is pure Chow, mastering the “keep ‘em off balance” approach, basically calling for passes on traditional running downs (such as first and ten) and runs on traditional pass downs (second-and-long is often a running down in the Chow and Kiffin playbook). Note that Kiffin and Chow will face off as opposing head coaches when Hawaii opens the season at the Coliseum on September 1.

Experienced depth in the backfield is another concern, although the emergence of sr. Curtis McNeal (left; 1005 YR and 6.9 ypc LY) as a legit breakaway threat last fall juiced the infantry to dangeorus levels. There are questions, however, about McNeal's durability (he only carried the ball 145 times last season, hardly workhorse-type numbers), and his crucial fumble, when tiring, in the third OT cost the Trojans that thriller vs. Andrew Luck and Stanford. Like at QB, there is also not much experienced cover at RB, and Kiffin was prompted in spring to move 225-lb. LB Tre Madden to the offense to add depth to the RB corps. Redshirt frosh Buck Allen, a 215-lb. slammer, also impressed in spring and could steal some carries from McNeal.

There's good and bad news across the offensive line; the good news is that four starters are back, the bad news is that the lone departure was All-American LT Matt Kalil, the 4th pick (Vikings) in the first round of last April’s NFL Draft. The next Trojan All-American on the line might be sr. C Khaled Holmes, versatile enough to be plugged in anywhere along the front wall but likely the first center taken in the 2013 NFL Draft. Other potential future NFL first-rounders could be new LT Aundrey Walker, a 6'6, 320-lb. soph who was not long ago another blue-chip recruit, soph G Marcus Martin, and jr. G John Martinez. The recurring and roster-wide concern of experienced depth, however, is palpable, as three true frosh are likely to be on the second string.

As if Kiffin’s offense wasn’t loaded enough, soph PK Andre Heidari was almost perfect a year ago when misssng only two of 17 FG tries as a frosh.

Meanwhile, Lane’s papa Monte, a legendary defensive coordinator, welcomes the entire back seven to his stop unit after his platoon began to get the hang of Monte’s pet “Tampa 2" cover schemes. Everyone, even key reserves, returns in the secondary, which has been a bit leaky the past two seasons (ranking 102nd in pass defense a year ago) but nonetheless made significant strides as last season progressed.

While Barkley’s decision to skip the NFL Draft for one more year was big news for the offense, the decision of sr. SS T.J. McDonald (right) to do the same was a similarly important development for the defense. Son of former Trojan great Tim McDonald, young T.J. is already an All-American and the on-field leader for papa Monte’s platoon. Junior corner Nickell Robey has started each game the past two seasons and doubles as a kick-return threat. Still, papa Monte is looking for more big plays from the secondary after SC recorded just nine picks (in 457 pass attempts by the opposition) a year ago, hardly the sort of turnover numbers that Pete Carroll’s defenses used to produce.

The strength of the stop unit, even more so than the DBs, is probably in a loaded LB corps that returns all starters, as does the secondary. Unlike the all-upperclass secondary, however, the first-string LB corps consists of all sophomores who got valuable experience last year as frosh. Converted safety-now-OLB Dion Bailey (left) was the most consistent playmaker last season, using his great speed to wreak havoc. Plus, fellow soph Hayes Pullard can pressure from the opposite edge, and MLB Lamer Dawson emerged as a force late last season. They’re all just sophs...get used to their names.

If there is a potential weak spot on papa Monte’s platoon, it’s up front, where three starters departed from a year ago. All of the new faces were well-regarded preps, but soph DT George Uko and NT J.R. Tavai are still untested, and sr. DE Devon Kennard (who has been moved back-and-forth between OLB and DE the past couple of years) has not been a beacon of consistency. Another sr. DE, Wes Horton, has also endured an up-and-down career, but seemed to get the hang of his position late last season. The line is another position where depth is a potential sticky subject, and there are further concerns at the tackle spots, especially with the 270-lb. Tavai, a bit light by nose-guard standards.

Kiffin’s Trojans don’t figure to be severely tested by their non-confernece slate (and we’re including the regular-season ender vs. Notre Dame at the Coliseum in that projection). But before assuming the Trojans are a good bet for their first BCS title game since the 2005 season, note a schedule full of the sort of Pac-12 road banana peels (at Stanford, Utah, Washington, and Arizona) that have caused every SC team since that ‘05 edition to slip at least once on the conference trail. And then there is the Coliseum showdown vs. another loaded Oregon team, bent on revenge, on November 3.

Also note that Kiffin showed no qualms about running up scores when he had the chance a year ago as SC covered 6 of its last 7 games after beginning the Kiffin era in a shaky manner against the number, dropping 11 of the first 18 vs. the line.

Summary...SC appears back in the national title discussion for the first time since 2008, with many preseason prognostications having the Trojans in Miami for the BCS title game. We can buy it, too, especially with the Barkley-Woods-Lee passing game combination threatening to rewrite the Pac-12 record books, and Barkley likely a serious Heisman contender as well. But we also see a few more potential land mines on the schedule than do most forecasters, and broad-based depth concerns, partially brought about by the scholarship limitations, threaten to undermine all of the excitement. Even if all goes smoothly, SC is still probably going to have to beat dangerous Oregon twice (on November 3 and again in the Pac-12 title game) to get to Miami, and remember how Troy was hanging on for dear life in that narrow 38-35 upset win at Eugene last year after hitting the Ducks with several haymakers earlier in the game. The hype is justified, but we also foresee several scenarios in which the Trojans fall short of their BCS title-game goal.


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