10 takes on USC's final dress rehearsal...
- John Baxter has accomplished something amazing in only four games this season. He has made special teams cool. In the recent past, the punt and kick teams were filled by the lower half of the roster, but Baxter has players like Stanley Havili begging to get involved. Even OG Butch Lewis wants to play special teams to "get a fat man touchdown." All that passion and energy is paying off. USC has blocked three kicks already and has scored two return touchdowns.
- After two games, the Trojans knew very little about themselves. After two more, they are starting to build an identity around physical football. In the secondary, T.J. McDonald and Jawanza Starling were dishing out punishment today. "We always try to send a message and set a tone back there as a secondary," Starling said after the game. "We don't want a fly zone back there. It's up to us in the secondary to bring the pain."
- The offense has followed suit by establishing the power run and then working play-action to get the passing game going. The Trojans racked up 285 yards rushing. "We shoot for 300," Butch Lewis said. "But we'll take 285." The downfield blocking by receivers turned solid gains into breakaway runs. On Havili's opening TD run, Ronald Johnson sprung him for six. And on Brandon Carswell's catch-and-run to the goal line, David Ausberry mauled the corner to set his teammate free.
- I told you Lane Kiffin has a sense of humor. After a week of questions about his starting running back, Stanley Havili was the lone man in the backfield on the first offensive snap. Havili was so dominant that he might be the best candidate to start at running back. "I'm a fullback," Havili clarified when I asked if he was throwing his hat in the ring. I'm not going to argue with him. "It feels really great to touch the ball," Havili said of being let loose today. "But the last three weeks have been great also. If we come away with Ws, I'm happy."
- The running back situation remains muddled. Allen Bradford had the best day, but he lost a fumble for the second straight week. Marc Tyler has scored touchdowns in three of the four games. Dillon Baxter lost some touches in the all-purpose game with Havili's role growing. Unless someone distinguishes themselves, they will play the hot hand, which may not be the worst idea. If I remember correctly, the previous head coach used to like competition.
- The coaching staff has been patient with true freshman Nickell Robey and it paid off today. After getting beaten for six on the opening drive, Starling had a message for Robey, "We just told him to relax and he would get another opportunity and he took advantage of two opportunities." Robey had told me earlier in the week that he was dreaming about his first interception. "It's all about visualizing," Robey said of his preparation. "That's what great players do." Did it live up to the fantasy? "It was an awesome feeling...just like hard work paying off."
- With their four easiest games in the win column, the Trojans are ready for the gauntlet to begin with a mostly healthy roster. The defensive line is the only unit showing some attrition. Nick Perry got off the mark with his first sack, but he's still hobbling around. Armond Armstead did not play to rest his shoulder, while Wes Horton was kicked in the back. Despite the bumps and bruises, they controlled another game. "I believe we have the best d-line not only in our league, but the whole nation," Butch Lewis said of his practice adversaries.
- I know what made the fans really happy...no failed two-point conversions! Joe Houston split the uprights on the first four PATs before Mitch Mustain took it himself for the only two-pointer of the game. Maybe that will keep the two-point message board wolves at bay for one week...
- Matt Barkley holds the fate of this team on his gifted shoulders. If he plays like a top two or three Pac-10 quarterback, the Trojans will likely finish in the top two or three. Otherwise, they will not be able to keep up in what should be one of the most competitive conference races in years. Barkley has struggled the last two weeks "miscommunicating" with his receivers and today his running backs. Now that the schedule is loading up, those mistakes will be punished harshly.
- Despite forcing three turnovers today, USC gave three right back. They still sit at -1 in turnover margin on the season. The great Trojan teams of the Carroll era thrived in that department, so you can expect another week of Lane Kiffin stressing ball security and improved decision-making. Here is a question that I don't have an answer to: Why can't the Trojans force fumbles? For whatever reason, I cannot remember the opponent putting the ball on the turf this year (not counting the Minnesota heel clip).
- Here are our players of the game: FB Stanley Havili and CB Nickell Robey