Virginia comes to town Saturday, setting up the No. 16 Trojans’ home slate at the Coliseum and providing another quasi-test for a USC team hoping to prove to skeptics it is indeed as good as old.
The Trojans struggled with that last week at Hawai’i, coming up empty on defense and allowing 588 yards and 36 points to an inexperienced Warrior offense in a 49-36 win.
But first-year coach Lane Kiffin, who replaced the long-tenured Pete Carroll in January and has already endured a great deal of turmoil in his eight months on the job, has proclaimed with confidence that this game will feature none of the same.
“I think you’re going to see a very different game here,” Kiffin said. “And hopefully a much-improved game from our defense. Let me phrase it this way: I will be shocked if we don’t play extremely well on Saturday night on defense.”
Virginia is also a very different team than Hawai’i. Whereas the Warriors could sometimes pass the ball almost exclusively, the Cavaliers are much more balanced, relying on bruising running back Keith Payne to shoulder the load in tandem with scatback Perry Jones.
“On film, it looks to be that way,” Kiffin said. “But you never know how they’re gonna come in, what their plan will be.”
Virginia quarterback Marc Verica also had a solid opener, completing nearly 70 percent of his passes. Receivers Kris Burd and Dontrelle Inman appear to be legitimate threats as targets.
But Payne is a remarkable story, a 6-foot-3, 255-pound Northern Virginia native who quit the team prior to last season but rejoined it in spring practice, and then — in his first career start for the Cavaliers — carried the ball 16 times for 114 yards and four touchdowns in their season-opening 34-13 win over Football Championship Subdivision powerhouse Richmond.
The Trojans’ run game will be led by redshirt junior tailback Marc Tyler, who was named the starter shortly before the season opener and was impressive in his debut, averaging more than nine yards a carry against Hawai’i and totaling 154 yards and a touchdown. Quarterbacking USC, of course, is sophomore sensation Matt Barkley, the newly christened 20-year-old, who had a superb five-touchdown day against Hawai’i.
Virginia coach Mike London emphasized this week that the Trojans have plenty of talent on their roster — regardless of NCAA sanctions and corresponding transfers that have hurt depth.
“I know there’s a lot of talk about who is playing and whom they have lost, but the quality of the talent that they have is indicative of the fact they are one of the top programs that have players in the NFL,” London said Tuesday. “When you look at the game, you see athleticism — from everybody. Even the water boy is athletic and fast.”
Virginia will need to run the ball effectively against USC to have a shot. London wouldn’t admit that but did say ball control would be a factor.
“I do know this,” London said. “You’ll have to take some time off the clock against Southern Cal. USC is a team that plays fast and that tries to capitalize on the things that you don’t do. So we need to make sure that we can keep the clock running, with the running game, short passes that are caught, keep the clock moving, keep the chains moving.”
Kiffin said Saturday’s contest is about the Trojans — not the Cavaliers. He wants his team to focus on fixing what it did wrong against Hawai’i first and, second, pay some attention to Virginia as well.
“Most importantly, it comes back to us,” Kiffin said. “We’ve got to be extremely consistent in what we do — not worry so much about what they do.”