USC looking for strong start in Pac-10 play

Three weeks and a few victories later, No. 20 USC (3-0) enters Saturday afternoon’s tussle with Pac-10 foe Washington State (1-2), still unsure where all of its 2010 puzzle pieces fit together.

Focused · Sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley will have a chance to improve on his two touchdown, two interception performance in Minnesota against Washington State on Saturday. Barkley has already thrown for nine touchdowns this season. - Tim Tran | Daily Trojan

During the last three weeks the Trojans have shown  their most consistent facet is the team’s ability to display a steady level of inconsistency.

Redshirt junior tailback Marc Tyler has started the previous three games, yet it has been senior Allen Bradford and true freshman Dillon Baxter who have shined brightest at the position in the past two games.

Sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley generated a lot of Heisman hype by starting the season with seven touchdowns and no interceptions, only to see that go by the wayside with a two-interception showing against Minnesota last Saturday.

On the other side of the football, defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin’s group has looked every bit the part of a bend-but-not-fully-break unit. There have been big plays, untimely penalties and a whole lot of uncertainty thrown in between.

Despite dropping in the AP polls for three straight weeks, the Trojans head into conference play perfect in the only stat that truly matters: their record. According to USC coach Lane Kiffin, the team continues to work to improve every day.

“I feel like the week overall was pretty good,” Kiffin said. “We’ve got to continue to do a better job of protecting the ball. That will be a major part of our focus this week — taking care of the ball and trying to finish a game in the plus-turnover margin. This is going to be a good trip for us. If we come away with the win … we’ll be satisfied.”

Saturday’s Pac-10 opener with the Cougars looks similar to the three previous showdowns the Trojans found a way to eke out — but in no way does that mean Kiffin is allowing his team to take a break.

“For us, it’s one game at a time and every game they let us play, our goal is to win,” Kiffin said. “There is a lot riding on each game, individually for the players and for us as a team. “

For Kiffin, Saturday’s game once again provides the opportunity for many on the team to gain much-needed in-game experience and get a feel of the football field before the cream of the Pac-10 schedule is upon them.

“We hope to rotate in a number of guys this week,” Kiffin said. “[We want to] get through this game, hopefully with a win, get to 4-0, come back for our Pac-10 opener at home and really have a good grasp of evaluating four games combined with everybody.”

If there ever was a place for a team still searching for its heartbeat, Pullman, the Washington town of less than 30,000 people, looks to be a suitable place to begin that search.

The Cougars’ defense is last in the Pac-10 in points allowed per game (40.7), rushing yards allowed per game (184.7) and total offense allowed per game (457 yards). The Cougars have also failed to beat USC since 2002, and have not taken out an AP top-25 opponent since 2006. They are coming off two consecutive 11-loss seasons.

There are bright spots, however, for Washington State, and those can be found mostly on the offensive side of the football.

Quarterback Jeff Tuel has put up 700 yards and five touchdowns through the air this season, true freshman receiver Marquess Wilson has amassed 281 yards receiving and two touchdowns, and running back James Montgomery will face USC after missing last year’s contest because of acute compartment syndrome in his leg. If the Cougars are to pull off the unexpected upset for their home crowd, the offensive attack appears to be their best bet.

But no matter what team shows up in Pullman to face the Trojans, USC seems to be focused on nothing other than playing its own game to the best of its ability.

“We just want to have a great game,” said senior cornerback Shareece Wright. “We’re not worried about who they are, or what they do. We’ve got to be ourselves and play our game.”