For USC, November has typically been a good month.
From 2000-2009 under former coach Pete Carroll, the Trojans compiled a 25-1 record.
But this is a different situation, a different year. And many pundits have picked this spot as a “letdown situation.”
With then-No. 20 USC coming off an emotional, triple-overtime loss against No. 4 Stanford, playing against Heisman frontrunner quarterback Andrew Luck, now the No. 21 Trojans (6-2, 3-2) must travel to Boulder, Colo., and face a one-win Colorado squad on a six-game losing streak.
Despite this, the players insist the Buffaloes (1-8, 0-6) have their full attention.
“We look at every opponent like they’re the best opponent on our schedule,” sophomore cornerback Nickell Robey said. “We’re not underestimating them. If we come out and focus on USC and ourselves, then everything will take care of itself.”
But Robey could be the lone usual starter in the secondary tonight. Junior safety T.J. McDonald will sit out the first half for an illegal hit against Stanford, redshirt sophomore cornerback Torin Harris is still recovering from a shoulder injury and junior safety Jawanza Starling is questionable with an unspecified injury.
Robey, however, has been the backbone of the USC defense, starting every game this year. The coaching staff also praised his play, which has coincided with the improved play of the defense during the last three games against California, Notre Dame and Stanford.
“[What’s] really been a big part of our improvement on defense is Nickell [Robey] playing well,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “Matching him up on their guys and really taking them out of rhythm, then obviously two huge fourth-quarter interceptions that almost win both games for us … he’s playing at a really high level and it’s great to see, for a kid who’s just a true sophomore.”
In its last three contests, USC’s defense has forced nine turnovers. Colorado, however, has only committed seven turnovers through nine games; the team ranks sixth in the nation. Quarterback Tyler Hansen is responsible for six of those turnovers, throwing six interceptions compared to just 14 touchdowns.
The Buffaloes’ offense has struggled recently, too, averaging fewer than 12 points per contest in their last four games. For the year, Colorado ranks 111th in the nation in scoring offense. Some of its struggles can be attributed to the absences of wide receiver Paul Richardson and tailback Rodney Stewart. Both have missed time because of knee injuries and both are questionable to play against USC.
Though Colorado’s offense might be struggling, USC’s offense seems to have found its stride in the last three games, averaging more than 36 points per game and 396 total yards. Most notably, the running game for the Trojans is starting to click behind the play of junior tailback Curtis McNeal. The Los Angeles native has turned in back-to-back 100-plus rushing yard performances, including a career-high 145 yards last weekend against Stanford. Though he fumbled in the third overtime, the coaching staff believes O’Neal is ready to bounce back.
“He’s had a couple great games in a row,” Kiffin said. “Now he needs to do it again and go up there and like I’ve said before, if you go on the road, especially in bad weather conditions, regardless [if it’s on the road] you better pack your run-defense and your run game. [McNeal] is a critical part of that right now.”
The running game’s improvement, in large part, can be attributed to the play of the offensive line. Though the coaching staff was forced to mix and match lineups during the first half of the season, now, it appears, the unit has found some continuity and balance.
“We’ve had tremendous progress,” junior left tackle Matt Kalil said. “Before we couldn’t run on anybody. Now we’re running [really well]. It has a lot to do with us getting a lot closer and bonding as an offense. We’re more comfortable and as a whole, the line has got some good chemistry going.”
And that line has allowed junior quarterback Matt Barkley to find his open receivers time and time again. Sacked four times this season, Barkley has connected with his top target, sophomore wide receiver Robert Woods, 81 times for 991 yards and nine touchdowns. Though the statistics might not show it, Woods has been hampered by a nagging ankle injury all season long. Despite his ailment, the coaching staff has been impressed with the way Woods has handled his injury.
“It just says who he is,” Kiffin said. “He’s that special that can be injured and be that tough to have those type of numbers but also prepare enough to line up in all those spots that he does.”
Woods is not the only offensive player dealing with injuries. Senior tailback Marc Tyler is still recovering from a dislocated shoulder he re-aggravated last weekend against Stanford, and freshman tailback George Farmer did not practice all week because of an ankle injury.
Despite the distractions and injuries coming into the game, USC understands it must not take Colorado lightly despite its record.
“They’re not a bad team,” Kalil said. “The main emphasis starting with Notre Dame is: ‘It’s all about us.’ It’s not about any other team we play. We play the same play against any team we go against, so that’s the attitude we have to come out with.”
Kickoff is scheduled for 6 p.m. and the game will be televised on ESPN.