The third time could be the charm for No. 18 USC.
Since former offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian left for Seattle in 2009 to take over as coach of Washington, the Huskies have upended the Trojans in each of the last two seasons on last-second field goals from kicker Erik Folk in 2010 and 2009.
Despite recent struggles against Washington, USC (7-2, 4-2), insists what has transpired carries little bearing on Saturday’s Pac-12 matchup between the two teams at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in the Trojans’ annual Homecoming Game.
“Nothing last year will help us win this year,” USC junior quarterback Matt Barkley said following Tuesday’s mid-morning practice. “We’re a completely different team than we were last year, and none of that sour taste is still in my mouth.”
Though quarterback Jake Locker, a first-round selection by the NFL’s Tennessee Titans last April, is no longer under center for the Huskies (6-3, 4-2), Washington’s offense has not missed a beat this season, scoring nearly 34 points per game — compared to 21.6 points per game a season ago.
Heading Washington’s attack is tailback Chris Polk, who ranks seventh nationally with less than 122 rushing yards per contest. Polk, a one-time USC commit coming out of Redlands East Valley High, has also eclipsed 1,000 yards for the third consecutive season.
“It’s not real complicated,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said of slowing down Polk, who rushed for a mere 80 yards against Oregon. “Tackle the guy really well and don’t let him fall forward.”
But even in Locker’s absence, Washington has gotten strong play from quarterback Keith Price, who has thrown for 2,133 yards and 25 touchdowns through nine games this season.
Fortunately for USC, its defense -— at least as of late — has improved markedly in its last four games, thanks in part to a concerted effort to cycle more players in and out of the lineup during the course of a game. In an era where spread offenses dominate the Pac-12 landscape, defensive players face more offensive snaps, causing them to tire more easily, according to Kiffin.
“Playing our guys every snap, especially on the front seven, was not working, because we just weren’t productive in the fourth quarter,” Kiffin said. “This year we have rotated guys in earlier in the game, regardless of the score, so that we’ll be fresher in the fourth quarter. In general, we’re in better shape.”
But perhaps offensively is where USC has been most impressive this season, averaging 33.4 points per game — 33rd nationally.
In addition to Barkley, who broke the single-game passing touchdown record at Colorado, the Trojans boast a number of talented playmakers at both wideout and tailback in sophomore wide receiver Robert Woods, freshman wide receiver Marqise Lee and junior tailback Curtis McNeal.
Aiding McNeal this week will be the expected returns of senior tailback Marc Tyler and freshman tailback George Farmer. The tandem, which has been hampered by injuries throughout much of the season, should help bolster an already effective USC rushing attack, which combined for 243 yards on 33 carries last week against Colorado.
Even with the additions, McNeal is slated to start for the second consecutive week after gaining 87 yards on 10 carries against the Buffaloes.
“Most likely Curtis will start,” Kiffin said. “And we look for Marc to play as well.”
Though Washington’s defensive statistics appear high — it surrenders 33.4 points per game — it is important to note that the number is inflated because of games against the high-powered offenses of Nebraska, Stanford and Oregon.
Up the middle, Washington is stout against the run, allowing 4.6 yards per rush. Washington senior linebacker Cort Dennison leads the Pac-12 in tackles with 81 on the season, and defensive tackle Alameda Ta’amu is projected by some as a first-round draft pick in this spring’s NFL draft.
“We’ve got to run some wide zones, which in our system means that we cut [Ta’amu] down, which is all legal,” Kiffin said. “We’ve got to make sure that we do that, so that he’s got to be getting up and down off the ground all day long. He’s caused people a lot of problems over the last couple of years. Hopefully, we’ll be able to contain him.”
The Trojans, riding a two-game skid against the Huskies, insist things will be different come Saturday.
“They beat us the last two years,” McNeal said, hinting at a bit of frustration. “We can’t afford to let them beat us anymore.”
The game is scheduled to begin at 12:45 p.m. and will be televised on FX.