For four seasons, USC coach Lane Kiffin and Hawai’i coach Norm Chow took the Trojans to new heights as offensive assistants under then-head coach Pete Carroll.
On Saturday, they will battle each other as head coaches for the very first time.
No. 1 USC begins its highly anticipated season at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Saturday against the Warriors, and one storyline leading into the game is the relationship between the two offensive-minded coaches. Chow was the offensive coordinator at USC from 2001-2004 and helped lead a resurgent USC back to national prominence. Kiffin served as receiver’s coach and as the passing game coordinator under Chow and maintains great respect for him.
“[Chow] really mentored [me and Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian],” Kiffin said. “[We] spent a lot of time with him, a lot of nights in old Heritage [Hall].”
Consequently, the Trojans are familiar with Chow’s offense, and the defensive players are aware of Chow’s history as well.
“We know Norm Chow’s a great coach,” redshirt sophomore linebacker Hayes Pullard said. “I was looking at him as I grew up in middle school and high school when he was here, and [it’s] a great staff to be able to play against, a powerhouse offense like his.”
Kiffin acknowledged that the familiarity between the coaches might not be beneficial.
“If he’s going to be calling plays, which it sounds like he is, we’ve been exposed to him a lot,” Kiffin said. “But he’s also been exposed to us, too. So anytime you’ve played somebody, it works both ways.”
Chow is installing his pro-style offense at Hawai’i, where the run-and-shoot offense has been king for years. In addition, the Warriors will be breaking in several new starters.
Junior quarterback David Graves will make his third career start against the Trojans. Helping ease the transition, though, are his returning wide receivers: junior Billy Ray Stutzmann and senior Jeremiah Ostrowski. Stutzmann had just under 1,000 yards receiving last season, and Ostrowski scored five touchdowns. Senior safety T.J. McDonald is excited about the prospect of an aerial assault.
“The ball’s going to be in the air, and you want to make plays on the ball,” McDonald said. “We know our coach is going to put us in a greater position to make plays.”
Though the offensive side of the ball has gotten the majority of the headlines this offseason with the return of senior quarterback Matt Barkley, the defense returns eight starters to a unit that gave up just 17 passing touchdowns in 2011. However, the Trojans lost several key pieces, especially on the defensive line, and the team will be depending on younger players to step up their game.
“The beginning of training camp is always kind of slow,” Pullard said. “We’ve gotten way better since day one. We’re just progressing day by day and brushing up on our fundamentals.”
McDonald agreed with Pullard’s sentiments.
“We’ve been in this system for a while. We[‘ve] started to learn things,” McDonald said. “We start to ask questions that never would have came into our head before when we were younger… When those questions start coming up, you just start getting an overall feel for what’s going on.”
In terms of the offense, the Trojans are expected to put up some fireworks of their own in the season opener. Barkley returns after throwing a conference record 39 touchdowns in 2011, as do his star receivers, junior Robert Woods and sophomore Marqise Lee. Woods caught 111 passes last season, while Lee caught 73 balls as a freshman. Also returning in the backfield is senior Curtis McNeal, who ran for 1,005 yards last season. Junior Silas Redd joins the team after rushing for more than 1,200 yards last season at Penn State.
The Trojans figure to improve upon their 35.8 points per game average from last year. Hawai’i, meanwhile, gave up 29.1 points per game in 2011. Needless to say, the Trojans are expecting big things from a balanced offense this season, as is Redd himself.
“The offense can be more versatile now,” Redd said in regard to joining USC. “Not only with Matt [Barkley], but Robert [Woods] and Marqise [Lee] on the outside. So, if they want to bracket those guys, that leaves like six in the box, and that makes our job easier to run the ball.”
Saturday’s game begins at 4:30 p.m. at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The game will also be shown on Fox.