Amid a preseason full of widespread uncertainty involving crippling injuries, still-undecided position battles and a new defensive scheme, USC’s football team will look to begin its 2013 campaign with one familiar constant — a victorious season opener against Hawai’i.
Thursday’s game in Aloha Stadium marks the third time in the past four seasons that USC has started its season against the Warriors, and the Trojans put up 49 points in both the 2010 and 2012 contests to put the games out of the Warriors’reach.
On the first play of scrimmage in last year’s matchup, a simple 5-yard out route by then-sophomore wide receiver Marqise Lee turned into a 75-yard touchdown after Lee juked out a helpless Hawai’i defender on his way to scampering down the sideline for a score and figuratively announcing himself as a Heisman frontrunner.
One year later, Lee is generally considered the top wideout in the nation, and sophomore Nelson Agholor and freshman Darreus Rogers both appear to have the talent to pull off a similar game-breaking play against the Warriors’ porous pass defense.
It’s still unclear, however, which of the redshirt sophomore quarterbacks Cody Kessler and Max Wittek will be delivering the ball to Lee and the rest of the receiving corps.
“We’re excited to see both of them play,” USC head coach Lane Kiffin said. “We look at it as an opportunity for two guys to play great, just like when you’re excited for two guys to play tailback.”
Fittingly, the Trojans are also expected to split touches in the backfield between freshman Justin Davis and redshirt sophomore Tre Madden to compensate for the absence of senior Silas Redd, who will not travel to Hawai’i. Redd has been nursing a knee injury throughout fall camp after undergoing surgery on his meniscus in the spring.
“I had the worst possible meniscus tear you could have,” Redd told Scott Wolf of the Los Angeles Daily News earlier this week. “It’s extremely frustrating. I want to play extremely bad.”
If Kessler ends up starting against Hawai’i, USC’s first-string backfield will have virtually no game experience on offense; Kessler has only attempted and completed two passes for the Trojans — in mop-up duty last year versus Colorado — and neither Davis nor Madden have recorded a carry.
But compared to the Warriors’ current situation on offense, USC’s attack looks like a sure thing.
Hawai’i fired offensive coordinator Aaron Price at the beginning of fall camp after the Warriors finished last season ranked 101st in passing yards per game (189.8) and 114th in rushing yards per game (108.6). Hawai’i coach Norm Chow will assume playcalling duties, setting up a rare matchup between head coaches doubling as offensive playcallers.
Last year’s starting quarterback, senior Sean Schroeder, has been passed over in favor of junior Taylor Graham, a transfer from Ohio State.
Graham was ranked as the No. 14 quarterback in his class out of high school by Rivals.com and should be a better fit in coach Norm Chow’s pro-style system than his predecessor. But he hasn’t started a game since 2009, when he was in high school, and the firing of the team’s offensive coordinator just weeks before the start of the season appears to signal a lack of confidence from Chow in how his unit was performing leading up to the season.
And even though the Warriors return eight starters on defense, none of them showed the ability to contain the Trojans’ passing game last year.
USC torched the Warriors for 372 yards through the air, with Lee accounting for 197 of those in addition to a 100-yard kick return for a touchdown.
This year the Trojans’ aerial attack could thrive again, even with two inexperienced quarterbacks.
The main knock on Kessler and Wittek throughout the preseason has been their inability to perform when under pressure from USC’s formidable defensive line. But USC’s offensive line should hold up better against Hawai’i’s defensive front, which only forced nine interceptions and 22 sacks while facing relatively soft competition in the Mountain West conference.
Chow would certainly love to hand Kiffin and the Trojans an enormous upset loss in the pair’s third meeting, especially considering the friendly rivalry the two hold after working together at USC under former coach Pete Carroll.
But history isn’t on Hawai’i’s side.
USC hasn’t suffered a loss in its first game since 1997, hasn’t dropped a non-conference road game since 2006 and is 8-0 all-time against the Warriors. The Trojans have never beaten Hawai’i by less than 13 points.
And if Kiffin wants to silence the USC fans who are calling for his dismissal, he’d be advised not to be involved in the conclusion of any of those streaks.
The Trojans and Warriors kick off at 8 p.m. on CBS Sports Network.
Follow Will on Twitter @WillLaws