After spending the offseason answering question after question into a microphone or tape recorder, the Trojans finally get to answer them on the only place it really matters: the field.
The No. 14 Trojans begin the post-Pete Carroll and -sanctions era tonight in Honolulu, against Hawai’i. Kickoff is at 8 p.m. and the game will be nationally televised on ESPN.
Last time the Trojans traveled to Hawaii, they stomped the Warriors 63-17 to begin their defense of the 2004 championship run on a team led by Reggie Bush.
With the fallout from Bush’s actions reverberating through Heritage Hall, expect a very different Trojan team to take the field.
The Lane Kiffin-led Trojans are entering a whole new gridiron landscape where most college football experts expect them to have a down year. Not only is depth an issue — the Trojans have only 74 scholarship players — but NCAA-imposed sanctions prohibit them from playing in a bowl game this season and next.
However, Hawai’i coach Greg McMackin isn’t expecting anything less from USC.
“They’re really focused for this year,” McMackin said in a conference call. “These distractions have really brought them together. We’re expecting their best shot.”
The Trojans enter the game as a heavy favorite. Their offense, led by sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley, looks to be much improved from a year ago. Barkley has had a strong spring and fall camp and, after being recently voted a team captain, is at the helm of the offensive attack.
Barkley started 12 of 13 games last season, leading the Trojans to a 9-3 record when he was behind center. As the season progressed so did his mistakes. He finished with 15 touchdowns to go with 14 interceptions.
Redshirt junior running back Marc Tyler will make his first start for the Trojans. He beat out senior Allen Bradford for the spot after Bradford was slowed by a knee bruise. Bradford is almost fully recovered and will probably get carries as well.
The starting offensive line, which has been hampered by injuries and depth issues, finally got the chance to practice together as a full unit for the first time Monday. The unit, anchored by senior center Kristofer O’Dowd, is a major concern heading into this season.
“That’s going to be a big question mark,” Kiffin said.
Despite the O-line issues, USC is expected to put up points on the Warriors. It is on the defensive side where things could get a little more uncertain.
Hawai’i employs a run-and-shoot style of offense, which attempts to spread defenses out and relies on short passes to quick receivers. Its attack, led by junior quarterback Bryant Moniz, ranked third nationally in total passing last season and 14th in total offense.
The task will fall on USC’s defense, which was inconsistent at best last season to slow the Hawai’i attack, a task the Warriors’ coach recognizes is a huge challenge.
“A defense can never be right,” McMackin said. “Every route is adjustable. If the quarterback, receivers and running backs get on the same page, it’s tough.”
USC has the right tools in the front seven to disrupt the Hawai’i attack. Junior defensive tackle Jurrell Casey — who is listed on several national watch lists for postseason awards — and defensive ends Wes Horton, a redshirt sophomore, and Armond Armstead, a junior, give the Trojans plenty of firepower up front as they will look to get to Hawai’i quarterback Bryant Minoz.
Behind them, experience reigns as the unit of linebackers- Malcolm Smith, Michael Morgan and Devon Kennard- return from last year. If any of them get hurt, backup Chris Galippo will be more than ready to step into his place.
However, it is behind those front seven where question marks lie. The Trojan secondary features four new starters, three of whom are of sophomore standing or younger.
Adding to the defensive concern for the Trojans is that they have not had many full-contact practices. Kiffin decided a few weeks ago to prohibit tackling because the risk of injury was too great.
“I have never been more unsure of a team in my life,” Kiffin said.
As uncertain as Kiffin is, he’ll finally be getting some answers about his Trojan team tonight.