USC opens its Pac-10 season Saturday at Washington State, not exactly the most anticipated of conference openers.
Still, USC coach Lane Kiffin said these are the kind of games coaches have to be most wary of, especially at USC.
“I’ve always thought with coaching here, one of your hardest things to do is get your team motivated when it’s not the national game of the week,” Kiffin said.
USC is used to playing in front of a national television audience but has sometimes struggled against lesser opponents in games without much hype.
“These guys have been so programmed to be in so many of those [big] games that these are the games you worry about,” Kiffin said.
The Cougars are 1-2 this season, their sole win coming in a narrow 23-22 victory over Montana State. Still, despite their underwhelming résumé, Kiffin said there are a few Cougars playing good football.
Jeff Tuel leads Washington State at quarterback with an efficiency rating of 135.5 and running back James Montgomery has averaged 4.5 yards per carry.
“Their quarterback is playing a lot better than people would assume by maybe their record,” Kiffin said.
No matter who the Trojans are playing Saturday, one USC coach was clearly excited.
“All I know is it’s the Pac-10 opener,” defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said. “First Pac-10 opener for me. I’m pretty doggone excited. I hope the team is.”
Kiffin has not revealed who will start at running back Saturday. Redshirt junior Marc Tyler has started every game this season, but senior Allen Bradford opened up the competition again after his 131 yards and 12 carries against Minnesota.
Tyler was limited at practice Wednesday, but Bradford wasn’t expecting any changes.
“I’m not anticipating on starting,” Bradford said. “I’m just … preparing as if I’m the No. 1 back. If it happens, it happens.”
Kiffin has been rotating Tyler, Bradford and freshman Dillon Baxter with the first team this week.
Tyler remains No. 1 on the depth chart, but Kiffin said Tuesday that Bradford’s performance made the competition a lot closer.
There was a question as to whether freshman cornerback Nickell Robey’s spot at corner was also in jeopardy.
The Trojans have freshman safety Patrick Hall, who was suspended by Kiffin for the first three games of the season and will be available for the first time against the Cougars. Kiffin also said freshman cornerback Demetrius Wright will get playing time regardless of the score.
But Kiffin maintained that the competition had not necessarily been reopened, and the coaches would continue to evaluate the position.
Robey was beat on a touchdown against Minnesota, but said he easily moved on from the play.
“You just gotta keep your head up and just have a short memory,” Robey said.
Kiffin said he was not concerned about Robey’s mind set.
“Nickell’s very confident right now,” he said.
Ball security was the major emphasis of practice and the stakes were high: Milkshakes were on the line.
On the final play of the 11-on-11 team portion of practice, senior quarterback Mitch Mustain’s pass was deflected, then intercepted by junior cornerback T.J. Bryant, causing the defense to erupt in excitement.
The deal was that if the defense created a turnover, secondary coach Willie Mack Garza had to buy milkshakes for them.
“It was good to see the defense keep fighting for the ball,” Kiffin said.
Along with Tyler, junior defensive tackle Armond Armstead and redshirt sophomore defensive end Nick Perry were limited Wednesday, as they have been for the last few weeks.
Redshirt senior linebacker Michael Morgan and junior tight end Blake Ayles were also limited.