Six Burning Questions: Minnesota

Can Minnesota mount a ground game against USC?

When these two teams met a year ago, the Golden Gophers struggled to find a rhythm running the ball, finishing with 83 yards on 37 carries (2.2 yards per carry). Quarterback Marqueis Gray could play a big factor in establishing a running game, as the junior has drawn comparisons to Cam Newton and Vince Young, based on body type, and presents several challenges to USC’s defense because of his dynamic playmaking ability. If he escapes the pocket, he could pose problems for the Trojans.

Who will emerge in the tailback battle at USC?

As many have noted, the USC depth chart is chock full of the word “OR,” and the running back position is no exception. After practice Thursday, USC coach Lane Kiffin said he still had not settled on a starting tailback, and as many as four players — McNeal, Morgan, Baxter and Carlisle — could get meaningful carries. A year ago, the Trojans ran wild on Minnesota, amassing 216 yards on 38 carries (5.7 ypc).

How will USC’s secondary respond to the criticisms of last year and recent adverse events?

Secondary coach Willie Mack Garza resigned Thursday afternoon, just 48 hours before the season opener, citing personal issues unrelated to USC. The Trojans must rely on their secondary to play an integral part in their defensive resurgence, and they have a good nucleus coming back. Junior safety T.J. McDonald is a preseason All-American, and sophomore cornerback Nickell Robey emerged as a solid defender by the end of 2010. After receiving word that Garza had resigned, McDonald tweeted, “For those worried we are going to be just fine!”

How will the offensive line perform?

Out of the 120 teams in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision, only nine of them do not have a single senior starting on their offensive line. USC is one of them. Though the starting lineup is not set in stone, junior transfer Jeremy Galten and sophomore John Martinez will likely start at the guard positions. Sophomore Kevin Graf and juniors Matt Kalil and Khaled Holmes round out the starting lineup. Fortunately for the inexperienced group, Minnesota recorded just nine sacks last season.

Will Matt Barkley reestablish a connection with Robert Woods?

Woods burst on to the scene as a true freshman in 2010 and earned Freshman All-America honors. He established an excellent rapport with Barkley and the two hooked up for numerous touchdowns in preseason scrimmages. The duo has garnered national recognition in the preseason. They were named to the Pony Express Award watch list, a new honor given to the best tandem in the country.

Can Minnesota upset No. 25 USC?

Pat Forde of ESPN picked the Golden Gophers, who are 23-point underdogs this weekend, to come away with a victory at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Saturday. Statistics, however, do not bode well for Minnesota. Jerry Kill will be coaching his first game for Minnesota. The last time a Golden Gopher coach won his debut? John Gutekunst in 1986. USC has also not lost a season opener since 1997.