Road environment to test young USC squad

So far it’s been a familiar setting for USC: “Tribute to Troy” blaring over the loudspeakers, the fourth-quarter torch lighting and Traveler prancing down the Coliseum sidelines.

That changes Saturday, however, when the Trojans head to Tempe, Ariz., to take on Arizona State in their first road game of the season.

It’s often hard to truly gauge any team until it plays in unfriendly confines, and USC is going to face a difficult challenge Saturday in trying to duplicate its success away from the Coliseum.

But if the team can figure out quickly how to play on the road, it’s going to make things very interesting down the line for games against Notre Dame and, more interestingly, Oregon.

Last year, USC was not a particularly bad team on the road. Just two of its five losses came when donning white uniforms, including one at Oregon State, the Trojans’ infamous deathtrap. The other loss? That came against then-No. 16 Stanford, a team that ended up obliterating Virginia Tech to win the Orange Bowl. And let’s not forget the Trojans lost by only two points on a last-second field goal shrouded in controversy about improper timekeeping.

On the ground and in the air, USC’s offense was markedly better on the road last season. The team threw for 243 yards per game and 2.4 touchdowns away last season, compared to just 240 yards and 1.8 touchdowns at home. Similarly, the Trojans rushed for 207 yards per game and 1.6 touchdowns on the road last year, compared to only 168 yards and 1.5 touchdowns at home.

The defensive home-away splits were about equal, but last season’s defense was atypically dreadful altogether.

Really, though, the catch about playing on the road is the degree of unpredictability that comes along with those games. No one predicted the Beavers’ 36-7 slaughtering last season, where junior quarterback Matt Barkley suffered an injury to his left ankle, and it shouldn’t have happened.

But things that shouldn’t happen often do on the road, and as a result, USC will need to be prepared for anything.

Arizona State should prove a worthy test in the first road game of the season, as the Sun Devil Stadium crowd appeared to play a role in the team’s week two win over then-No. 21 Missouri in overtime. The Tigers amassed 11 penalties for 110 yards, showing a lack of discipline often associated with playing under pressure in front of a hostile crowd.

At times, Barkley has struggled managing to get snaps off before the play clock expires, taking delay-of-game penalties and sometimes using timeouts at inopportune times. And that’s when the student section is quieting the crowd down to make things easy for him.

Sun Devil Stadium won’t be so accommodating, and USC will likely suffer a handful of delay-of-games and false-start penalties, particularly for a young offensive line.

USC has a handful of freshmen starters who have yet to experience an opposing crowd at the college level. Wide receiver Marquis Lee, tight end Xavier Grimble, guard Marcus Martin and linebacker Dion Bailey will have to learn on the fly how to deal with the lack of support.

Significantly more important than the team’s reaction to the surroundings, however, is the reaction of Andre Heidari, the freshman kicker who has attempted just three field goals so far this season and made two.

Consistent with the Trojans’ performance to this point in the season, the game’s probably not going to be a blowout. In fact, there’s a good chance it’s going to be close.

As USC knows better than almost any other team over the last two seasons, a field goal at the end of the fourth quarter is a remarkably critical play, loaded with pressure.

It can be hard for a kicker to face the deafening roar of a crowd expending all its energy to make sure that ball spins wide when there’s no room for a mistake. It’s tough for any kicker, to be sure — overwhelming, probably, for a freshman.

On top of all that, there’s a sharp coach on the opposite sideline, Dennis Erickson, who will surely use his timeouts to ice Heidari — more likely to make him sweat more than anything else.

Success or failure in a moment like that can be determined instantly for a player, at least in the eyes of fans, and Heidari has a real opportunity to endear himself to an entire fan base.

After all, it’s about time USC was on the winning end of a one- or two-point victory sealed by a clutch field goal.

But who can really predict what will happen on the road?


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