USC can’t afford to cut this game close

Saturday’s opener against Hawai’i is intended to be a tune-up, a blowout against a team unable to match USC’s firepower. A quick eye test during warm-ups will betray an undersized Hawai’i squad that the Trojans should simply out-talent.

Sound familiar?

The Sept. 3, 2010, game against Hawai’i was played under a similar narrative, only to become a nail-biter in which the Trojans prevailed 49-36.

Even as they breathed a sigh of relief that night, USC fans, not deluded by Trojan spirit, likely understood that the 2010 edition was not reminiscent of teams before. Fears that sanctions might handcuff the team suddenly felt more real.

The narrow victory foretold what would become a yearlong malaise for the Trojans and set off questions concerning the team’s urgency to win without the potential to play for a bowl game.

Of course, the opener was not all negative. Then-sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley announced himself as the face of the program with five touchdowns, and Lane Kiffin notched his first win as the head coach at USC.

But, it didn’t feel like a victory.

The Warriors exposed USC’s defense as physical, but plodding, unable to play in space against up-tempo spread offenses.

Despite excellent production from Barkley and former running back Marc Tyler, who ran for 154 yards on 17 carries, the game’s outcome was in doubt until former linebacker Michael Morgan knocked Hawai’i quarterback Bryant Moniz out of the game with a vicious hit to the head that bordered on a personal foul. On the play, Moniz had scrambled to the Trojans’ one-yard line, setting up a touchdown run on the next play that cut the Warriors’ deficit to 11 points with 1:54 remaining in the third quarter.

Hawai’i never recovered from losing its first-string quarterback, but the rest of college football had seen enough: This was not the same USC defense that once made opposing receivers think twice about catching a ball in traffic or that featured playmakers at all three levels.

Following the contest, USC dropped from No. 14 to No. 16 in the Associated Press poll and proceeded to plummet an additional four spots after beating Virginia and Minnesota unconvincingly by a combined 14 points.

Most USC fans groused, especially when the unbeaten Trojans only moved up two sports to No. 18 after whooping Washington State the following week, 50-16.

To the surprise of no one who watched the first few games objectively, USC sputtered the rest of the season.The team’s porous defense surrendered 26.7 points per game and 5.91 yards per opponents’ offensive play. Compare that to 2008, the year in which the Trojans defeated Penn State in the Rose Bowl — that defense allowed only 9.0 points per game and 3.61 yards per offensive play.

Fast-forward to Sept. 1, 2012 and it’s obvious that tomorrow’s contest is much more than a perfunctory dress rehearsal for the conference schedule.

Even a blowout victory will have a ‘ho-hum’ quality. Under coach Norm Chow, Hawai’i won’t simply wilt, but there are few scenarios under which the Trojans won’t beat the Warriors by at least four touchdowns.

The Trojans must win, and win decisively, emerging from the Coliseum a dominant team in all phases of the game — not just for their fans’ collective psyche, but also to make a statement.

For what it’s worth, Vegas places the Trojans as 40-point favorites — though personally, I would take the under.

This is also the first opportunity for opposing coaches to view game film on the 2012 Trojans. Like they did in 2010 when they brought to light USC’s lack of defensive speed, the Warriors will have the opportunity to expose weaknesses in USC once again.

Though the odds are stacked against Hawai’i pulling off the upset victory, this game can lay the blueprint by which future teams with more talent will try to down the Trojans.

Appearing fallible against Hawai’i would be an ominous sign for USC’s prospects going forward. Tomorrow’s matchup will set the tone for the rest of the season and give an early indication as to whether USC is merely masquerading as a consensus top-three team.


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