Preview – USC

Five teams from the Pac-12 have seen the light of day in the Associated Press Top 25 in the 2011 season.

Colorado has had to face all five …. in succession.

In a stretch of games in which Colorado has gone without its leading tackler, leading wide receiver, leading running back, and starting quarterback, the results have been, well, awful. Even the most pessimistic of Buff fans would not have predicted a run in which the Buffs were not only defeated, but mauled.

This week, senior quarterback Tyler Hansen is healthy, and will start. Also expected to return to action are running back Rodney Stewart and wide receiver Paul Richardson.

Will they make a difference? All you need to know about the Colorado offense in October:

1) Stewart has missed the last 2 1/2 games, yet is still is the Buffs leading rusher, and by a wide margin. Stewart has over double the number of yards of the No. 2 guy, Tony Jones (473-212); and

2) Richardson is still the Buffs’ leading receiver (474 yards to 301 over the next wide receiver, Toney Clemons), even though Richardson has played in only five of the Buffs’ first nine games.

Will the return of Stewart and Richardson make that much of a difference, with the Buffs 21-point underdogs at home to No. 21 USC?

Will the return of the “Blackout” to Boulder” help turn the tide in favor of the black-and-gold?

Will the weather play a factor? Will the altitude?

Or will the Buffs be behind by three touchdowns in the first quarter … again?

Only one way to find out … here are this week’s “T.I.P.S.”

T – Talent

Not news: USC quarterback Matt Barkley is very good.

News: It’s wide receiver Robert Woods who is the real problem.

Matt Barkley is only a junior, but he is already one of the elite quarterbacks in USC history. Barkley is 4th on the all-time career passing list and fifth in total offense for the Trojans. Only names like Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, and Rodney Peete stand above Barkley.

This fall, Barkley is completing 67% of his passes, and is 18th in the nation in pass efficiency. In last weekend’s three-overtime loss to No. 6 Stanford, Barkley completed 28-of-45 passes for 284 yards and three touchdowns with one interception.

Barkley’s primary target is an NFL wide receiver masquerading as a college sophomore. Robert Woods is a franchise, and will be the main source of concern for the CU coaching staff this week. Woods is currently 2nd nationally in receptions per game (10.1), fifth in both receiving yards (123.9) and all-purpose yards (177.9) – no other player in the nation is in the top five in each of those categories. Woods is on pace to pace to break the Pac-12 record for receptions (102) and has a decent shot at the most receiving yards ever (1,532)

Oh, and did I mention Woods returns kicks? Last season, as a true freshman, Woods made first-team All-Pac-10 as a kick returner, setting Trojan season marks for returns (38) and yardage (971). Woods is already ranked 6th all-time on USC career kickoff return list – midway through his sophomore season.

(Anyone for kicking out of bounds again, and just letting USC have the ball at the 40? The opponents’ average starting position on CU kickoffs is the 35 anyway – one of the worst averages in the nation – so what’s an extra five yards?).

While Matt Barkley and Robert Woods are certainly the stars of the USC offense, they are not alone. The Trojans have two running backs each averaging over 60 yards per game in Curtis McNeal and Marc Tyler. McNeal had a career-high and game-best 145 yards on 20 carries with two touchdowns (61 and 25 yards). This a week after posting 118 yards on 24 carries against Notre Dame. Marc Tyler was injured (shoulder) in the Stanford game, and his status is uncertain for the Colorado game, giving Curtis McNeal his first career start against the Buffs.

Normally, I wouldn’t discuss an offensive lineman in the “T.I.P.S.”, but USC pre-season All-American offensive tackle Matt Kalil deserves mention. Not only is Kalil NFL-bound next spring, but he has this going for him … he has blocked four kicks on special teams this fall.

It should not come as a surprise that the USC defense is also very, very good.

Even with the return of Rodney Stewart, the Colorado running game is not likely to fare well against USC. The Trojans are ranked 16th nationally in rush defense, and this fall returned six players who had starting experience.

The pass defense, though, has been somewhat susceptible to a decent passing attack. USC is ranked 102nd in pass defense, giving up almost 275 yards per game.  Further bolstering the Buffs’ hopes for success through the air is the suspension (at least for the first half) of USC star safety T. J. McDonald. The junior must sit out the first half after being called for a hit to the head against Stanford last weekend.

Translation: If Colorado is to have a hero, and post an unlikely upset against USC, it is more likely that it will be wide receiver Paul Richardson instead of running back Rodney Stewart.

I – Intangibles

For the first time in what seems like forever, there are actually a few intangibles working in favor of the Buffs this weekend.

First on the list has to be the weather. While it is true that – as of this writing – it appears that the weather will be decent for the 7:00 p.m. kickoff on Friday night (cool, but clear), the mere sight of snowstorms in Denver on television the past few weeks has got to have played on the minds of the young men from southern California making their first venture into the Rockies.

The sentence of the USC media release demonstrates the Trojan awareness of what might take place this weekend … “No. 21 USC- coming off a gut-wrenching triple overtime loss to Stanford – will look to rebound as it begins its final month of the season when it visits new Pac-12 member Colorado for a chilly Friday night encounter …”. Later, it is noted that the last time a USC team played a game in the snow was on November 30, 1957, against Notre Dame (I’m guessing that little piece of trivia wasn’t in the press release for the September game in Tempe against Arizona State).

Despite the trepidation of the Trojan faithful of playing in the snow in Boulder, the chances are still slim. In fact, the Buffs haven’t even played in the rain in five years (Karma alert: the last time the Buffs did play in the rain was against Texas Tech in 2006, when the Buffs, in Dan Hawkins’ first season, won for the first time in ten games).

Another intangible which may work in favor of the Buffs on Friday can also be discerned from the opening line of the USC media release. There, the “gut-wrenching triple overtime loss to Stanford” is mentioned. The loss to No. 6 Stanford was not only hard to take, but it could have a hangover effect for the Trojans.

Why? Recall that USC is on probation this year, and is ineligible to play in a bowl game. For all intents and purposes, the game against Stanford was USC’s bowl game … the Trojans had the national spotlight (ESPN GameDay on hand), were playing at home before a sell-out crowd of over 90,000 fans, and had multiple opportunities to take down a hated rival, while at the same time re-establishing  what Trojan fans would perceive to be “order” amongst the Pac-12 elite.

Instead, though, USC lost to Stanford for the second consecutive year in heart-breaking fashion (USC fell last fall in Palo Alto, 37-35), and for the third straight time overall (Stanford man-handled USC, 55-21, the last time the teams played in Los Angeles).

You can’t tell me that the USC players, used to being the kings of the Pac-10, are not still thinking about what might have been last weekend … and how they have now dropped three straight to the Cardinal.

Which brings us to …

P – Preparation / Schedule

Once again, Colorado finally catches a break.

Instead of playing a team which has had a bye week to prepare for playing the Buffs – as has been the case three of the past five weeks – Colorado is playing a team which has a disadvantage in terms of the schedule.

While the Buffs were limping home from Tempe last Saturday night, the Trojans were leaving it out on the Coliseum playing field, falling in triple overtime. Now, the Trojans have to head out for a road game with a short week to prepare.

Not only do the Trojans have to leave southern California earlier than they would have otherwise for a regular Saturday game, they are doing so with the Stanford game still being a topic of discussion (and, perhaps, distraction). USC head coach Lane Kiffin had several derisive comments for the officials after the game, was still unapologetic on Sunday – and was promptly fined by Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott. By Tuesday, Kiffin was only reluctantly receding from his position, “As for my reprimand and fine, after numerous conversations with the conference office, we have agreed to disagree”, Kiffin said in a statement.

All this three days after the Stanford game, and only three days before the Colorado game.

Another preparation/schedule boost for the Buffs comes in the form of returning players. Several weeks ago, Colorado listed nine defensive backs on the injury list. This week, the number is down to five. In addition, Colorado will likely have the services of leading wide receiver Paul Richardson and leading running back Rodney Stewart, after the pair missed a combined six games of action. The return of the Buffs to – relative – good health has got to be a positive.

 Then, there is the timing of the game itself, the first-ever Friday night home game for Colorado in school history.

Yes, the game will be a “Black out”, which looks good on television, but that in and of itself won’t change the outcome.

Yes, the Buffs will be in all-black uniforms for the first time since 2009 (though the Buffs have lost their last four games wearing all-black, with the last game the 2009 home game against Nebraska).

But it’s more than that. Sorry for bringing up bad memories, but let’s call it … “the Toledo factor”.

For whatever the reason – psyched home fans, a shortened week for the traveling team, playing for pride before a national television audience – Friday nights are for underdogs.

The Colorado/Toledo game is a great example (though a painful one). Colorado had everything to lose, and nothing to gain, in going to the Glass Bowl. The Rockets, though, had everything to gain and nothing to lose. The result? A Toledo blowout.

Want more? Two weeks ago, No. 15 West Virginia took on Syracuse in the Dome on a Friday night. Result? Syracuse 49, West Virginia 23. That same night, 2-4 Louisville took down 5-1 Rutgers, 16-14. The week before that, 3-2 Hawai’i took on 2-4 San Jose State. Result? Spartans 28, Warriors 27.

There are other examples, but you get the idea. The Colorado players know that every road team in college football is stuck in their hotels, biding time between the team meetings and curfew (and Buff players know it better than almost anyone, what with their seven road games this season). They know that opposing teams, past and future, will be checking out the Buffs, looking to see if Colorado is really as bad as its record indicates.

If there was ever a game for the Buffs to step up and show the college football world that they are not a “Bottom Ten” team, this is that game.

Last weekend, bowl-banned USC had its bowl game against Stanford.

This weekend, USC is Colorado’s bowl game …

S – Statistics

– Try this one on your Buff friends … Want to know why Paul Richardson wants so badly to play against USC? Remember Trojan wide receiver star Robert Woods (see, above)? Woods and Richardson not only come from the same high school (Junipero Sierra in Gardena, California), but they were teammates. Woods was considered the No. 1 wide receiver prospect in the nation from the 2010 recruiting class, while Richardson was considered the No. 38 receiver in the nation in that same class. Smalll world …

– Only stat you will need this weekend: What does the scoreboard say at the end of the first quarter? Okay, it is not exactly a news flash that Colorado has played poorly in the first quarter, with the Buffs being out-scored 111-13 in the first quarter this season (50-0 in the last two games, 84-7 in the last four). But, there is also this: USC has been getting off to a fast start in the first quarter this fall, out-scoring its first eight opponents 63-17 in the first quarter. Translation: If it’s 21-0 at the end of the first quarter Friday, you can start talking about the weather or the basketball team, ’cause the game will be over. But, if the Buffs are hanging in after the first stanza, it will be new territory for both teams, and the game might turn out to be more than USC – or ESPN – believes it will be.

Colorado is 0-5 in the all-time series against USC. The only other team in the Pac-12 which Colorado has yet to defeat is Arizona State (0-3 after last weekend’s loss);

– In those five games, USC has out-scored Colorado 138-24, or an average score of 27.6-to-4.8.  Colorado has only three touchdowns and a field goal in the five games, and twice (in 1963 & 1964) was shutout;

– Counting the 2011 contest, USC has come into its game against Colorado ranked five times (there were no rankings in 1927, or the Trojans might have been a perfect six-for-six). In the 1963 game, USC was ranked as the No. 1 team in the nation. The Buffs, coming off of a 2-8 season in 1962, held tough in Boulder in the 1963 opener, falling 14-0 (CU would go 2-8 in the 1963 season as well). The 1963 opener against the No. 1 team in the nation was the first-ever for legendary Colorado head coach Eddie Crowder;

–  This weekend marks the third straight weekend in which Colorado has faced a ranked team (Washington joined the rankings after defeating Colorado. If the Huskies had entered the poll the week before, USC would be CU’s fifth consecutive ranked opponent). 2011 marks the 14th time in which the Buffs have played three ranked teams in succession. In those 14 occasions, Colorado has only been swept twice (2000, 2006). It’s no small coincidence, though, that those two seasons were also the worst two for the Colorado program in the past 25 years (3-8 in 2000; 2-10 in 2006).


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