Preview: A daunting USC squad awaits in Jerry Kill's Gophers debut
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Who: University of Minnesota Golden Gophers at University of Southern California Trojans
When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum (93,607)
TV: KSTP-ABC (Channel 5); Pregame show at 1:30 p.m.
Line: USC by 23
Coaches: Gophers -- Jerry Kill (1st season). Trojans - Lane Kiffin (2nd season, 8-5).
Series: USC leads 5-1-1
Last meeting: When Adam Weber's 31-yard touchdown pass to Da'Jon McKnight helped put the Gophers up 14-13 in third quarter last September at TCF Bank Stadium, it looked for a minute an upset of the then-18-ranked Trojans was in reach. But USC's Robert Woods returned the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown, eliminating any momentum built up by the home team, en route to a 32-21 "U" defeat.
At stake: First-year coach Jerry Kill has preached patience in his rebuilding of the "U" football program. Even so, players and fans alike are anxious to see if the perceived change is indeed underway. Questions about MarQueis Gray's aptitude at quarterback and the "U's" unproven roster will all start to be answered on Saturday.
Gophers: LB Brendan Beal (knee), LB Aaron Hill (hamstring) and OL Josh Campion (concussion) are out.
Trojans: RB Marc Tyler (suspension) is out. LG Abe Markowitz (foot), WR De'Von Flournoy (undisclosed) and RB Amir Carlisle (hamstring) are day-to-day, but potentially could play Saturday.
Three things to watch
Gray's debut: As goes MarQueis Gray, so go the Gophers. The junior's performance in his first start at quarterback will ultimately dictate the offense's success, not only against the Trojans, but also throughout the season. Saturday offers an initial look at Gray's ability to retain composure when facing a defense likely to stack the line in hopes of containing his desire to scramble, in turn forcing him to test his arm. While he has shown growth and increased comfort during fall camp, his accuracy, especially on the run and in short-yardage situations, is still not where it needs to be. In the Gophers' pre-season scrimmages, he had a tendency to get flustered on occasion and send a wayward passes well out-of-reach of his helpless receivers. Gray will undoubtedly make his share of mistakes. The key is limiting and spreading out those errors to a point where he can find a rhythm with his untested offense. Although USC has struggled in the past to handle dual-threat quarterbacks, the "U" needs to avoid having Gray try to make too much happen with his feet.
Getting a taste: Inexperience runs throughout this year's Gophers' squad - a fact well addressed in the media and by Kill during the off-season. Apart from the 15 "U" starters returning, a bulk of the team has rarely, if at all, seen the field. This is most apparent on offense. Four of the Gophers' five running backs (Lamonte Edwards, Donnell Kirkwood, David Cobb and Devon Wright) are all freshmen. Kirkwood saw limited action last year. At receiver, sophomore Victor Keise is the only player on the depth chart for USC, besides Da'Jon McKnight, to have logged time in 2010. The "U" is scheduled to start two redshirt freshmen -- right tackle Jimmy Gjere and defensive end Ben Perry. With Kill assuring "everybody who travels to USC will have a role," expect nerves to be a major factor in front of the Coliseum crowd. There was an anxiousness among the young team in the last few days for game-day to arrive. "There is only so much we can talk about," senior defensive tackle Brandon Kirksey said.
Trying to take away USC's Bark: Earlier this week, Kill, without hesitation, called Matt Barkley a first-round NFL draft pick. That's doing a slight injustice to the Trojans' third-year starting quarterback. Back-to-back 2700-plus yard seasons have help put Barkley in the top-five of many early 2012 draft boards. Barkley, who totaled 26 of his 41-career touchdown passes last year, has keen field-sense and the arm to air it out if needed. Consistency can be a problem though, as his accuracy has ebbed and flowed at times. In last year's match-up, Barkley tossed two picks, but still completed 17-of-26 passes for 192 yards and two touchdowns. With the already sizeable task of stopping the Trojans' potent run-game, tempering their passing attack and keeping him off-balance enough to take advantage is critical for the "U." That starts with limiting Barkley's top-target, receiver Robert Woods, which is a shaky proposition, even with the Gophers' improved secondary and strong group of linebackers.
Prediction: USC 31-20
John Gutekunst, 1986-91, was the last Gophers coach to win in his debut. Four coaches later, Kill will be hard-pressed to do the same. The Trojans aren't the powerhouse they were in the mid-2000's and are lacking in areas (see: offensive line). Talent-wise, however, they outmatch the "U" across the board. It doesn't mean the Gophers can't hang with USC in the first half, as they did in 2010. But the Trojans have too many options on offense for the "U" to contend with and will pull away in the third quarter.