Question marks abound for the Trojans as the Lane Kiffin Era begins on Oahu.
The 2010 USC football team, ranked No. 14 in the Associated Press (AP) poll, opens the season Thursday, Sept. 2 against the Western Athletic Conference's (WAC) Hawaii Warriors at 8 p.m. (PDT) in Honolulu's Aloha Stadium and in front of a national ESPN television audience. It is the seventh meeting between the two schools, with the Trojans leading the series 6-0 (including the now-vacated-by-NCAA-mandate 63-17 win in 2005 - the last meeting between the schools). USC is 29-1 against current WAC foes, while the Warriors are 15-34 against Pac-10 competition.
Trojan Coach Lane Kiffin (7-6 career collegiate head coaching record) enters his first season at USC, after serving as the head coach at Tennessee in 2009. He also coached the Oakland Raiders in 2007-08, after spending the preceding six seasons as an assistant at USC. Meanwhile, Hawaii headman Greg McMackin begins his third season in charge of the Warriors, holding a 13-14 mark, including an appearance in the 2008 Sheraton Hawaii Bowl. Prior to taking over, McMackin served a year as UH's defensive coordinator under June Jones (he'd held the same position in 1999, before stints with Texas Tech and the San Francisco 49ers).
The Trojans' 2010 opener is sixth road opener in the past eight seasons, and yet USC has won its past 12 opening games, and is 27-7-1 in season openers away from home. Troy returns five starters to an offense full of skill-position playmakers and led by sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley. On defense, USC returns six starters, including All-America candidate defensive tackle Jurrell Casey, to a group looking for a measure of redemption after faltering down the stretch of the 2009 campaign.
The Warriors, meanwhile, feature 12 returning starters, including five on an offense that ranked third nationally in passing, even though QB Bryant Moniz, who started eight of the final nine games, began the season as the third option. The junior is the unquestioned starter in 2010. On defense, where the Warriors struggled against both the run and the pass, the best news is the intact return of its starting secondary - a good base to help out a front seven in seemingly perpetual transition.
Hawaii Offense At 31, first-year offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich is one of the youngest OCs in America. He takes the helm of a run-and-shoot style offense used to putting up big numbers: a year ago, UH had the No. 3 passing offense in America (337 yards per game) and the No. 14 total offense - but struggled to convert those yards into points, averaging a very pedestrian 22.8 points per game. Rolovich gets a boost with the return of Darrel "Mouse" Davis - father of the run-and-shoot - to the coaching staff as receivers coach.
He also gets a boost with the return of starting quarterback, junior Bryant Moniz, a walk-on pizza delivery boy a year ago, who started 2009 fourth on the depth chart before injuries elevated him into a starting role for eight of the Warriors' final nine games. He threw for nearly 2,400 yards and 14 TDs, completing 57 percent of his passes, earning a scholarship. Senior Brent Rausch is the back-up, but lacks game experience.
Moniz throws it around to a solid group of receivers highlighted by senior slot receiver and team captain Greg Salas, who ranked fourth nationally with 122.3 receiving yards per game in 2009. His 1,590 receiving yards in 2009 was the second-highest single-season total in Hawaii history, as were his 106 catches. Fellow senior Rodney Bradley returns to the starting lineup after missing the last half of the 2009 season with a leg injury. He had 31 catches and five TDs in just five-plus games last year. Another senior, slot receiver Kealoha Pilares, has played a number of roles in his Hawaii career, including leading the 2007 squad in rushing while a freshman running back. He had 66 grabs a season ago. Junior Royce Pollard fills out the receiving group.
Hawaii's rushing attack, as usual, is mainly for show. But senior Alex Green has bulked up 20 pounds since a season ago and has shown good power in camp. Senior Chizzy Dimude will spell him from time to time.
The Warriors lost four starters on the offensive line, which seems to spell trouble against what may be an imposing USC front four. The only returning starter, junior left tackle Austin Hansen, played right tackle last season. However, there is some experience in the group. RT Laupepa Letuli, a senior, has nine career starts and started 2009's first three games before suffering a season-ending injury. Senior RG Adrian Thomas started twice at tackle in 2009, while LG Brysen Ginlack started five times in 2008. Senior center Bronson Tiwanak has the biggest shoes to fill, replacing Rimington Award finalist John Estes.
Hawaii Defense First-year defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, a youthful 33, may age rapidly thanks to a group headlined by a returning two-deep rotation across the secondary - and little other experience. Hawaii was No. 93 in total defense a season ago, allowing more than 200 yards rushing and just less than 30 points per game. Perhaps, then, it's good news that there is just one returning starter in the front seven - junior defensive tackle Vaughn Meatoga.
Meatoga, a team captain, is joined up front by fellow tackle, junior Kaniela Tuipuluto - a transfer from Arizona. He started seven games for a Wildcats' bowl team in 2008. Another transfer, senior defensive end Kamalu Umu, joins the starting lineup after attending Charleston Southern. At the other end is Liko Satele, the latest in a long-line of Sateles to play for UH (his brother Samson is the starting center for the Oakland Raiders).
To say Hawaii is green at linebacker would be an understatement - the three new starters have combined to start four collegiate games. Junior weaksider Corey Paredes is a captain, and owns all four of those starts (in 2009). He's joined in the middle by George Daily-Lyles, a redshirt freshman from Long Beach, and on the strong side by Paipai Falemalu, a sophomore who appeared in 12 games last season.
Inexperience is not a factor in a secondary that was hurt by a lack of pressure on opposing quarterbacks a season ago. All four starters - and their understudies - are back, led by senior free safety and team captain Mana Silva, who had six interceptions last season. Seniors Lametrius Davis and Jeramy Bryant are back at corner, while senior strong safety Spencer Smith was third on the team with 77 tackles in 2009. Junior Richard Torres is the team's key nickelback.
Hawaii Special Teams Australian punter Alex Dunnachie, a sophomore, averaged just 39 yards per boot, but Hawaii only allowed nine total punt returns for 15 total yards. Senior placekicker Scott Enos is looking for more consistency in his field goal kicking and his kickoffs. Freshman Tyler Hadden could ultimately take the job. Pollard and Dimude handle kickoff returns, while Salas is a shifty punt returner.
USC Offensive Gameplan As 2010 gets underway, the Trojan offense once again has a slew of playmakers in the backfield and at receiver. USC also has an offensive line that lacks quality depth and that has been shuffled time and again during camp, thanks to injuries. Still, with three returning starters - Butch Lewis, Kristofer O'Dowd and Tyron Smith - all looking healthy and set to play, the line appears to be as ready as it's been since spring practice began.
With that in mind, and the bevy of question marks across Hawaii's front seven, it would be less than shocking to see the Trojans come out committed to running the football early. With Lane Kiffin and new offensive coordinator Kennedy Pola creating a gameplan together for the first time, expect new starting tailback Marc Tyler to get a nice long look, but don't be surprised to see plenty of Allen Bradford and C.J. Gable, as well. USC's rushing attack could also keep Hawaii's air-it-out attack off the field for long periods - and in an offense based on timing and rhythm, like the Warriors', long breaks are the worst possible thing.
Still, I expect Barkley to fling it around a bit too. That Hawaii defensive front has had a brutal time getting to the quarterback without blitzing heavily. USC's athletes outside - among them, senior Ronald Johnson and impressive freshmen Robert Woods and Markeith Ambles - are superior to Hawaii's secondary.
USC Defensive Gameplan What a treat it will be for Trojan fans to see what Monte Kiffin can do against Hawaii's gimmicky, pass-first-pass-last offense. When you consider just how green the USC secondary is - and how tough it is to get to Hawaii's quarterbacks because of the quick-strike nature of their attack - Kiffin's approach and ability to adjust will be tested in his first game at the helm of the Trojan defense.
Joining Casey at tackle up front will be training camp sensation DaJohn Harris, with Hebron Fangupo also in the rotation. Much is also expected of junior DE Armond Armstead. Against Hawaii, sacks will likely be at a premium, but forcing quicker throws and getting hands up will be a key for this group in disrupting the Warrior offense.
And while much has been made of sophomore Devon Kennard supplanting junior Chris Galippo at MLB, not much will be gleaned about that choice on a day that USC will be in nickel and dime coverages most of the time. That means outside backers (and co-captains) Michael Morgan and Malcolm Smith will be expected to make plays on the many shallow routes run by Hawaii's receivers.
But the biggest test on this Thursday night will be for an essentially brand-new USC secondary. Senior CB Shareece Wright is the only starter with starting experience, and he missed most of the last two seasons with injury and grade problems, persevering to become a team captain. Across from him is true freshman sensation Nickell Robey, who may be best served in the nickel spot against Hawaii. The sophomore safety duo of Jawanza Starling and T.J. McDonald has been lauded for physical skills and mental dedication. How much will that matter when Hawaii throws it 50 times?
The Pick How close this game will be comes down to how the Trojans handle the Hawaii passing attack with such a game-inexperienced secondary. Expect the Warriors to have success early, but when USC adjusts, the Trojans' superior athleticism should take over. Another question has to be how well the Trojans tackle, given the fact that coaches decided to greatly limit contact during training camp due to USC's dwindling roster numbers.
On offense, the Trojans need to maintain their cool, as Hawaii often plays to (and through) the echo of the whistle at home - and usually gets away with it. The Trojans cannot be tempted into retaliation. If USC maintains its focus, there's no question the Trojans will put up plenty of points. After all, this appears to be a shell of the UH defense that gave up 51 points to Wisconsin's vanilla attack last December.
Avoid turnovers. Don't give up big plays. Pressure the quarterback. Run the football. No matter who's coaching, those are basic tenets of football. With the Trojans' talent advantage, as long as USC sticks to those items, Lane Kiffin will come away a winner in his Trojan debut.
USC 38, Hawaii 17
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 10 years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the advertising industry. He grew up watching USC dominate the Pac-10 and the Rose Bowl and ended up a Trojan journalism school alum ('94). He's traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.