Each week, WeAreSC columnist Jeremy Hogue will answer strategy and USC team questions in this mailbag:
1) Khaled Holmes left the Syracuse game with an injury. If he cannot play against Stanford, how does that impact the USC offensive line?
The line play so far this season has been surprisingly inconsistent. With four returning starters, I expected it to be a strength out of the gate, and while I still expect it to develop into that, so far it’s been hit or miss. Against Syracuse, unsuccessful plays were plagued by penetration through the middle of the line, and even some missed assignments. Taking Holmes out of the mix only makes that worse. And while Syracuse was stout up front, the defensive fronts ahead -- particularly Stanford and Utah -- will be tougher. It will be hard for viewers to know what kind of impact Holmes’ injury has, but if you see the pocket collapse on pass protection, if you see penetration on run plays, and if you see defenders unblocked anywhere along the line -- those are the things that may happen more frequently with Holmes out of the game.
2) USC was able to get the run game going more last week. What did you see that was encouraging about the Trojans’ ability to run the ball?
My biggest encouragement was the commitment to the run. A few early plays weren’t successful, but Kiffin stayed with it, even against a big, physical front that Syracuse put on the field. When you stay with it, there will be success, and there was. Guys just did their jobs. Once the linemen got familiar with the guys they were blocking, and once they got a feel for getting up to the next level and blocking the linebackers, it all started to go well, with Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal looking great. While the USC offense has been dominated by the pass so far through two games, there will be games where opponents are going to try to make the Trojans run the ball, and they may need to run as well to keep the defense off the field. That development will, in my mind, be what makes or breaks this season for the Trojans.
3) After facing two passing teams, the Trojans will face a more physical foe in Stanford that wants to run the ball. Based on what you’ve seen from USC front seven, what are the keys to stopping Stanford?
Even though Andrew Luck is gone, Stanford runs the same offense we’ve seen since Jim Harbaugh took over. They simply have a new quarterback and a few new linemen. They are going to run the ball in a power offense with six and seven offensive linemen and double tight ends. Here they come -- see if you can stop them. And when you bring up the safeties and load up to stop it, they sneak their tight ends and others into open space and have a great play action passing game. They did it with Luck, and now they are doing it with Josh Nunes. The good news is that Stanford had Luck and three other big-time NFL players last year along their line and at tight end. Those players are gone. But the bad news is that Stanford has recruited well up front and it has reloaded. The key for USC’s front is going to be winning wars, play after play after play -- the big, physical battles that most fans don’t pay attention to. Get them into “third-and-long” over and over and over and you win. But if they get 4-5 yards a carry, that means it’s going their way. If USC plays well and stops the run, even if the linebackers are making the tackles, the players of the game are likely to be the whole unit of guys such as George Uko, Morgan Breslin, Greg Townsend Jr., J.R. Tavai, Leonard Williams and (if healthy) Wes Horton.