<
>
Insider

USC's versatile duo, Week 2 takeaways

9/9/2012

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- It was going to be difficult enough for the Syracuse Orange.

Not many teams are going to be able to corral USC Trojans receivers Marqise Lee and Robert Woods. Not over the course of a game.

But the Orange, for whatever reason, decided here Saturday to make the task even more difficult. USC players and coaches said the Syracuse defensive backs specifically called out the talented receivers during pregame warm-ups, taunting Lee and Woods with profanity and vulgarity.

Uh, bad idea.

"We heard that and said, 'Oh, that's how it's going to be?'" one Trojan said. "We wanted to come in here and have a nice game, but, oh, OK."

That's about how the game, a 42-29 Trojans win, played out. USC had a rather uneven performance, something you might expect inside a giant, quarter-filled NFL stadium for a West Coast team playing an East Coast nonconference game. (Not to mention severe weather that delayed the start of the second half for about an hour.) But the ability of Lee and Woods to lead the Trojans' offense out of a lull, and how Lane Kiffin uses them to enhance the run game, stood out among the things I learned in Week 2.

Whenever a play was needed against Syracuse, Lee and Woods (Woods, in particular,) were up for it. Some pregame inspiration surely didn't hurt.

Lee caught 11 passes for 66 yards and three touchdowns. Woods had 10 receptions for 93 yards and two touchdowns. They combined to haul in five of Matt Barkley's school-record-tying six passing touchdowns.

All that is impressive enough, but each also had a defining run on reverses: Lee's 23-yarder coming early and Woods adding a 76-yarder. That's 99 of USC's 258 rushing yards, right there.

"That's part of our run game," said USC coach Lane Kiffin, pleased by the ability to control tempo on the ground and grind in a method not always seen from the Trojans.

What really was impressive was Lee's blocking ability. You see his speed in elements like the return game, as evidenced by his 100-yard kickoff return last week against Hawaii, but he's also physically impressive.

"These guys love to hit," USC receivers coach Tee Martin, the former Tennessee QB, told me in the tunnel after the game.

The Orange tried to take away the downfield passing attack with their soft coverage plan near the line of scrimmage, but it left Cuse -- and those vocal DBs -- susceptible on quick hitters to the sideline. And Barkley was content to take those all afternoon, allowing Lee and Woods to make plays once they had the ball. They did, too.

On one play, Barkley threw a quick route out to Woods on the left side. Seeing a wall in front of him, Woods reversed field, taking it from the left hash to the right sideline. Lee hoofed it across the field to spring Woods for a 12-yard gain -- on third-and-12 -- and USC scored three plays later. It was pure effort -- Woods with the ball, Lee without it -- from what very well might be two of the country's top three receivers.

"If it's one-on-one," Barkley said of Nos. 2 and 9, "I'm betting on our guys."

A "hump" win for Mississippi State

It's not Alabama-LSU, but Saturday's Auburn-Mississippi State game had a significant feel to it in terms of the balance of power in the SEC West.

A couple of assistant coaches told me this summer that the Mississippi State Bulldogs were quietly a very good team on both sides of the ball -- one even said they could compete for titles in the ACC or Big East -- and it showed in their first big test of the season.

The Bulldogs talked all spring and summer about "the hump" -- the metaphorical kind, not the school's gym -- and whether they could make headway in climbing the division ladder. Saturday's 28-10 win was a step, even if it's becoming increasingly obvious how average the Auburn Tigers are without Cam Newton.

State was the more talented, more physical team all afternoon. If it hadn't scuffled in the red zone or fumbled in the first half, this might have been a rout from the start. It was Mississippi State's first win in an SEC opener since 1999.

Auburn's only offensive touchdown was a return of the second-half kickoff. With inexperience at quarterback and on the offensive line, and Gus Malzahn now at Arkansas State, Auburn's offense is a mess.

Kiehl Frazier, the Tigers' sophomore QB, often looks like a true freshman. His decision-making led to near-disastrous results last week against the Clemson Tigers, and against the Bulldogs, it morphed into three interceptions, including two by all-underrated DB Johnthan Banks.

Tre Mason was the Tigers' best back last week against Clemson, but he had eight carries Saturday.

Next up is ... Louisiana-Monroe.
It's unlikely UL-M pulls off another SEC stunner and beats Auburn, but the Tigers face the LSU Tigers and Arkansas Razorbacks in the following weeks and could be staring down the barrel of a 1-4 start. Already, 0-2 is the school's worst start since 2003, and it's happened only twice since the 1980s.

Complicating things for Gene Chizik is his high standard for recruiting. The Tigers had ESPN's No. 4-rated recruiting class in 2010 and the third-ranked class in 2011. It slipped to No. 17 last year, but it's currently sixth in the 2013 rankings. Recruit that well, and it has to pay off at some point, right? The 2010 class should be performing, with juniors and third-year sophomores.

Auburn is 8-7 in its past 15 games.

"This is a new team and a new time," Chizik told reporters after the game. "It's our job as coaches to get them refocused and redirected so that we can win a football game next week. And it'll be a week-by-week progression with us."

Meanwhile, Mississippi State's next real "hump" test isn't until Oct. 27 against the Alabama Crimson Tide. The Bulldogs figure to be favored in every game (at Troy, South Alabama, at Kentucky, Tennessee and MTSU) until then. That's right: Mississippi State could very well be 7-0 and set up for a huge game in Tuscaloosa the week before Bama goes to LSU.

Florida's identity beginning to emerge

The postponement of Texas A&M's opener at Louisiana Tech (it'll be played in October) had a periphery effect on the Florida Gators early in Saturday's game: The Gators had no real way to scout first-year coach Kevin Sumlin's offense -- and particularly freshman Johnny Manziel, the athletic QB making his first start.

But credit Will Muschamp and Dan Quinn for making on-the-fly adjustments, shutting out the Aggies in the second half once they got a feel for Sumlin's scheme and how to contain Manziel.

Florida scored 13 unanswered points to erase a 17-7 deficit, but it didn't look like a reboot of Texas A&M's second-half issues from 2011. The Gators played smarter and tighter in the second half. It was more a case of them winning the game than the Ags losing it.

The game -- and keep in mind, it's just one -- seemed to show that A&M will be competitive in the league. Aggies tackles Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews could start anywhere in the SEC. Yes, even Tuscaloosa. A better way to put it: They'll be playing in the NFL pretty soon. And remember, that was Manziel's first game. He'll improve.

The surprise of the day might have been the fact that Manziel nearly doubled the rushing output of Christine Michael (60 for Manziel, 33 for Michael). Again, that's a tribute to Florida's active front seven, which will only get better with the October addition of Ronald Powell.

For Florida, this is how it'll play -- and win -- a lot of games. It'll be ugly, it will require some improv from the defense and Jeff Driskel, but it will work. It's a test the Gators passed, going on the road for a "GameDay" atmosphere in a very difficult place to play. Tennessee, 2-0 after dispatching Georgia State, will be all kinds of fired up to welcome Florida in Week 3.
Even in September, that could be an SEC East knockout game.

Arkansas shows its weakness

We had a few minutes with Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson back in July. Part of the conversation was about how much he was beaten up last season, a function of a pretty porous line.

He told me he'd even learned -- no, perfected -- how to absorb a hit. Wilson laughed about it then. But there is no way he was laughing about it after getting repeatedly battered Saturday night by Louisiana-Monroe in a game that the Warhawks eventually pulled out in overtime 34-31, stunning the Hogs at home and potentially sending Arkansas spiraling before it even begins SEC play.

There were reasons why we weren't all that high on the Razorbacks, even before Bobby Petrino's infamous bike wreck and dismissal. Primarily? The lines. There didn't seem to be any evidence of progression for either the offensive or defensive lines, and that's where games in the SEC West are won.

Arkansas had better tread lightly or it might find itself shuffled to fourth or fifth in the division. Is Mississippi State better? Is Texas A&M better? You can sure make a case based on results in Week 2.

Franklin breaks out against Nebraska

The Rose Bowl appeared to be Lincoln West on Saturday evening, with the amount of red in the seats. The Nebraska Cornhuskers faithful left the historic venue disappointed, although a loss to the UCLA Bruins doesn't hamper Nebraska's chances of returning to the stadium for the real thing on Jan. 1.

How about the Bruins piling up 653 yards against the Huskers, including 344 on the ground? They had the best player on the field, running back Johnathan Franklin (276 total yards, 217 rushing).

His long run in the fourth quarter that included two stiff arms of Nebraska defenders was one of the more impressive individual efforts of the weekend. Franklin has 431 rushing yards in two games, both of them against FBS opponents (a necessary qualifier these days).

Freshman QB Brett Hundley has the look of a special player. His poise and command on the field is immediately evident, characteristics that won over the new coaching staff in the spring. Hundley had four touchdowns Saturday, averaging 9.2 yards per completion.

It's two games, but we're talking about UCLA's offense -- and not in a bad way. Give a nod toward Jim Mora and veteran coordinator Noel Mazzone. This isn't his first go-round. The third-and-3 red zone call on the game-winning touchdown, a swing pass to an in-motion Franklin, was simple but poignant. It was effectively a long handoff, but it made perfect sense for the down and distance. It was safe, sensible and effective.

Under NFL vet Lou Spanos, the defensive front is just so much more active than it was under the previous coaching staff. The Bruins sacked Taylor Martinez three times, including the game-changing safety. UCLA had 14 sacks last season. It has nine through two games.

Take a look at UCLA's schedule going forward: Houston, Oregon State, at Colorado, at Cal, Utah, at Arizona State, Arizona, at Washington State. Is it likely the Bruins would go undefeated in that stretch? Not likely, no. But the Bruins should have a pretty sparkling record before closing out with USC and Stanford.

They could be the surprise team in the Pac-12 -- and maybe the country. I saw glimpses of that in May at the team's spring game. I saw players who could play anywhere, even across town at USC. Look for Franklin's name to continue to enter national consciousness.

Take some more time with Kansas State

The Kansas State Wildcats played an outstanding game against the Miami Hurricanes, winning 52-13. No question about that. But don't automatically make the Wildcats a Big 12 contender based on that one result. The Hurricanes are going to be woefully outmatched most weeks, and Saturday was a huge physical mismatch.

The point: Don't lose sight of the fact that K-State won eight (or 10) games last season by an average of 4.5 points a game. It's a tough-nosed, disciplined team that's going to play hard every Saturday, but that has to eventually even out.

A huge test is coming in two weeks for the Wildcats, who go to Norman to face an Oklahoma Sooners team that beat them 58-17 in Manhattan in 2011. If they can even make it a game in the fourth quarter against the Sooners, then maybe it's time to start seriously considering K-State in the league race.

For now? Stay grounded after pummeling a bad team.

Kicking game hurts Penn State

The departure of Silas Redd to USC received a lot of headlines, and Justin Brown's exile to Oklahoma did, too, but the loss of kicker Anthony Fera to the Texas Longhorns might have been Penn State's biggest.

The Lions played well enough on the road to beat a decent Virginia Cavaliers team, but Fera's replacement, sophomore Sam Ficken, missed four field goals and had an extra point blocked. That included what would have been the game-winning field goal from straight away in the Nittany Lions' 17-16 loss.

Penn State has enough talent to hang around in games, so locating a reliable kicker could be the difference in having a bad or miserable season.