USC proved Saturday that they were the best team in the country, but did so in a most unexpected way, igniting hope in the rest of the Pac Ten along the way. Rather than absolutely dominating on defense the way they did last year against Auburn,they played as badly as they could, yet they still allowed only 13 points in their 24-13 victory over Virginia Tech. At halftime it was clear that USC had a ton of issues to work out. Their highly touted linebackers appeared to be on vacation, no homerun threat had emerged at wide receiver to replace Mike Williams, the offensive line was porous, and Matt Leinart looked tentative at best, albeit in a very cautious offensive scheme.
Pete Carroll and Norm Chow made the proper adjustments, and their team started answering questions one by one. First, they put a spy on Randall, as they should have after about three plays, and suddenly he went from looking like a superstar to looking like a scrub; as linebackers that had been glaringly absent from plays in the first half were suddenly all over the ball. Then the offensive line started pulling their own, considerable, weight, and gave Leinart time in the pocket. Then, it became the Reggie Bush show, and the issue of breakout receiver became a decided moot point.
USC posted a 14-3 margin in the second half, and played truly dominantly. Matt Leinart was a pinpoint 11 for 13 passing after the break, when it mattered, cementing his claim as an early Heisman Trophy favorite. The defense was all over the field, holding Virginia Tech to only 65 yards of total offense in the final two quarters. USC showed that they truly have the hearts of champions, and that at their worst they can still beat a solid opponent on the road with relatively little worry.
So what are the ramifications of this game on the Pac Ten race? Murky at best. On the one hand USC gave hope by showing that they have the capacity to play below their ability. On the other hand they showed that even when they do so it will be very hard to beat them, and that they are indeed the best team out there. Still, while beating the Trojans still looks unlikely, it is at least possible to gameplan for them now. They do, it turns out, have weaknesses; they aren't immortal. If anyone is going to keep USC from being undefeated this year, here is what they'll have to do:
1.) Cover Reggie Bush - Whether he lines up in the slot, or the backfield, you have to always have a defensive back available to cover him. A linebacker in single coverage will give up a touchdown every time.
2.) Get to Matt Leinart - The weakness of the offense is the line. The wide receivers are shaky at times, but if Leinart gets time to throw he will make something happen. You have to attack them where they are weak, and this means blitz a lot. Get pressure, force Matt to roll out, where he is far less comfortable, and you have a shot.
3.) Utilize the tight end - Troy Bienemann must have been shivering with joy as he watched Jeff King lead the Hokie receivers. USC's new corners were suspect on run defense, but proved to have lockdown talent in coverage. Over half of Virginia Tech's 153 passing yards came on five completions by the tight ends over the middle. While USC will surely adjust, for the time being that still has to be considered their biggest defensive weakness, and you can bet that teams will be throwing tight end posts as much as they can against the Trojans.
4.) Force turnovers - This always feels like a pointless “key” since winning the turnover battle is crucial in every game, but it deserves special mention against a team as good as USC, because the simple fact is that you will not beat this team without a solid helping of luck.
Now that they have been battle tested, the Trojans will be all the more dangerous. They have already proved that they have enough talent to win a close game against a decent team, on the road, even when they play their worst, without very much difficulty. Until they lose, this is still the team to beat.
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