LOS ANGELES -- As the USC Trojans kick off their 125th season of college football Thursday night at Hawaii’s Aloha Stadium, everybody wants to know if this is the beginning of the end for head coach Lane Kiffin’s or the end of the beginning. While that evaluation will be a season-long drama, the island opener provides some intrigue and scrutiny.
Here are five areas to watch as the game unfolds, which may be a foreshadowing of things to come:
1. The quarterbacks: That’s right, not since the 1995 Brad Otton/Kyle Wachholtz Trojans, a team that eventually defeated Northwestern in the 1996 Rose Bowl, have the cardinal and gold opened with such an ongoing quarterback dilemma. The real pregame excitement is who will take the first snap in Hawaii, and how will Kiffin divide up the playing time?
In sophomore Cody Kessler, the Trojans have a true game manager with outstanding leadership skills. Hold your breath when a play appears to be breaking down because that’s when Kessler lives up to his “Gamer” moniker. The strength of Kessler’s game is the ability to move the chains and keep drives alive.
On the other hand, sophomore Max Wittek is like a feared home-run hitter and there is seemingly no limit to the distance Mad Max can launch a football. There are times when he looks like the NFL prototype that Kiffin loves. The only problem is that Wittek’s accuracy on short passes can sometimes waver.
2. Play calling: If Kiffin thought that the pressure was off once he announced at Pac-12 media day he would again be calling plays, the dueling quarterback drama has raised the spotlight even brighter. The good news is that the Trojans fourth-year head coach says that the offense runs the same no matter if Kessler or Wittek is under center.
Kiffin has said that the Trojans will be a balanced attack and more attention will be paid to the running attack. From the university that brought you Tailback U. and four Heisman winning running backs, Kiffin has the tailbacks to make it happen on the ground and an offensive line that could surprise if it gets enough rushing attempts to establish a rhythm and physical dominance. The key here is to watch how many running plays the coach orders up and the situations where he gives the ground game the green light.
Pay special attention to when the Trojans are deep inside the opponent’s 5-yard line. Will the Trojans impose their physical will and rush the ball or simply rely on passing game finesse?
3. The new 5-2 defensive scheme: The curtain goes up Thursday night with the unveiling of defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s attacking defense. Pendergast should have a front seven that really gets after it and for those watching on television, don’t strain your eyes trying to follow all the blitzing angles taken by the linebackers, defensive ends, and/or safeties.
Yes, Hawaii’s offense isn’t exactly Alabama or Ohio State, but Rainbow Warriors head coach Norm Chow certainly knows where and how to find weaknesses in a defense. The fact that Chow and Pendergast have played football chess against each other in the past makes it all the more intriguing.
4. The offensive line: We’ve already talked about the O-line and its need to become more physical by running the ball, but upon closer inspection all eyes should be on redshirt freshman left tackle Chad Wheeler, who will be starting his first collegiate game. Wheeler’s personality is as quiet as a church mouse, but his athletic ability is as loud as a lion’s roar. He’s still gaining weight and strength, so let’s watch how he protects the quarterback and his ability to run block.
Also keep an eye on the right guard position. This has been an ongoing battle between senior and two-year starter John Martinez and former starting left tackle Aundrey Walker. While it figures that Martinez would start, should he falter expect to see offensive line coach Mike Summers quickly turn to Walker. As an added attraction, keep an eye on starting center Marcus Martin, who is being asked to fill the big shoes of former center Khaled Holmes, now with the Indianapolis Colts.
5. The secondary: If you go by the depth chart, either the Trojans can’t go wrong with whomever they start, or the options are limited based on the available talent. Again, focus on how Chow probes the Trojans secondary and where he thinks it’s vulnerable. Maybe the Trojans’ pass rush will be so ferocious that it won’t matter if USC has Traveler in the secondary.
The question is whether the Trojans offense can pour enough points on the scoreboard early so that it puts a huge amount of pressure on Hawaii’s offense to perform. That could lead the Rainbow Warriors into turnovers and then it’s eventually game-over.
No matter the final score, it reasons that Chow will show future Trojans opponents where he believes the Trojans’ weak links reside, which in turn could be a boon for next week’s Pac-12 opponent, the Washington State Cougars.