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December 24, 2009

Game 13: Boston College Preview

Game 13: We're Off to See the Wizard …

Rarely does the Trojans' Yellow Brick Road lead to the Emerald Bowl. But in 2009, facing Boston College in San Francisco on a day better known for great shopping deals seems about right.

The USC Trojans (8-4, 5-4 in the Pac-10), ranked No. 24 in the BCS, close out their 2009 campaign on Saturday, December 26, in the Emerald Bowl against the Boston College Eagles (8-4, 5-3 in the ACC) at 5 p.m. (PDT) in San Francisco's AT&T Park and in front of an ESPN national cable television audience. It is the third meeting between the schools, with USC winning the previous match-ups in 1987 and 1988. It is USC's ninth consecutive bowl appearance, but its first non-BCS bowl game since the 2001 Las Vegas Bowl. Meanwhile, Boston College is making its 11th consecutive post-season trip, and had won eight consecutive bowl games before losing in the 2008 Music City Bowl. The Eagles are also the first school to return to the Emerald Bowl, having defeated Colorado State in 2003.

The Trojans closed out their regular season schedule on Dec. 5 with an uninspired 21-17 defeat to Holiday Bowl-bound Arizona. After starting the season 6-1, the Trojans lost three of their final five outings, and posted the school's worst regular season record since 2001. The Eagles wrapped their schedule with a 19-17 road victory against Maryland on Nov. 28. BC won three of its final four games, including its only two road wins of 2009 (at Virginia on Nov. 14, as well as the Maryland game). The Eagles were picked to finish last in the ACC Atlantic Division before the season, but won four of their first five games to set a positive tone for the rest of the season.

Trojan Coach Pete Carroll is in his ninth season at USC (96-19, 63-14 in the Pac-10). Prior to this season's fifth-place conference finish, Carroll led the Trojans to seven consecutive Pac-10 crowns, 11-win seasons, BCS bowl appearances and top-4 national finishes, including two national championships. Meanwhile, Boston College headman Frank Spaziani (9-4, including credit for a victory as BC's interim head coach in the 2006 Meineke Car Care Bowl) is closing out his first full season as head coach after 12 years as an assistant in Chestnut Hill. He became the head coach in January after Gene DeFilippo, BC's athletic director, fired Jeff Jagodzinski for taking an unapproved interview with the New York Jets. Spaziani's team wasn't expected to do much in 2009, and when All-America linebacker Mark Herzlich was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of cancer, during the off-season, it was a huge blow to the program. However, as Herzlich's battle became national news, an inspired Eagle team continued to improve and exceed expectations, led by sophomore running back Montel Harris and astonishing true freshman linebacker Luke Kuechly.

Boston College Offense
Offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill's group has been nothing if inconsistent in 2009, with four performances of near or more than 400 total yards - and four games in which the Eagles failed to muster 200 total yards. The Eagles operate traditionally out of a two-receiver set with a tight end and what they call an "F" back, which can line up either in an H-back spot or even at a traditional fullback. Perhaps what hampered the Eagles most was early indecision about the quarterback spot. After a three-game competition early on, 25-year-old true freshman Dave Shinskie beat out redshirt freshman Justin Tuggle (who eventually transferred in late October). Shinskie, who spent six years in baseball's minor leagues before returning to football, has looked rusty at times and is not the world's most accurate passer. His two best performances came in wins over Wake Forest and Central Michigan, but he's struggled to remain consistent. He's completed 52.9 percent of his passes for 14 TDs and 13 interceptions.

Shinskie's top target is senior Rich Gunnell, who is second all-time at BC in career receptions, third in receiving yards (he can break the school record with 60 yards in the Emerald Bowl) and fourth in TD receptions. This season, the small, speedy Gunnell has averaged nearly 14 yards on 54 grabs and scored six times. At 6'3". sophomore Colin Larmand, has stepped up and become a big play target. He's averaging just less than 22 yards on his 26 catches and has scored five times. Senior Justin Jarvis, another sizeable target at 6'5", has 15 catches. Redshirt freshman tight end Chris Pantale has had a solid season, with 24 catches. Sophomore Lars Anderson is the better pass catcher among the duo that shares the Eagles' "F" position, with eight catches and a TD.

It's Harris, though, who has been the star of the BC offense. A second-team All-ACC pick, he has rushed for 1,355 yards (a 4.8 ypc average) and 13 scores. Though he's had some tough sledding against some of BC's stronger opponents, Harris has become a workhorse, with more than 25 carries in each of six games in 2009 (he's third nationally in total carries). In the Eagles' final four games, Harris had 27, 38, 23 and 41 carries, and has rushed for at least 136 yards in each contest. His biggest game was a 264-yard, five-TD effort against N.C. State, and he operates the Eagle offense out of their "Bazooka" formation (BC slang for the ever-popular "Wildcat") about a half-dozen times a game. His efforts redoubled when his key back-up, Josh Haden, decided to transfer at midseason. Junior James McCluskey is Boston College's fullback-style "F" back, but rarely sees the ball.

Harris has done most of his damage behind a veteran offensive line, led by All-ACC junior left tackle Anthony Castonzo. The group, which returned four starters from 2008, has allowed just 17 sacks. Sophomore left guard Nathan Richman made his first career start in 2009, while redshirt freshman utility man Emmett Cleary has also started three times at the spot (and once at RT). Senior center Matt Tennant was a second-team All-ACC choice, while juniors Thomas Claiborne (RG) and Rich Lapham (RT) have been solid.

Boston College Defense
Spaziani had spent the previous 10 seasons as Boston College's defensive coordinator - and he left new coordinator Bill McGovern a solid base. In 2008, the Eagles ranked in the national top 10 in seven defensive categories. The 2007 BC defense ended the season ranked second nationally in rush defense, and the results are similar going back to the early part of the decade. A veteran group operating out of a 4-3 set, the Eagles have struggled to pressure the quarterback (just 17 sacks), but have forced 21 turnovers, including 13 interceptions. Boston College plays a bend-don't-break style and really wants to force teams to dink and dunk down the field.

Up front, senior defensive end Jim Ramella is the emotional leader, as well as the team leader in sacks with three. He has 27 tackles, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. At the other end, juniors Brad Newman and Alex Albright have split time. Newman has started the past four games and has 40 total tackles, while Albright has 7.5 tackles for loss among his 29 stops. Inside, seniors Austin Giles and Nick Rossi share one tackle spot. Giles is the playmaker of the two, with 6.5 tackles for loss among 27 tackles. Junior Damik Scafe also has 6.5 TFL from the other tackle spot among his 34 stops.

True freshman weakside linebacker Kuechly has been a phenom in 2009. Named ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year, Kuechly is second nationally in tackles per game, and his 142 stops include 12.5 tackles for loss. He's had at least 10 stops in eight consecutive games, including 19 against North Carolina on Nov. 21. He started the season in the middle, before senior MLB Mike McLaughlin returned from injury in the season's fourth game. McLaughlin is solid and ranks tied for third on the team with 49 tackles. Junior Mike Morrissey starts on the strong side and has 35 stops. The Eagles also feature a pair of key reserves on the outside - redshirt freshman Alexander DiSanzo (28 tackles) and sophomore Dominick LeGrande (33 stops, two interceptions).

The secondary features more experience. At corner, senior Roderick Rollins plays the boundary side and leads BC with three picks. He has 41 tackles. Playing the "field" or wide corner, junior DeLeon Gause has 38 stops and four pass break-ups. Sophomore Donnie Fletcher sees the field often as a nickelback (49 tackles), while classmate Isaac Johnson is also an active reserve. At strong safety, senior Marcellus Bowman is the group's leader, and has 67 tackles, a sack, an interception and a forced fumble. Junior free safety Wes Davis has 41 tackles and two picks.

Boston College Special Teams
Senior placekicker Steve Aponavicius has had a solid year, making 13-of-14 field goals and all 37 PATs. He doesn't have a lot of range, but is very accurate. Sophomore punter Ryan Quigley had a solid season, averaging nearly 42 yards per boot, and has pinned opponents inside the 20 on more than a quarter of his opportunities. He also handles kickoffs. Senior Jeff Smith is the leading kick returner and is averaging nearly 22 yards per chance, while Gunnell is a threat as a punt returner, averaging 13.7 yards and scoring once.

USC Offensive Gameplan
Will this be Jeremy Bates' final go-round in a brief career as the Trojans' play caller? With rumors swirling about Mike Shanahan's return to the NFL coaching ranks - and his preference for Bates as an offensive assistant - it very well may be. It will be interesting to see how the Trojans come out on offense in a game that has much lower stakes than USC is used to this time of year. On the one hand, you'd think that perhaps the Trojans will open things up, allowing Matt Barkley a chance to step into his sophomore season on the heels of a big performance. On the other, with tackle Tyron Smith and tight end Anthony McCoy, both starters, ruled ineligible for the game - and questions swirling around Joe McKnight's availability - will USC continue to play the same uninspiring, close-to-the vest style that played a role in landing them in this game in the first place?

Teams that have provided the stiffest tests for the Boston College defense in 2009 have done so by throwing the football effectively. Wake Forest threw for 354 yards, Florida State for 340, and Notre Dame for 246. And teams have clearly opened up tough-to-find running lanes against BC by throwing early and often. However, the Eagles are tough to beat for the big play, so USC will have to be patient and Barkley accurate to maintain drives against Boston College. Damian Williams, Ronald Johnson and Brice Butler are capable of picking the BC defense apart with precise routes and good decision making by Barkley.

If McKnight is held out of the game, is this the game where Allen Bradford finally gets his opportunity to shine? That will be another interesting story line, should it come to pass. C.J. Gable has been impressive in bowl practices - would he take a number of carries away from Bradford if McKnight doesn't go? Pass to set up the run, and hit the Eagles' front seven hard with Bradford seems to be the best plan of attack based on available personnel.

USC Defensive Gameplan
The USC defense has shown definite improvement in its past two outings, allowing just 14 points per game and playing especially well for much of the second half against Arizona. The loss of CB Josh Pinkard to an injury for this game could be a problem, but the return to eligibility of Shareece Wright, plus the emergence of T.J. Bryant should help replace him. The loss of interior lineman Averill Spicer to grade problems should also have minimal effect, only in depth.

The Eagle offense is all about Harris. He's their workhorse and as he goes, so they go. Unsurprisingly, Shinskie is much more effective when Harris is chewing up yardage. His accuracy has been a problem for BC, especially on third downs, where the Eagles are one of the few offenses worse than USC's in the country. And while Gunnell is a solid player, the Eagles are much thinner at wideout than most Pac-10 foes the Trojans face.

It seems clear that USC's focus has to be Harris. Slow him down, and Shinskie tends to become shaky - similar to how Cal's Kevin Riley has reacted over the years when Jahvid Best has had an off night. The USC secondary should be ball-hawking as Shinskie is prone to throwing picks, though his line protects him well. Put the game on Shinskie, Trojans - don't let Harris beat you.

The Pick
As the Trojan season wound down - and USC slipped further and further down the Pac-10 bowl ladder - motivation for the post-season game became a big question. Landing in an eight-year-old, non-descript game on a baseball field didn't do much to ease the question - nor have the McKnight SUV drama and grade problems that struck down three key players.

Make no mistake - though the Trojans and Eagles sport the same 8-4 mark, USC has bundles more physical talent that Boston College. Given equal motivation, the Trojans would likely be much more than a nine-point favorite. However, those Vegas oddsmakers get paid for a reason - they know that USC must answer motivational questions in this game. Boston College will definitely be motivated - this is a team that was picked to finish last in its division and still carries that chip on their shoulder. What better way to finally prove their early season critics wrong than beating up USC - even a down USC team?

Which Trojan team will show? The motivated group that bombed Cal in the Bay Area nearly three months ago, or the lethargic group that appeared in the Coliseum just a few weeks back in a loss to Arizona? With three weeks to prepare and perhaps seeing the game as solace from the negative stories swirling around the program, I expect the Trojans to come out hard on Saturday night - especially defensively. USC has made practice of forcing key turnovers in bowl games, and the Eagles are prone to coughing the ball up (-3 turnover margin in 2009). The Trojan defense will give Barkley a couple of short fields to operate from, making the difference in what is likely to be a fairly ugly offensive game on both sides.

USC 20, Boston College 10

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for nine 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 thomas.haire@alumni.usc.edu.


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