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September 14, 2007

Game 2 Preview: Revenge of the Corn?

USC looks to repeat last season's domination of the Huskers - but it may face a stiffer test in Lincoln.

The No. 1-ranked USC Trojans (1-0) open their 2007 road schedule Saturday, Sept. 15, against the No. 14 Nebraska Cornhuskers (2-0) at 5 p.m. (PDT) at sold-out Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb., and in front of a national ABC television audience. It is the fourth meeting between the schools, with USC holding a 2-0-1 mark against the Huskers, including a 28-10 victory a season ago in Los Angeles. The Trojans are 28-9-2 against Big XII opponents, while Nebraska boasts a 33-19-3 mark vs. Pac-10 schools. The Cornhuskers are also 24-2 in night games since lights were installed in Lincoln in 1986, with their only two losses to eventual national champion Washington in 1991 and a top-10 ranked Texas team in 2002

The Trojans enjoyed a bye last weekend after cruising past outmanned Idaho, 38-10, on Sept. 1 at the Coliseum. USC offered little scoutable information to upcoming opponents, playing very vanilla schemes on both offense and defense against the Vandals. Meanwhile, Nebraska escaped with a 20-17 victory at defending ACC champion Wake Forest last Saturday. Though the Demon Deacons burned the Huskers for 236 rushing yards, the Nebraska defense came up with some key stops down the stretch to secure the victory.

Trojan Coach Pete Carroll is in his seventh season at USC (66-12) having led the Trojans to five consecutive Pac-10 crowns, 11-win seasons, BCS bowl appearances and top-4 national finishes, including two national championships. Meanwhile, Nebraska headman Bill Callahan has notched a 24-15 mark since taking the helm before the 2004 season in Lincoln. The Huskers won nine games a season ago, but lost to Oklahoma in the Big XII title game and Auburn in the Cotton Bowl, leaving a sour taste to close the season.

The Trojans' first road test of 2007 is a tough one, featuring a rising Nebraska program looking for a signature win to build on. Even with its recent struggles, the Nebraska program remains college football's winningest since 1970, and Callahan appears to have things on track for another Big XII title opportunity. Add to that more than 81,000 fans expected to make this a very forbidding environment for USC, and you have the ingredients for an intriguing match-up.

Nebraska Offense

Senior quarterback Sam Keller is no stranger to USC - but not because the Huskers played in SoCal a year ago. No, Keller faced USC in 2005 as the starter for an Arizona State team that took a 21-3 edge to halftime in Tempe. Unfortunately for Keller and the Devils, the quarterback's celebration as he left the field that afternoon may have been the last time anyone in Tempe saw him with a smile on his face. Four second-half interceptions later, USC had beaten ASU, 38-28, and a week later, Keller was injured in a loss to Oregon, opening the door for current Devils' starter Rudy Carpenter. After an acrimonious split from the program in summer 2006, Keller led Nebraska's scout team a year ago as he sat out his transfer year. Under new offensive coordinator Shawn Watson (though Callahan calls the plays), Keller has shown the same type of gunslinger mentality and athletic prowess he displayed at ASU. He's also shown the same propensity to make a boneheaded throw or two, tossing three interceptions in the two games so far - including a pair of what could have been costly picks a week ago, if not for the Nebraska defense rising up. Keller runs hot and cold - the Huskers need a hot night from him this Saturday.

The Cornhuskers rushing attack has featured junior Marlon Lucky, a native Southern Californian, who has gained 323 yards in two games - including 233 in the opener vs. Nevada. He's averaging six yards per carry, and has scored four TDs - none more important than last Saturday's 22-yarder that gave Nebraska the lead for good against Wake Forest. Bruising freshman Quentin Castille, a 245-pounder, has taken power back duties away from junior Cody Glenn, averaging better than four yards per carry and scoring twice during the young season.

The Nebraska receiving corps is deep and experienced, though not especially speedy when compared to the Pac-10 receivers the Trojans are used to seeing. Senior Terrence Nunn is the leader, and has caught a pass in 29 consecutive games, while fellow starter, junior Nate Swift provides a solid possession option. Lucky is also a favored option out of the backfield. Senior Maurice Purify returned against Wake Forest after serving a one-game suspension and is a big, rangy target who scored seven TDs a year ago. Senior Frantz Hardy and junior Todd Peterson will also play, while starting tight end/H-back J.B. Phillips is more of a blocker.

A question mark a year ago, Nebraska's offensive front is much more settled today. Senior center Brett Byford is a Rimington Award candidate, while junior right guard Matt Slauson is an Outland Trophy watch-lister - and he's watched solid classmate Matt Huff start in his spot the first two weeks. Junior Andy Christensen holds down the left guard spot. Senior Carl Nicks solidified this group late last season when he took over at left tackle. He's continued to perform well thus far in 2007. Junior Lydon Murtha was the biggest question mark entering the season at right tackle - a lot of questions about him may be answered Saturday night.

Nebraska Defense

Defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove loves to pressure the quarterback, but with a completely new front four, he's seen just two sacks in two games as a veteran back seven helps prompt along the kids up front. Many expect Nebraska to sell out to pressure Trojan quarterback John David Booty, but with such youth up front, that could mean blitzing that would leave the Trojans skill position players with a lot of room in the secondary. It's an interesting quandary for Cosgrove, but his faith in his players had to grow as the Huskers stood tall during a tense fourth quarter a week ago at Wake Forest.

Sophomore nose tackle Ndamukong Suh has been impressive for the Huskers so far, and played a key role against Wake Forest, notching two tackles for loss. This week, he's expected to be rejoined by junior Ty Steinkuhler at the other tackle spot. The gap-filling Steinkuhler (whose father, Dean, won the Outland Trophy as a Nebraska offensive lineman in 1983) missed the Wake Forest game with a leg injury. Junior Kevin Dixon filled in for him and should see time this week. Outside, junior ends Barry Turner and Zach Potter have notched 1.5 of the team's two sacks, but have been susceptible to losing contain against the rush.

Linebacker is likely Nebraska's biggest defensive strength, with experience and talent at all three spots. Middleman Corey McKeon is a senior is in his third season as a starter. Strongsider Bo Ruud, also in his third year as a starter, was All Big-XII a season ago and is likely to challenge older brother Barrett's career tackles record before the season is out. On the weakside, seniors Steve Octavien and Lance Brandenburgh have both played well early in 2007.

In the secondary, the return of sizeable nickelback Zackary Bowman from an ACL injury last season has provided a boost and depth to the cornerback group. Undersized senior CB Cortney Grixby is a good athlete and feisty for his size - he's notched 27 career pass break-ups. Senior Andre Jones lost his starting corner spot to junior Armando Murrillo, who has eight tackles and two pass break-ups in the first two games. Senior Tierre Green has shifted to his more natural free safety spot thanks to the arrival of physical JC transfer Larry Asante, who leads the team with 13 tackles at strong safety. This is a much deeper secondary group than the one that visited L.A. last season.

Nebraska Special Teams

Freshmen placekickers Adi Kunalic and Alex Henery have split duties, with Kunalic handling kickoffs and long field goals and Henery taking on PATs and shorter FGs. Together, they are perfect so far, making all PATs and three FGs, while Kunalic has nailed seven touchbacks in 14 kickoffs. Punter Dan Titchener had a strong 2006, and has averaged nearly 45 yards per boot this season. Grixby is the top kick and punt returner, while Jones may also see action on punt returns.

USC Offensive Gameplan

After an opening effort that was derided by some, what should USC fans expect in the second game of 2007? Many around the program and in the media expect a wholly different type of gameplan and performance this weekend - this writer included. With Nebraska's inexperience up front and trouble protecting the edges against Wake Forest's speed a week ago, there are plenty of options for Steve Sarkisian to choose from.

While Nebraska was blitz-happy against Wake Forest's spread a week ago, the Huskers will likely show off more of their base 4-3 set against the Trojans, attempting to slow USC's rushing attack and keep the Trojans from big plays. Nebraska must take away the Trojans running game to have a chance. USC ran the ball effectively against the Huskers a year ago - if the Trojans can do so again Saturday, things could get ugly for Nebraska.

Nebraska's youthful front four will likely necessitate more support and blitzing from the back seven than USC saw from Nebraska a year ago. And while the Husker secondary is deeper than in 2006, it's still not the fastest or most physical group, which means USC will likely see some cushion on the corners. USC's size advantage with Patrick Turner, David Ausberry and Vidal Hazelton should be a factor in the passing game, while Stanley Havili and Fred Davis could have big nights in the passing game if Nebraska's linebackers and safeties are needed to put pressure on Booty.

USC Defensive Gameplan

A year ago, Callahan appeared to utilize his offense in order to run clock to keep the score close. To many who criticized him, it appeared that he didn't believe his team had a chance to win, so he tried to minimize the decisiveness of the inevitable loss. In Lincoln Saturday, such a gameplan is about the least likely thing possible. And with the arm of Keller and maturity of Lucky, the Huskers have more weapons than a year ago.

Because of Nebraska's conservatism a year ago and USC's scrimmage mentality in the Idaho game, it's hard to say what to expect from both teams. However, based on Carroll's tendencies and Nebraska's early results, the key match-up will be Lucky against USC's front seven. Even when the Huskers were struggling in the running game early last weekend, Lucky and Castille kept getting carries until the Huskers eventually broke through for a couple of crucial runs in the second half. Unless USC takes a huge early lead, Lucky will get 20-25 carries. The Trojans will, as usual, try to take Nebraska's running game out of the equation right away, and nose tackle Sedrick Ellis who missed last season's game will be the key player against Byford and Slauson.

Still, Nebraska will throw the ball more often - and take more shots downfield - with Keller at the helm than it did with Zac Taylor a year ago. The Huskers have receivers who can make plays, and Nebraska will likely get a few nice gains through the air early on. However, if Nebraska is inefficient with the run, that will allow the Trojans to put some more heat on Keller, both with the pass rush and different coverage packages. Stop the run and rattle the sometimes self-destructive Keller into mistakes - that's what USC's defense will be about Saturday.

The Pick

Many in Nebraska are calling this the biggest game in Lincoln in at least 30 years. The crowd will be revved up and the Huskers themselves will likely bring some serious intensity and energy early. Can they keep it up?

They can if USC struggles out of the gate - the common thread in the Trojans' road losses in recent seasons. While I don't expect the Trojans to jump out to an early 14-point edge, the only way this game stays tight throughout is if USC turns the ball over early and falls behind by 10-14 points themselves. The Trojans have a serious manpower advantage - if the Huskers thought Wake Forest had team speed, just wait until they see this USC bunch - but college football is an emotional game, and the Trojans could create trouble for themselves by turning the ball over or giving up big special teams plays.

The game should be reasonably tight heading to halftime - a 3-7 point spread either way - with the Trojans riding Carroll's vaunted halftime adjustments on defense and some solid play by Booty in the third quarter to a decisive victory.

USC 30, Nebraska 13

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for seven years. He is the editor-in-chief of a monthly trade magazine in the television advertising industry and is a graduate of the USC School of Journalism (1994). He 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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