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Game Preview: 2004 BCA Classic
Virginia Tech vs. #1 USC
by Jeff Ouellet, 8/25/04

Saturday, August 28th, 2004, 7:45

TV: ESPN (national)

Forecast (from
Click the "Landover Weather" link to the right.
8 p.m. Saturday forecast, as of 4:00 Wednesday: scattered clouds, 78 degrees, chance of thunderstorms.

Click here for's VT/USC roster card

2004 BCA Classic Preview: USC versus Virginia Tech
by Jeff Ouellet

For the Hokie Nation, it doesn’t get much better than this: VT opens their season a week earlier than normal in a classic contest in D.C. versus a big name opponent. The only problem with that bit of great news is that the big name opponent is none other than reigning national co-champion USC, who is blessed with incredible talent, depth and coaching. For the BCA game to truly be a Classic, VT will definitely need to turn up the wick.

As for USC, all they have done since October 5, 2002 is go 20-1, win a national championship, win two BCS Bowls by trashing good Iowa and Michigan teams, produce a Heisman Trophy winner, develop the Heisman frontrunner going into this year, and start this year as preseason #1. Did I mention they also have two of the best coordinators in all of college football with mad scientist Norm Chow on offense and Head Coach Pete Carroll heading up the defense? This is one of college football’s top five programs right now, and they look to be the dominant team west of the Mississippi for a long time, given their strength and the relative weakness of the Pac 10.

USC’s Offense

The matchup of USC’s offense versus a VT defense that was in disarray late last season seemed to be an enormous mismatch last January. But in addition to losing four starters on their offensive line to graduation, USC has lost a lot of players unexpectedly since their win in the Rose Bowl. Both projected starting wide receivers (Mike Williams and Whitney Lewis), the starting fullback (Brandon Hancock), an All-America blindside tackle (Winston Justice), both backup tight ends (Gregg Guenther and Dominique Byrd) and one-third of their tailback triumvirate (Hershel Dennis) all likely will not be playing against VT. That won’t make USC significantly less talented as the replacements are very capable, but it will make them younger, and youth tends to lead to early season mistakes.

The leader of the Trojan offense is Matt Leinart, the early favorite for the Heisman Trophy. Leinart is a big (6’4", 225 lb), strong armed left hander who put up incredible stats while replacing Carson Palmer. Leinart completed 63% of his passes for 3,556 yards with an amazing touchdown to interception ratio of 38/9. He is only a junior but he could very well figure in the top half of the first round in the next NFL draft if he elects to declare. Leinart did not throw much during the summer because of tendonitis that set in during spring practice. He also recently missed an entire scrimmage because his tendonitis was acting up again. His backups include former national blue chip recruit John David Booty (6’3", 195 SO) and 6’0", 190 SR Brandon Hance. Booty got some very limited work last fall as he was 7 out of 14, and he has a bright future. However he is injured as well, and is very doubtful for the game Saturday night. Hance played earlier in his career at Purdue, and he brings a veteran hand and more mobility to the position.

USC has long been noted as tailback U and for good reason. Last year the starter was Hershel Dennis, but he was ably backed up by two freshmen, bruiser LenDale White and lighting bolt Reggie Bush. The three of them combined for 1,923 yards and 20 touchdowns last year. They are three of the Pac 10’s best five backs.

Because of an off the field issue, it seems likely that Dennis will not play this week. Don’t count on that helping the Hokies, however. Fewer touches for Dennis means more touches for White and Bush, and many think Hershel’s the least dangerous of the three (although that’s sort of like being the least attractive lifeguard on Baywatch).

The 6’2", 235 lb. White is a hammer inside who averaged 5.3 yards per carry and was the goal line option with 13 touchdowns. White is the type of back that can make his own holes, and even with a young interior he will provide a good test for a VT defense that was soft up the middle last year.

The 6’0", 200 lb. Bush has incredible breakaway speed and may be as gifted as any tailback in college football. Bush isn’t a household name to many, but NFL scouts frequently invoke the name of Marshall Faulk when describing his game. He is a tremendous pass receiver and won’t be caught from behind in the open field. Bush is the most likely Trojan to take a broken play 80 yards for a touchdown.

Freshman Desmond Reed will also be a player, but I can’t see him getting many carries unless White or Bush get hurt.

USC lost its starting fullback, Hancock, in the spring to a collarbone injury. He may not play this year. The likely starter in his place is 6’0", 240 SR Lee Webb. Webb is primarily a blocking back. The other fullback, David Kirtman, is slightly smaller (6’0", 225 JR) and more of a receiving threat. With youth on the outside, don’t be surprised to see Leinart throw a fair number of swing passes to Bush and Kirtman.

The USC wide receiver corps mirrors VT’s in that it is very young and talented. Without Williams, the leader is 6’1", 195 SO Steve Smith. Smith caught 17 balls last year, and he averaged an impressive 18.8 per reception. He is ready to step up and should have a big season.

The split end position is unsettled, but typically that is where USC plays its big WR (Williams played there last year). My guess is that 6’1", 205 SO Chris McFoy will get the starting nod, but Carroll is high on 6’3", 190 JR William Buchanan as well. Buchanan has major league speed on a great frame, but he is not a polished wideout.

The new name to watch is Dwayne Jarrett. Jarrett, a top 100 national recruit, is 6’5", 195 lbs. and has the ability to go up and get the ball. He has been a star in early workouts and he already has earned Leinart’s respect. He needs work on the little things, but he can get open and catch the ball. Jarrett in the slot could be a very tough matchup for VT.

USC is very talented at wide receiver, but Mike Williams would have been, arguably, the best player in all of college football. His loss, coupled with Whitney Lewis’ departure, will be felt.

Tight end has also been significantly thinned. Starter Alex Holmes (6’3", 270 SR) is a very good player who specializes in run blocking. However, two other talented backups won’t be available for USC this week. Dominique Byrd, probably the most talented of the trio, broke a kneecap and will miss the first month of the season at least. Pass receiving specialist Gregg Guenther (17 catches last year, tied with Smith for the most among returning players) decided to focus on basketball.

A name to watch: 6’4", 225 lb. FR Fred Davis might be tried at TE against VT to give the Trojans a pass catching threat. He came in as a wide receiver but is getting some reps at tight end. He can fly for a tight end and VT needs to be aware of his presence: I wouldn’t guess they would run behind a converted freshman WR at TE, but if he is in there expect them to look for him in the passing game.

The Achilles heel of the Trojans coming into camp was their offensive line. USC lost four starters; in particular, the unexpected loss of blue chip offensive tackle Winston Justice hurts. Justice would have been the Trojans' right tackle (protecting the blind side for Leinart, a lefty).

Projecting the starters is a little difficult, as there are several very close battles right now. Based on what I’ve read, the likely starters are, from left tackle to right tackle: 6’5", 290 FR LT Sam Baker, 6’3", 305 SR LG Travis Watkins, 6’4", 275 SO C Ryan Kalil, 6’2", 305 SO RG Fred Matua and 6’6", 290 SO RT Kyle Williams.

Matua is the lone returning starter and is a powerful run blocker, but Baker earned rave reviews during the spring for his work after converting from guard. Junior college signees Alatini Malu (6’4", 335 SO) and Taitusi Lutui (6’6", 370 JR) have both gotten some work with the first team and it wouldn’t surprise me if either, or both, started. SR John Drake is a versatile utility guy who does not have top shelf talent but can help at either guard position and right tackle too. Gatorade National Player of the Year Jeff Byers, a center (digest that thought for a second), also could see time. Both of the Jucos and Byers have great talent, but you have to wonder about their ability to play mistake free football essentially on the road at this early juncture in their careers.

While USC has an awful lot of new faces on offense, one crafty old mind may be the key to their early season success. Offensive coordinator Norm Chow is one of the best in the game, as he developed the wildly successful BYU passing game. His reputation has only grown since then, given his work with Philip Rivers, Palmer and Leinart. He can take a negative – like the injuries at tight end – and he’ll somehow make it a positive. I expect him to use Bush and some of his young jumbo wide receivers (Jarrett, Davis) to create mismatches.

USC’s Defense

These guys are good, especially in the front seven. Last year USC led the nation in fewest yards rushing allowed and surrendered only 1.8 yards per carry. Although they were attacked most often via the air last year, the pass defense was also solid, ranking 26th overall in the country in pass efficiency rating defense.

USC lost both of its defensive ends last year, most notably NFL first rounder Kenechi Udeze. To help soften the blow (and get their best players on the field), star DT Shaun Cody (6’4", 295 SR) was moved outside to defensive end. Cody led the team with 10.5 tackles for a loss and also had six sacks. Most preseason publications tab him as a first team All-America, and rightfully so. He is a likely NFL first rounder at defensive tackle.

The other returning starter on the line, 6’0", 290 SR DT Mike Patterson, doesn’t get as much national attention and love from the NFL scouts as Cody, but he is more productive. Patterson plays on the nose and recorded 55 tackles, 13.5 tackles for a loss and seven sacks. He was a very disruptive force and will be in the VT backfield a lot on Saturday. He frees up the smallish USC linebackers to run to the ball and make plays.

The rising star on the USC defense might be mammoth DT Manuel Wright. Wright, 6’6", 290, is a sophomore that has a huge upside. Wright lost a lot of weight since the conclusion of last year and it will give him a lot more endurance. He was good enough this spring that USC moved Cody from his natural position inside to make sure Wright saw the field. The final starter along the front line is 6’4", 255 JR DE Frostee Rucker.

Expect to see seven to eight defensive linemen playing a lot for USC in the game. A name to watch on the pass rush is true freshman heat seeking missile Jeff Schweiger (6’4", 250). If you watched the Army All-American game last year, you know he was a tremendous first step from the outside. He won’t be an every down performer, but he will be a threat on the edge.

The linebackers are the heart of the USC defense. Two full time starters return and are honors awards candidates, and strongside backer Dallas Sartz (6’5", 220 JR) started six games and finished with 60 tackles so he has a lot of experience.

Junior middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu (6’0", 225) is all over the place. He is the leading tackler for USC with 98, and he also plays pass defense very well as he had 10 pass deflections and four interceptions last year. To have a middle linebacker with four interceptions is amazing. He flies to the ball.

Senior weakside linebacker Matt Grootegoed is only 5’11", 215 lbs. but he is a three year starter who just understands how to play. He only had 41 tackles last year, but suffered through an injury plagued campaign. Expect him to end his career on a much better note statistically this year. Some have tabbed him as a preseason All-America.

As a whole, this linebacker group has been very well coached by Pete Carroll and they play within themselves. They rarely make mistakes and come up with big plays when given the opportunity. They won’t look as good at the NFL combine as say, Virginia’s linebackers, but they’ll make as many plays as anyone (especially with the USC d-line keeping them free to flow to the ball).

People point to USC’s secondary as a area to attack, but it’s much easier said than done. Both safeties return and are big time players, while the two "new" corners are seniors who both started some last year.

Senior free safety Jason Leach (5’11", 210) was second on the team with 88 tackles last year, and he is the glue that holds the backfield together. He is a three year starter who can really tackle. Look at his stats – you don’t have that many tackles as a free safety on a decent team unless you have great instincts.

Sophomore Darnell Bing is a big time prospect as he started all thirteen games last year as a freshman. He is huge (6’2", 220), fast, athletic and can hit. He had 69 tackles last year. As the eighth guy in the box, he’s an intimidator. He was a good enough recruit that USC AD Mike Garrett permitted his retired #20 to come down for Bing to wear once he signed with the Trojans.

Bing is also nicked up right now with a bad shoulder. If he can’t play, that would be a significant blow to USC. His backup likely will be SR Greg Farr who has experience but does not provide nearly the same physical presence at 5’11", 190. Another possibility is 6’3", 220 JR Scott Ware. However, latest reports indicate that Bing will play.

The starting corner on the right side is Ronald Nunn (5’11", 180 SR). Nunn had 40 tackles, three sacks and an interception last year as their nickel corner. He also started three games and really played at a high level. The left corner may be 5’11", 190 SR Kevin Arbet who started two years ago and for the first two games last year before sitting out with an injury. Arbet basically missed two seasons with a broken foot and was granted a rare sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA. If Arbet doesn’t start, look for Justin Wyatt (5’10", 180 JR) to get the nod. Wyatt is perhaps a better athlete than the starters at corner and is a solid nickel guy.

Special Teams

The Trojans are loaded here. Junior punter Tom Malone averaged 49 yards per kick and the only reason he didn’t win the punting title nationally is because he did not average the necessary number of attempts per game (guess that offense was pretty good last year). His career average is nearly 45 per punt.

His counterpart is senior kicker Ryan Killeen who was 12th nationally in scoring as he connected on 19 of 24 kicks and 65 of 67 extra points (the 65 PATs set a Pac 10 record). They may be the best one-two kicking combination in the country.

The kickoff return candidates are also strong. Bush averaged over 27 per return last year and will be even better this year. If Dennis and Bing are out, look for Justin Wyatt (5’10", 180 JR) to also possibly return kickoffs. He is dangerous as well, but he is not quite as explosive as Bush.

The punt return duties will likely be handled by Greig Carlson (5’10", 195 JR) who averaged nine yards per return last year. Bush can also field punts and is a possibility here, especially if the Trojans need a big play.

USC blocked an astounding six field goal attempts and a punt last year. USC has some tall players coming up the middle and speed on the outside on the field goal block unit, so protection will be paramount. That is a matchup to watch.

The weakness in the USC special teams may be their new snapper. Either redshirt freshman Will Collins or JR Collin Ashton will get the job, but the uncertainty there (plus the coverage athletes on the USC roster) suggests VT should go after a couple of punt blocks.

The Lowdown

When I first started thinking about this matchup right after last year’s Rose Bowl, I put this game in the "no shot" category. I thought USC would win in a blowout. However, since then the USC offense has lost a lot of experienced talent while the early reports on VT’s defense are encouraging. That has changed my outlook on the game.

Many Hokie fans have been drawing analogies between this game and the Miami 2001 contest with good reason. Both teams were #1, and both were loaded with talent (although Miami’s roster, top to bottom, clearly had more experienced talent than USC will have in this game). However, there are two significant differences that I see.

First, I think Matt Leinart is better than Ken Dorsey. Dorsey was a great game management quarterback, and he was smart enough to use the talent around him. He had the intangibles and played within himself (a concept lost on many athletes), but he wasn’t going to beat you. His team beat you.

Leinart, I believe, is a playmaking quarterback rather than a game manager. I think he is capable of beating teams. Obviously, he benefited last year from having a terrific line, so maybe my assessment is skewed, but I think USC ’04 is better than Miami ’01 at quarterback and I think that makes the upset task a little harder (plus the ’01 VT defense clearly was better than this VT version).

The other distinction that I see is that USC is better coached on both sides of the ball than Miami was. Miami does a great job of keeping things simple and letting their athletes beat your athletes. USC, however, probably has the best tandem of coordinators in college football. Chow has proven he can put points on the board wherever he has coached. Carroll generally keeps things pretty simple on the defensive side of the ball, but his teams are disciplined and well coached on defense. You typically won’t see them making mental mistakes.

As for this specific matchup, the two things that often trigger early season upsets are turnovers and special teams. Last year USC had a plus 20 turnover margin, or plus 1.54 per game, which ranked second in the country. Keep in mind that the primary ballhandlers from that team (Leinart and the running backs) return. The wide receivers are new, true, but they won’t be handling the ball nearly as much as the guys in the backfield.

On paper it is also worth noting that USC has a significant advantage on special teams. They have a better kicker, a better punter, and a more established return game. They also have Miami-esque speed which should permit them to do a good job covering kicks.

VT can win this game, but they must keep it a low scoring affair and, in my opinion, they need to be plus three in the turnover column (I would count a punt block as a turnover). I do not think the VT offense will be able to run against the USC front seven or eight (when Bing walks up), and that is going to put a lot of pressure on Bryan Randall and a young receiver corps. I can’t see the Hokies scoring more than two offensive touchdowns, which means the Pride and Joy unit is absolutely imperative to upsetting the Trojans.

On the other hand, I think the defense may show very well and keep the game interesting.

If Jim Davis and Darryl Tapp, among others, generate a serious pass rush and force USC out of their rhythm passing game, it could make things interesting. USC’s offensive linemen are very talented, and several will play in the NFL some day, but they probably will have trouble blocking the VT ends (remember Andrew Whitlock of LSU two years ago: touted redshirt freshman that now is an All-America junior, but he struggled at Lane in his opener).

With that being said, I don’t think that the Hokies will pull the upset here. I like this long term potential of this VT team, but in the BCA Classic I think USC wins in a low scoring affair.

Prediction: USC 23, VT 10

Will Stewart's Take: There are three keys to this game (other than the usual win-the-turnover-battle stuff):

1.) VT's defensive line against USC's offensive line. The Hokies must get penetration and pressure from their defensive line in this game, against both USC's passing game and their running game. If the USC tailbacks have holes to run through and the QB has time to throw, forget it, the Trojans win in a blowout.

USC has lost a lot of players from last year and during the offseason, but the large, large majority of those have been on offense. There's very little wrong with USC's defense right now, and points for the Hokies will be hard to come by, so the VT defense needs to step up. And the key to that is the DL.

2.) Hokie special teams. VT can't screw up on special teams -- meaning freshman kick returners, for example, can't put the ball on the ground -- and a kick block or two, while avoiding the same, is critical. VT used the punt block to great advantage against LSU in 2002 and Miami in 2001, and it needs to be more of the same here. If the Hokies lose the special teams battle, they're toast.

3.) USC overlooking VT. Nobody, and I mean nobody, is giving VT a chance in this one. Through a carefully-managed PR plan of repeatedly talking about his team's youth and only allowing his team captains to speak to the media this week, Frank Beamer has set expectations very low and has done nothing to get USC's attention.

Sources tell TSL the coaches were ticked that VT cornerback Jimmy Williams shot his mouth off about USC wide receiver Mike Williams -- "Oh, I want him to play," Jimmy Williams said. "I don't want no excuses. Yeah, I don't want no excuses when we shock the world." He later added, "He ain't faced nobody like me before. That's the whole thing right there. He hasn't faced no defense like our defense."

With those brash comments, Jimmy upset the "lay in the weeds and strike" plan devised by the VT coaching staff that worked so well in the '90's in VT's rise to prominence.

Nonetheless, USC has been very busy with their eligibility issues and off the field issues, plus basking in the glow of media adoration, and a key for VT winning this ballgame is for USC to be distracted and to have taken their press clippings to heart.

Having said all that, can the Hokies win? Sure, especially if they come out on top in the three keys listed above. Will the Hokies win? It's not likely, and a game prediction like this one is basically what you think the average score of the game would be if they played it ten times. I think under these conditions, the most likely outcome is that VT keeps it close for most of the game but falls late, a la the 1999 Sugar Bowl.

Trojans by 17, but the actual game will be closer, and USC will sweat before pulling away.

Will's Prediction: USC 31, VT 14


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