USC vs. San Jose State: Get To Know The Trojans
What should Spartans know about playing USC
We asked the tough questions.
San Jose State’s real test of the season is this Saturday as they go down on the road to take on USC. This is going to be the most talented team that the Spartans play all year and the defending Mountain West champions want to make a point against USC.
To get to know who the USC Trojans are, we chat with Matt Zemek who is the editor of Trojans Wire and asked him a series of questions.
1. From an outsider’s perspective, how seriously should USC, or other teams take San Jose State which has been usually at the bottom of the Mountain West for a better part of a decade?
USC should take San Jose State very seriously. Part of this is that every team should take every opponent seriously, but when a program lifts itself from mediocrity and obscurity and goes unbeaten in the Mountain West Conference, that’s an eye-grabbing development. Should other Mountain West teams assume SJSU will regress this year? Heck, no! That’s not the right competitive posture.
Other teams need to enter this season thinking they will need to elevate their game, just as the Spartans did last year. Keep in mind that San Diego State’s erosion on offense (chiefly in the passing game) and Fresno State’s coaching transitions in recent years have destabilized the West Division in the MWC. No team in that division should assume it will reclaim it from San Jose State. Teams will have to earn their way into the conference championship game. I expect the Spartans to put up a good fight in their title defense.
2. SJSU QB Nick Starkel has finally found success now in his third FBS school with 2020’s massive season. Is he a quarterback that can move the ball and score points against USC’s defense?
Nick Starkel was playing an FCS cupcake this past weekend, but he threw for a zillion yards in one half. That’s what a top QB should do. Yeah, the accuracy wasn’t quite there, but that’s partly a product of Week 1 rust and developing relationships with new receivers. The main thing for Starkel against USC is that he needs protection. USC has big weaknesses — its head coach and its offensive line (which flows into its rushing attack) — but the defensive line is a legitimate strength. Korey Foreman might be a freshman, but he was the cream of the crop on the recruiting trail, and he impressed in summer camp.
USC defensive coordinator Todd Orlando liked what he saw from this position group in summer camp. If SJSU can’t protect Starkel, his arm strength won’t be able to become a factor in this game. That’s one of the two central keys to this contest, the other being the Spartans’ ability to expose USC’s offensive line and bother Kedon Slovis.
3. USC has more talent and likely more size, how will the Trojans offensive line handle the defensive duo of Cade Hall and Viliami Fehoko?
The main thing for San Jose State fans to know about USC’s offensive line is that the Trojans fired O-line coach Tim Drevno and hired Clay McGuire, who used to coach the offensive line at Washington State under Mike Leach. McGuire is an Air Raid-specific O-line coach. He teaches line play within the Air Raid system and its concepts. USC needed an Air Raid offensive line coach to integrate the offensive line into its larger offensive scheme. We will see how well this move works out. Will USC’s line pass protect in a way which suits the needs of coordinator Graham Harrell‘s offense? That’s the biggest point to make about the Trojans’ scheme at this point.
In terms of dealing with Hall and Fehoko, we have to see what USC produces on its first few drives. McGuire, Harrell, and head coach Clay Helton will likely want to see how linemen hold up in one-on-one battles. If they can manage, USC won’t change much. If they get eaten alive by Hall and/or Fehoko, you’ll see more double-teams as the game goes on, and probably a more concerted attempt to get the ball out early.
USC threw a ton of short passes last year, but Kedon Slovis was not 100% healthy. Slovis recently said he feels as great as he ever has at USC, which opens up the realistic possibility that USC will try to throw deeper passes in this game. That’s where San Jose State has to be able to get a credible pass rush going. It will be interesting to see if Harrell tries to attack vertically or horizontally in the first quarter. How well his struggling offensive linemen hold up in one-on-one situations will dictate the adjustments USC makes as the game progresses. The best USC offensive lineman in summer camp, according to most observers? Freshman Jonah Monheim.
4. What is the biggest advantage that USC has over San Jose State?
USC’s biggest advantage in this game is very simple: It has Drake London and San Jose State does not. I highly doubt San Jose State’s best cornerback can hang with London — that’s not a criticism of SJSU’s personnel. It’s a compliment toward London, who is a freak athlete and a supreme playmaker. He makes difficult catches look easy.
He can win 50-50 balls in the air, but he is also very fast and strong. He can box out defenders, like a basketball player getting a rebound, but he can also win on go routes and timing patterns. He’s the full package at wide receiver, and San Jose State will probably need to give safety help over the top on him. That will open up the other side of the field for USC’s other receivers. There is no good solution the Spartans have for him specifically. They have to plant Slovis on his back and make sure an accurate pass can’t be thrown in London’s direction.
5. How do you see this game playing out?
USC’s defense is a lot tougher than USC’s offense. USC’s offense has a lot of skilled players, but if the offensive line doesn’t thrive, the pieces won’t come together. If San Jose State’s defense can generate a consistent pass rush, this becomes a winnable game for the Spartans, but the key word is “consistent.” It can’t be something which comes and goes.
If Kedon Slovis can survey the defense and Drake London either makes circus catches or draws double-teams which open up the field for other talented USC receivers, San Jose State won’t be able to keep pace. I think SJSU covers the spread, but USC has enough offense to win the game, and the Trojans have a good-enough pass rush to prevent Starkel from going crazy. Starkel will be solid, but “solid” won’t be good enough against USC’s offense. Starkel needs to be a straight-A quarterback in this game, not just a B-plus… and while San Jose State clearly has the better coach in this game, USC’s abundance of talent will win out, albeit barely.
USC 38, San Jose State 34.