On Saturday I took in the Trojans mock game where the first team defeated the scout team 36-0. Here's what I think of the USC football team one week away from the regular season:
Matt Barkley, playing for the first time since being named the USC starting QB, showed why he's considered such a premium talent and also why folks question whether he's ready to take the reins. First, the positives. Barkley has a superb arm that can make all the throws. His fastball isn't as strong as his predecessor Mark Sanchez's but it's plenty good enough. And after a rough first snap where he fell down handing off the ball Matt looked confident in the huddle and at the line of scrimmage.
Now for the bad news. His decision making was mediocre and the accuracy just wasn't there. During the first half Barkley threw several passes at the feet of his receivers, including one that would have been a touchdown. He also refused to throw away the ball on broken plays and tried repeatedly to thread the ball in between defenders. When he had to carry the Mater Dei offense during his senior year Matt earned a reputation as a gunslinger who took unnecessary chances and racked up interceptions. Barkley didn't do anything to dispel those notions this afternoon, which is worrisome for a Trojan squad that heads into Columbus in a couple weeks.
Meanwhile Aaron Corp, the three-year sophomore who lost the starting role to Barkley, was definitely the best QB on the field today. He took over for Barkley shortly into the third quarter and was efficient, completing 5 of 7 passes. Corp's skill and savvy also translated into several nice runs on his part, which is something the traditional pocket passer Barkley can't do. Corp wore a heavy brace on his injured leg but didn't show any signs of pain or slowdown. Frankly, a lot of people think he should be leading this team.
Mitch Mustain, the third-string QB for USC, has been sick recently and did not play in the mock game. Fourth stringer Garrett Green looked overwhelmed by the Trojan defense. He led the scout team for the whole game and got shut out. He was often forced to pass on long downs, which provided amble opportunity for the fantastic secondary to swarm all across the field.
It didn't help Green that WR for the Trojans is a position with a lot of quantity but not so much quality. Brice Butler, Brandon Carswell, Travon Patterson failed to seize their opportunities, though true freshman De'Von Flournoy looked promising. USC only has one legitimate threat at the position. It used to have double that but Ronald Johnson suffered a broken collarbone during the mock game and will be out two months. That's a huge blow to the team considering RoJo's replacement in the starting lineup is David Ausberry, who did not play well. David really needs to step up. He has ideal size and can physically dominant defenders. His route running is also above average. But all of that means nothing if he doesn't figure out how to consistently hang onto the ball.
Meanwhile, the other productive receiver on the team was in silky smooth All-American form. Every time Damien Williams touched the ball (including one punt return) there was the possibility of electricity. Fantastic speed and agility. What a thrill to watch him in person.
The running game was rather pedestrian. Joe McKnight, the presumed starter, had a couple promising runs up the middle early on. If he can be more physical and hang onto the ball that makes him one of the best backs in the nation. Those are huge if's. Stafon Johnson ran in a pair of touchdowns from short yardage. C.J. Gable barely played. The most impressive player in the backfield was the one who's been the least appreciated during the past several years of the Trojan RB carousel. Everyone knew Allen Bradford could be a short-yard bruiser but on Saturday he flashed outstanding speed to the outside. I was really impressed by him and hopes he gets the rock quite a bit during his last year at SC. Neither Marc Tyler nor Curtis McNeal were impressive for the scout team. Then agan, they were going up against a tenacious defense.
Taylor Mays was outstanding in the few series he was in. His backup, the always tenacious Drew McAllister, picked off a pass as did backup cornerback T.J. Bryant. Because starting CB Shareece Wright was out safety Josh Pinkard filled in and played well. He's been at SC for nearly forever and is experienced playing in the secondary.
The defensive lines only got decent pressure on the QBs but did superb jobs of limiting the run games. Highly-touted JUCO transfer Hebron Fangupo sacked Corp twice in the span of a few years. DE Nick Perry and DT Jurrell Casey had their names called constantly throughout the game.
USC replaces three senior linebackers with Chris Galippo, Malcolm Smith and Michael Morgan. None of them possess the pizazz of Rey Maualuga or Brian Cushing but they should be solid playmakers.
I was really looking forward to special teams since USC finally, finally hired a coach to fix an erratic and underachieving portion of the program. Sad to say it still needs work. The kicking game was okay. I was expecting big things from JUCO kicker Jake Harfman but he was erratic and botched handling a low punt snap. The other two kickers did nothing special. One even missed an extra point attempt.
The Trojans did their typical horrible job on punt coverage and blocking. On one punt in particular both defenders failed to even block the gunners streaking down the field. This forced McNeal to take a fair catch instead of run forward into a big opening.
Overall I think the USC Trojans have a good shot at reaching yet another BCS bowl. But there's a real chance they might not even win the PAC-10 yet alone the national title. So it seems likely for the first time since 2005 the Trojans will not be heading to the Rose Bowl.