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Game Preview: USC vs Fresno State

Week 1 is upon us! We take a look at the Trojans season opener against the Fresno State Bulldogs

Fresno State v USC

GAME WEEK IS FINALLY HERE!!!

In what felt like a very long off-season filled with changes, drama, and transfer portal news we finally get to see the USC Trojans. Through spring and fall camp, the question was the same after their 24-17 loss to Notre Dame. How do USC respond?

The Trojans are coming off a 5-7 season and failing to reach bowl eligibility for the first time since 2000. While head coach Clay Helton managed to keep his job, it didn’t come without changes to the coaching staff.

Despite those changes the Trojans enter the season in a very unfamiliar place. Unranked in the AP Poll for the first time since 2001 and pretty low expectations from those outside the program. Outside of the poor 2018 season, the place in the rankings stem from questions that still needs to be answered and a rough 6 game slate that features 4 teams ranked in the AP Top 25 pre-season poll (No. 25 Stanford, No. 14 Utah, No. 13 Washington, and No. 9 Notre Dame).

Their opponent, the Fresno State Bulldogs come into the season as the defending Mountain West Champions. The Bulldogs won ten games last season and concluded their season with a victory over Arizona State in the Las Vegas Bowl. Their head coach Jeff Tedford is very familiar with USC after spending 10 years as Cal’s head coach. However Tedford’s Bulldogs only has 8 starters returning from last year’s team.

USC Fall Showcase Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images

Offense

Last season USC saw historic lows on offense and USC head coach Clay Helton needed to shake things up. He brought in Kliff Kingsbury to run the USC offense, however the former Texas Tech head coach left for the NFL before he could even get settled on campus. Soon after Helton stayed in the air raid tree and hired Graham Harrell as his new offensive coordinator. The former Texas Tech quarterback brings a more simple concept to the Trojans, making it easier for players to pick up and taking advantage of the playmakers on USC’s roster.

The Trojans will once again be led by sophomore quarterback JT Daniels, who was named the starter for the week 1 game. After a less than stellar 2018 season where he threw 14 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, Daniels now settles into a new offense that will allow him to get the ball out of his hands quickly. He’ll also have another year with a wide receiving group that’s being considered as one of the best in the nation. Michael Pittman Jr., Amon-Ra St. Brown, Tyler Vaughns, and Velus Jones Jr. will most likely be tabbed as the starters with sophomore Devon Williams and a pair freshmen in Drake London and Minur McClain rotating in. The Fresno State secondary led by the senior duo of cornerback Jaron Bryant and Juju Hughes will have their hands full of slowing down the air attack of USC.

The biggest question will be centered around the running game. Harrell has peached how he will look to balance it out on the ground. Junior Stephen Carr appears to be healthy and regained his burst during spring and fall camp. He will be part of a rotation at running back centered around Vavae Malepeai and Markeese Stepp. During the fall Helton stated that the run game was just okay and felt forced, but feels that it will improve. The defensive line of Fresno State will be a good test to get the run game started as they return three players on that line.

USC Spring Football Practice Begins Photo by Scott Varley/MediaNews Group/Torrance Daily Breeze via Getty Images

Defense

USC faces a number of questions on the defensive side of the ball as they replace a number of key players on that side of the ball. This season Clancy Pendergast brings a more simplified scheme to help a young Trojans defense. Facing a Fresno State offense that will be breaking in new starters at just about every position and a new offensive coordinator could help the Trojans gel things together.

The Trojans looking to improve on a run defense that struggled last season. This year the unit looks to be more physical up front and disrupt opposing teams backfields. Senior defensive end Christian Rector moves into a true edge rushing role to help him and the defense with the pass rush. One name to also keep an eye on is freshman defensive end Drake Jackson as he will see time on the field this season coming off the edge. Linebacking unit will be led by senior John Houston Jr. and sophomore Palaie Gaoteote, who moves to will linebacker to take advantage of his strengths.

The main question is at defensive back where the Trojans face lack of depth and experience. sophomore Olaijah Griffin and redshirt sophomore Greg Johnson are the only players with starting experience at cornerback. They’re currently the favorite to take the starting spots at the position with Chase Williams taking the nickel spot. From there expect redshirt freshman Isaac Taylor-Stuart and true freshman Chris Steele to see rotation time at cornerback. Safeties Isaiah Pola-Mao and Talanoa Hufanga will start, but the biggest question surrounding the duo is their health. Both are coming off injuries that ended their season and required surgery (Pola-Mao- shoulder surgery, Hufanga broken collarbone). Helton tends to ease injured players into action so it remains to be seen how much time they will see against Fresno State. Expect Chase Williams to rotate from nickel to safety while CJ Pollard and true freshman Briton Allen rotate in as well.

Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl - Fresno State v USC Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Key Notes

  • This will be the 5th meeting between USC and Fresno State with the Trojans holding a 3-1 edge over the Bulldogs. Fresno State have not beaten the Trojans since the 1992 Freedom Bowl. The last meeting came in the 2014 season opener where USC defeated Fresno State 52-14.
  • Fresno State head coach Jeff Tedford and USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast were both on the same coaching staff at Cal from 2010-2012. Tedford was the head coach while Pendergast was the defensive coordinator for the Golden Bears.
  • This will be the Trojans first game at the Los Angeles Coliseum with the new renovations completed. The attendance has been downsized from 93,000 to 78,500. New features at the Coliseum includes WI-FI, the new scholarship tower, upgraded seats, renovated concourse and concession stands, and stair railings.
  • USC is currently a -13.5 point favorite over Fresno State. The Trojans were 4-8 against the spread in 2018.
USC Fall Showcase Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images

How to Watch

Location: United Airlines Field at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum- Los Angeles, CA

Date: Saturday, August 31st

Time (PT): 7:30 PM

Channel: TV- ESPN/Watch ESPN app

Radio: 940 AM ESPN Radio (Fresno)/ AM 790 KABC (Los Angeles)