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USC at Washington: Three key Trojans to watch

Here are three key Trojans to watch in Saturday’s game against theWashington Huskies

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 14 USC at BYU Photo by Boyd Ivey/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Trojans travel to Seattle as road underdogs. And this is big. Last week’s upset win doubled USC’s wins under Clay Helton as an underdog. Before last week, USC was 1-12 in games where the Trojans were an underdog. Now, they are 2-12. Can lightning strike twice? Can Helton, Matt Fink, and co. make it 3-12?

These are three Trojans who will have something to say about it.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: AUG 31 Fresno State at USC Photo by Jordon Kelly/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Brett Neilon

In just the first two games of the season, there were a lot of good things that could have been said about Brett Neilon. He was the center in the middle of a much-improved offensive line and a fearsome rushing attack.

Oh how much things can change in two weeks.

Against a BYU team that had allowed 250 rushing yards per game and only rushed three defenders per play, Neilon was consistently blown off the line of scrimmage at the snap. The USC offensive line had a numbers advantage in each of those plays, and its inability to take advantage allowed BYU to drop eight defenders and win the game. Neilon’s game against Utah last week was less atrocious from the perspective of getting beat, but that didn’t stop this.

One of the supposed upsides of going from Toa Lobendahn to Brett Neilon was that the Trojans would finally have a center who could effectively snap the ball. But on seemingly every play of the game, Neilon would snap the ball to the right of Matt Fink.

Watch this big play, where Matt Fink’s hands have to snap right to catch the snap. His palms literally both face the camera.

Do that action with your own hands. Imagine how uncomfortable and unnatural it is as a quarterback to reach to your right every play. It’s a miracle that USC never turned the ball over in that fashion.

So you could tell me I’m nitpicking, and that if Fink catches the ball its OK. and I’m here to tell you that it’s not. Football is a rhythm sport, and a quarterback that’s a half beat off will not be able to sync up with his receivers as well. Neilon’s snapping may have played a role in how Fink barely worked the short and intermediate parts of the field.

More importantly, a poor snap hurts the rhythm of the quarterback to runningback hand off. I think part of the reason that USC fans have been calling for Markese Stepp to get touches is because he is USC’s no nonsense, head-down, straight line back. Though he may not be as polished as Vavae Malepeai or Stephen Carr, his speed and style make it hard for defenders to rally to the line of scrimmage; he’s just there too fast. A poor snap means that the handoff takes just a beat longer, and one of Neilon’s snaps caused a bobble on handoff. That’s part of why USC had negative rushing yardage at halftime.

Neilon’s snapping is what fans should look for against Washington. Luckily, his snapping issues seem to have just emerged this week, and they are hopefully preventable. But if it continues, especially in potentially rainy Seattle, the Trojans will be lucky to escape a turnover just from the snap.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: AUG 31 Fresno State at USC Photo by Adam Davis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Isaiah Pola-Mao

Up until now, Isaiad Pola-Mao has stayed somewhat in Talanoa Hufanga’s shadow. Hufanga is USC’s do everything safety in run support, and defending the pass. He looks like the Trojans best tackler, which wouldn’t be a big deal if tackling wasn’t one of the defenses biggest weaknesses.

Hufanga leads the teams in tackles with 42, but seems likely to miss the Trojans stint with the Huskies in Seattle. So Isaiah Pola-Mao has got the step up.

Pola-Mao has been hit or miss thus far this season. His greatest hit was his game-sealing interception on opening day against Fresno State. But Pola-Mao has had too many missed tackles for a Trojan defense that needs to be better. Just look at this by number 21. Pola-Mao had an opportunity to stop this run at 15 yards or so, but gets stiff armed and doesn’t even get in a tackle attempt.

Pola-Mao will have to be better against Washington. It will have to be Pola-Mao to step into Hufanga’s shoes and make clean tackles. He will have the be USC’s pocketknife, the do-it-all guy on the defense who covers up for other units when they make mistakes.

But that may be just half of what Pola-Mao is tapped to cover. Washington’s leading receiver is tight end Hunter Bryant. Unlike the prototypical tight end receiving threat, Bryant is actually relatively small at just 6’ 2” and 240 pounds. 6’ 4” Pola-Mao will not be intimidated by Bryant’s lack of size.

But despite Bryant’s lack of extraordinary physical traits, he finds a way to box out and make plays.

Defensive coordinator will probably mix it up when it comes to who defends Bryant on a play to play basis, and Pola-Mao will almost certainly spend significant snaps lining up across from him.

In Seattle, we will see whether Pola-Mao can step up to be that guy for the Trojans defense.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 09 Stanford at USC Photo by John Cordes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Marlon Tuipulotu

There has been a lot made of Washington’s passing game and Jacob Eason’s pro prospects, but people are sleeping on Washington’s rushing attack and linemen. Washington features a three-headed monster in the backfield, made up of Salvon Ahmed, Richard Newton, and Sean Mcgrew. They each have over 200 rushing yards on the season. For context, Vavae Malepeai is the only Trojan runningback with over 100 rushing yards on the season.

Washington’s running attack is supported by a stout offensive line lead by tackle Trey Adams and center Nick Harris. Adams was a consensus first round prospect for last year’s NFL draft, but elected to stay in college after tearing his ACL last season. He has nothing left to show in terms of ability, but must show NFL teams that he can be durable. Nick Harris is a sophomore who dominated in his freshman year. He was Pac-12 all first team and was a preseason second-team All American for this season.

Tuipulotu and the Trojan defensive line will be charged with stopping this dynamic Washington running attack. USC’s defensive line has talent and ability and every position, but was often misdirected by fakes against Utah.

Against Washington, USC’s defensive line will have to play more disciplined football. Defenders must be cognizant of their gaps and make sound tackles. This sounds like just the basics, but it is somehow the thing that the USC defense has struggled with the most.

It will be on Tuipulotu, Jay Tufele, and co. to ensure that Washington can’t just run the ball down USC’s throat. They’ve been successful with this against Stanford, but Washington’s offensive line is more robust than Stanford’s.

If the Trojans can stop runs between the tackle without committing extra men in the box, it will be the first step to a win. That job will rest on Marlon Tuipulotu.