When the USC Trojans and the Syracuse Orange square off this weekend, it’ll be a gridiron battle between two 2-0 teams with four very close wins between them.
USC held off Minnesota in the season opener and beat Utah on a blocked field goal, while Syracuse outlasted Wake Forest in overtime and struggled to wrap up last week’s win over Rhode Island.
As Syracuse coach Doug Marrone said this week: “We’re excited to be 2-0. We’re not excited how we got to 2-0.”
USC head coach Lane Kiffin could say the same thing, and the similarities don’t end there.
Both teams feature young defenses but experienced quarterbacks and talented wide receivers.
The Orange defense was the team’s strongest unit last season, but with the departure of two senior linebackers, the young group hasn’t been as solid this season. Junior free safety Phillip Thomas had two interceptions last week against Rhode Island to earn him Big East Player of the Week honors, but the secondary lacks depth, especially with backup strong safety Olando Fisher and junior cornerback Ri’Shard Anderson both likely to miss their second straight game due to injuries sustained in the opener.
The potential weaknesses on Syracuse’s defense could become potential advantages for USC’s star quarterback-wide receiver tandem of Matt Barkley and Robert Woods. Barkley’s completion percentage is just over 70% after two games, and if he can avoid tossing an interception to Phillip Thomas, he might be in for a big day.
The same could be said of his counterpart for Syracuse, junior Ryan Nassib. Nassib has struggled early in the first two games but has been deadly in the second half, averaging out to a 75.4% completion rate. He was 29 of 37 for 318 yards and 3 TDs against Rhode Island – and 27 of those came after halftime. A week earlier against Wake, he threw for just 85 yards in the first three quarters before going 8 of 8 in the final quarter and OT.
Some of the credit for Nassib’s effectiveness late in games has to go to his senior wideouts, Van Chew and Alec Lemon, who will pose a challenge for USC’s young secondary. Sophomore Nickell Robey will start, but after him, the position’s up for grabs. Junior Torin Harris started the first two games, showcasing his athleticism with late plays to win the game – but only after making (or not making) plays that put the Trojans’ lead in a tenuous position. Harris and Tony Burnett had been splitting time at corner, but redshirt freshman Anthony Brown got a chance to steal the second starter’s job in practice this week – though if the game comes down the wire, Harris might still be the guy you trust to make a save.
If this week’s matchup with Syracuse is as close as USC and Syracuse’s earlier games this year, it could mean trouble for the Trojans. Though they’ve played in similarly close games with identical outcomes, USC came out strong against both Minnesota and Utah before losing their momentum and focus in the fourth quarter. Syracuse, on the other hand, had to rally back from a 15 point deficit to defeat Wake Forest, and Nassib put together a perfect (5 of 5) drive to win over Rhode Island last week.
If USC starts strong and Syracuse starts slow, as they have so far this season, the Trojans might run away with the game early, but they can’t afford to take a single play off especially in the fourth quarter, because the Orange has already shown that its players will keep fighting for the “W” until time runs out.