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USC's thin lines raise roster questions

Trojans say they simply need to step up, but last week's loss to Stanford exposed depth issue for USC as it prepares for Cal's running game.

September 21, 2012|By Gary Klein
  • Quarterback Matt Barkley huddles with his offensive lineman during the game last week at Stanford.
Quarterback Matt Barkley huddles with his offensive lineman during the… (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated…)

After last week's losing performance at Stanford, USC could not wait to play California on Saturday at the Coliseum.

"You go win the next game," Trojans Coach Lane Kiffin said of his players' mind-set, "all of a sudden that game doesn't hurt the same."

Other than perhaps quarterback Matt Barkley, no one felt more beat up after the Stanford loss than USC's offensive and defensive lines.

The offensive line, without injured center Khaled Holmes, was confused and overpowered by the Cardinal. The Trojans' injury-depleted defensive front eventually wore down.

And depth issues, USC's potential weak spot with a roster capped at 75 scholarship players because of NCAA sanctions, revealed themselves as probable season-long problems.

The 13th-ranked Trojans are 16 1/2-point favorites over the 1-2 Golden Bears. But with Cal coming off an impressive effort at Ohio State, a USC victory is hardly guaranteed.

Especially if its line play does not improve.

Holmes, a fifth-year senior, suffered an apparent ankle injury against Syracuse. He warmed up before the Stanford game but gave way to redshirt freshman Cyrus Hobbi, who struggled mightily against the Cardinal's veteran front seven.

Kiffin and teammates were quick to defend a player making his first start under tough conditions, but Hobbi's inexperience making calls led to communication problems throughout the line.

Stanford sacked Barkley four times, hit him repeatedly and harassed him into two intercepted passes.

Holmes is expected to play against Cal, but if he is unable to or is limited, the Trojans could turn to senior Abe Markowitz, who said this week that he was ready to play center or guard.

The left tackle position also is in flux with Aundrey Walker competing to hold onto his spot.

Kiffin gave the sophomore the job as Matt Kalil's successor during spring practice, but Walker struggled against Stanford and Kiffin said his effort did not meet the program's standard.

Freshman Max Tuerk could start or relieve Walker if the starter struggles again.

Tuerk was part of a recruiting class that also included offensive linemen Zach Banner and Jordan Simmons, who appear on track to redshirt. The Trojans also had hoped to land Kyle Murphy and Andrus Peat, but they signed with Stanford and played in the Cardinal's 21-14 victory last week.

James Cregg, USC's offensive line coach, said the Trojans are not short-handed.

"We've got enough to compete with," he said. "The guys in the back, we've got to get up to speed."

Meantime, the defensive line, with only eight sound scholarship players, is thin. "It's not hard to figure that out," said Monte Kiffin, the assistant head coach for defense.

End Devon Kennard is recovering after surgery in August for a pectoral injury and might not play this season. With sophomore end J.R. Tavai sidelined and senior Wes Horton limited by undisclosed injuries, George Uko moved from tackle to end and freshman tackle Leonard Williams started for the first time.

"We have plenty of guys," Uko said. "Everybody's just got to step up and just play their role."

As USC's offense struggled in the second half at Stanford, the Cardinal wore down the Trojans' defense by controlling the ball for more than 10 minutes in the fourth quarter.

Cal, with three talented running backs, could try to implement a similar ball-control strategy to tire the Trojans.

Ed Orgeron, defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator, said that recruiting defensive linemen would remain a priority — "Yeah, sign 50 of them," he joked — but the Trojans still have enough to win.

"We have a lot injured, but you can't make an excuse," he said. "That's not part of the program.

"Somebody's got to step up."

gary.klein@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimesklein

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