For the second-straight week, the Cougars head to a prestigious destination as a legitimate candidate for pulling off an upset. Most seasons, back-to-back road trips to Auburn and LA to play USC to start the season would be a 0-2 death sentence, but both hosting teams don't look to be up to the level of their prestigious pedigree in 2013, and the Cougars are looking like a team that is back on the road to respectability.
Opening games can frequently be a poor signifier for the overall ability of a team, but based on their opening performances, Saturday night's Pac-12 opener in The Coliseum has the potential to be a program-building upset for the Cougars. The Cougars not only looked improved, but seem to have a much better handle on their air raid offense along with a little bit of a swagger... well at least quarterback Connor Halliday does.
"To be frank with you, we actually have a decent amount of Pac-12 talent. That team in 2010, half those kids wouldn't have started for a good high school team," Halliday told reporters on Monday.
While that might not be the most boastful statement in the history of college football, and a bit of an exaggeration, it shows a sense of humor that the Cougar teams that regularly got stomped by embarrassing amounts simply couldn't have.
"We actually have some guys that can play at this level now," Halliday added.
Now, in Saturday's game, "those guys" will have their chance to prove Halliday right if the Cougars can sneak up on the Trojans and get just their sixth win in Los Angeles against USC in the program's history. The Cougars may have proven that they likely are no longer going to be an embarrassment by hanging with Auburn on the road, but a win in LA over USC would be the kind of program-changing win that proves that they can play at a high level in the Pac-12.
The Cougars are going to have to do a few key things effectively if they are going to do that, the first of which is keeping their spread passing offense humming and replicate their performance from last Saturday which Lane Kiffin described with perfect bro articulation.
"I thought they threw the ball awesome," Kiffin told reporters Sunday.
If the Cougars hope to keep up their awesome performance, they will also need to have their offensive line, which most predicted to be an unmitigated disaster going into the season, continue to protect Halliday fairly well. They will also need to execute on well-timed draws much in the way that they did against Auburn to the tune of 120 yards.
This might not be an easy task against a USC defense that looked improved from 2012 in their opener against Hawaii, as they kept the Warriors out of the end zone until the waning seconds and sacked their quarterback seven times while picking him off four times. Still, keep in mind that this was Hawaii, and the Warriors have had an absolutely dreadful offense under once-revered offensive genius Norm Chow who, like an aging rock star, appears to be making everyone forget about his earlier success with disappointing late-career material.
The Cougars' ability or inability to protect Halliday will play a huge part in whether or not they can succeed in executing the second key which should dictate if they can make a game of it in LA - keeping his interceptions down. Even though Halliday was only sacked twice by Auburn, he received sporadic pressure and handled it poorly, with split-second and desperate decisions in the face of pressure largely causing his three interceptions.
Interceptions are to be expected when you are throwing the ball 65 times like Halliday did against Auburn, but each interception was more the result of unnecessarily throwing the ball up for grabs than simply the side effects of a heavy passing game. Most painful of all was his third interception on first and goal in the fourth quarter while down by just seven that killed the Cougars' best chance to tie or win the game. It will be hard for the Cougars to win a road game against a talented team like USC if he can't get a handle on those costly picks.
The third key to the upset for the Cougars lies in whether or not they can limit the production of their opponent at the quarterback position, and the good news is that, much like Auburn, the Trojans are young and so far ineffective at the position. Cougar fans should hope that Halliday can supply the media with a similar quote about an opposing quarterback late Saturday night to the one that he did about Auburn's quarterback situation, and their starter Nick Marshall who passed for just 99 yards against the Cougars.
"If they could find a quarterback, they'd be a top-five team in the nation. They just don't have a guy who can throw it," Halliday told reporters after Saturday's game.
A similar assessment could probably be made of the Trojans after their first game, as their sophomore co-starters both failed to throw for 100 yards against a very suspect Hawaii defense. If the Cougars can limit Cody Kessler and Max Wittek to similar production levels, then there could be a chance that the Cougars can score the win they need to backup Halliday's brash quotes.