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Minnesota opens Kill era at No. 25 USC

The 25th-ranked USC Trojans open the 2011 season this Saturday at the Coliseum, playing host to the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

Minnesota, which plays its football out of the Big Ten Conference, comes into this new campaign under the direction of first-year head coach Jerry Kill. The former head man at both Southern and Northern Illinois, Kill is the man university officials and Gopher fans everywhere hope will lead their beloved team back to Big Ten prominence. UM has struggled since Glen Mason led the program to a 64-57 record and seven bowl games in his 10 years at the helm (1997-2006), going just 27-40 since. Minnesota has won the Big Ten title a total of 18 times, but the most recent was way back in 1967.

The Gophers, who went just 3-9 last year and won only two of their eight conference bouts, own a 25-28-2 record all-time against teams that currently make up the Pac-12.

USC comes into another season amid the dark clouds of NCAA sanctions that will keep coach Lane Kiffin's club from playing for the inaugural Pac-12 championship, or participating in a bowl game. Still, the Trojans are expected to be a formidable team on the field, as the roster is littered with potential NFL players who will try to improve upon last year's 8-5 record.

USC has won its last 13 season openers, and 11 straight over Big Ten opponents. All-time, the Trojans are 72-27-3 against the Big Ten. USC has won 75 percent of its games all-time at the Coliseum (410-128-27), and the Trojans have posted 36 shutouts among their 87 season-opening victories.

USC is 5-1-1 in the all-time series with Minnesota, and the Trojans came from behind to claim a 32-21 victory over the Golden Gophers in Minneapolis last year.

Coach Kill is banking on the fact that MarQueis Gray is going to make the transition from wide receiver to quarterback, as he moves under center after catching 42 passes for 587 yards and five TDs a year ago. Gray was among the most highly-regarded dual-threat QBs in the nation coming out of high school, and his play will certainly be the storyline for the UM offense this season.

"I think our big key is how we are going to utilize his [Gray's] talents at quarterback," Kill said this summer. "I think that will be the key of what we have to do to make sure we can keep him healthy but also be able to utilize his talents."

Helping Gray ease into his new role will be senior WR Da'Jon McKnight, who led the team with 46 catches and 705 receiving yards last season, while ranking second in the Big Ten with 10 TD receptions. Senior TE Eric Lair will also be utilized as he grabbed 39 passes for 526 yards and two TDs last year.

The Gophers were hoping to have a potent backfield with the return of DeLeon Eskridge who rushed for nearly 700 yards and seven TDs in 2010, but he left the team in June, leaving Duane Bennett as the man likely to get the bulk of the carries after gaining 529 yards, scoring three TDs and averaging 4.3 ypc last season.

A relatively young UM defense had a tough time with consistency last year, and as a result finished near the bottom of the most important defensive categories in the conference. Eight starters are back in the fold, giving the unit a slew of experienced players on which to rely. The best of the bunch is senior linebacker Gary Tinsley, who paced the team last year with 90 tackles, including 9.5 TFL. He'll be joined by returning starters Keanon Cooper (68 tackles) and Mike Rallis (37 tackles, three INTs) to give the Gophers a solid linebacking corps.

Foes ran for more than 190 ypg against Minnesota in 2010, and scored 29 rushing TDs. The defensive line returns starting ends D.L. Wilhite and Anthony Jacobs, along with tackle Brandon Kirksey, and the trio combined to log 14.5 TFL last season.

The secondary will likely be a work in progress, at least early on, as Troy Stoudermire and Michael Carter are the only returning letter-winners. They combined for 10 starts last year. Stoudermire led the team with five PBUs and recovered two fumbles in 2010, while Carter picked off a pair of passes.

As was the case in 2010, the USC offense will go as far as quarterback Matt Barkley can take it. One of the top signal callers in the country, Barkley threw 26 TD passes a year ago, and coach Kiffin feels the junior has only scratched the surface with respect to how good he can actually be.

"Our goal for Matt is to improve his decision making. As you look at what he did last year in the touchdown/interception ratio he improved a lot there, and now we need to go to the next level, so he can have one of those seasons like we've seen here before."

Wide receiver Robert Woods will assist Barkley in reaching the lofty heights expected of him, and the hope is the second-year phenom will surpass last year's numbers when as a freshman he led the team in receptions, receiving yards and caught six TDs. As a result, Woods was named the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year and a Freshman All-American.

Kiffin is going to have to rely heavily on Barkley and the passing attack, at least until leading rusher Marc Tyler (913 yards, nine TDs) comes off suspension. Tyler made a few comments in the off-season that landed him in hot water, and he is suspended at least for this opener. So, with the team's top back out of action at the outset, expect inexperienced guys like Dillon Baxter, Curtis McNeal and D.J. Morgan to get some much-needed work.

With the offense garnering most of the headlines, the USC defense flies a bit under the radar, but the unit has an abundance of talent and should be improved from last year when it allowed 26.7 points and 400 total yards per contest.

One of the primary reasons for the lackluster showing was the fact that the Trojans gave up 4.4 yards per carry, the highest figure for a USC defense in nearly 20 years. Redshirt freshman George Uko will be counted on to contribute right away, and defensive ends Nick Perry and Wes Horton should also up their production.

If the defensive line can get pressure at the point of attack, then improvements in the secondary should also occur. Last year's leading tackler, free safety T.J. McDonald (89 stops), was a First Team All-Pac-10 selection, and he is back to add some stability to a group of defensive backs that also includes sophomore Nickell Robey, who tallied four INTs as a rookie.