Honolulu, HI – Former USC offensive coordinator Norm Chow hopes his current team, the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors, can keep up with the speed of the USC Trojans as the 24th team in the nation pays a visit to Aloha Stadium in Honolulu on Thursday.
Last season, Chow had very little offense to speak of out on the island as his new team ranked 118th in the nation with just 297.4 ypg and was tied for 100th with a mere 21.2 ppg. It got so bad for the Rainbow Warriors that their only win through the first 10 games of 2012 was a 54-2 thrashing of Lamar in the second game.
At one point, Hawaii suffered through an eight-game slide before crushing UNLV in late November by a final of 48-10 at home. A week later, they also claimed a 23-7 victory versus South Alabama, but still they finished a mere 3-9 overall and just 1-7 in their inaugural Mountain West Conference campaign.
As if last year's start wasn't bad enough, this time around Hawaii is facing off against back-to-back nationally-ranked programs for the first time in school history.
As for the Trojans, a team which has won 11 national titles and posted 31 bowl victories, their head coach, Lane Kiffin is already sitting on the hot seat based on the disappointing returns he has provided while with the program. After going 10-2 in 2011, but unable to take part in the postseason, the squad was just 7-6 overall in 2012 and 5-4 in Pac-12 Conference play.
Kiffin did get the Trojans off to a fast start a year ago with six wins in seven tries, but then the bottom fell out and they closed with a 1-4 mark in the regular season and then bowed to Georgia Tech, 21-7, in the Sun Bowl.
USC has never lost to Hawaii, sporting an unblemished 7-0 mark after delivering a 49-10 in last year's battle. The Trojans are actually 8-0 all- time in the series, but the 2005 meeting (63-17) has been vacated by the NCAA due to sanctions.
This game marks the fifth time in Hawaii's history that it has opened a season against USC.
The Trojans are beginning the post-Matt Barkley era on Thursday and still the team is not totally committed to a starter at quarterback. Vying for the job are sophomores Max Wittek and Cody Kessler, the former having appeared in eight games a year ago. Wittek stepped in and completed 52.2 percent of his 69 pass attempts, but finished with more interceptions (five) than touchdowns (three).
As tough as it is to find a new signal-caller to lead the USC offense, whomever ends up under center will have the luxury of throwing to Marqise Lee who is one of the top receivers in the nation. A unanimous First Team All- American in 2012 who became USC's first-ever Biletnikoff Award winner when he finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting, Lee was also the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year after reeling in 118 passes for 1,721 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Lee is actually listed as probable for the opener with a shoulder injury, but that's still better than running back Silas Redd who is doubtful because of a knee issue. Redd, who abandoned the Penn State program last year in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, ended up leading the Trojans in rushing with 905 yards and nine touchdowns on 167 carries.
While the offense goes in another direction following the departure of Barkley, the defense is also in transition after Monte Kiffin resigned late last season in order to pursue opportunities in the NFL. As a result, son Lane went out and added Clancy Pendergast as USC's defensive coordinator in January.
"Clancy is a perfect fit for us," said Kiffin. "He is a very experienced and successful defensive coordinator. He plays an attacking-style defense with multiple looks and, having spent the last three years in the Pac-12, he knows how to defend the various kinds of offenses that we see in this conference."
Clancy will get up close and personal with linebacker Morgan Breslin, a 2012 Hendricks Award finalist who generated 19.5 tackles for loss and 13 sacks (the most at USC since 2003). Also back for USC will be defensive end Leonard Williams, the Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year who added 13.5 TFL and eight sacks of his own.
Even before taking the field, the offense for the Rainbow Warriors has taken a significant hit, with coach Chow dismissing offensive coordinator Aaron Price already. Price only joined the program in February, but Chow chose to cut ties with the Washington State product due to issues that were not divulged. Instead of filling the position, Chow plans on expanding the roles of two graduate assistants who will be working with the quarterbacks and wide receivers, and will himself oversee the offense as a whole.
Sean Schroeder was expected to be reprising his role as the team's starting quarterback, but he is coming off back surgery and missed the entire spring, opening the door for Ohio State transfer Taylor Graham to claim the job.
"First and foremost he's a big kid, got a great arm, pretty smart," quarterbacks coach Jordan Wynn says of Graham. "(He) can actually go through the offense, tell all 11 guys what they are doing, what they need to do with different checks, and we do a good job of utilizing his intelligence."
The good news for Graham, who hasn't thrown a pass since high school, is that there's a laundry list of returning starters along the offensive line to provide protection and give the signal-caller time to seek out receivers such as Billy Ray Stutzmann who led the group with 35 catches for 447 yards a year ago. However, Stutzmann never made it into the end zone, something he and the coaching staff would like to see change.
Keeping the ball on the ground has never been a strong suit for Hawaii, but the team still has a decent threat in Joey Iosefa who is the top returning ball carrier after producing 463 yards and a score on 125 attempts through eight games a season ago.
Opponents jumped all over the Hawaii defense in the first half a year ago, scoring not only 118 points in the first quarter, compared to a mere 55 points for the Rainbow Warriors, but also adding another 139 in the second frame which means those foes combined for more points in the first 30 minutes (257) than Hawaii had in all four periods (254).
The unit really didn't have a single, standout performer on the defensive side of the ball, as no one recorded more than 56 total tackles. However, that's not to say that guys like Art Laurel and Beau Yap cannot be decisive factors from one play to the next. Credited with 21 starts over the last two years, Laurel is the leader of the linebacking corps, having posted four sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss in 2012.
Now a junior, Yap led all linemen with 10.5 TFL and three sacks, but he'll need support from the interior guys if he hopes to get off the end quickly and once again cause havoc in the backfield.