November 5, 2008

Practice Insider: Trojans adjusting to Cal's scheme

Before the USC offense ever snaps the ball Saturday at the Coliseum, center Kristofer O'Dowd and quarterback Mark Sanchez will have more to worry about than just a perfect exchange on their minds.

The two will be staring at Cal's 3-4 defense, which has held five straight opponents under 30 points and opposing offenses to 300 yards of total offense each game.

"We have to modify things a bit in the run game and in pass protection," offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian said. For the most part, we are who we are, but you do have to modify things to fit the defense you're getting."

Still, the bigger risk could be the Bears' opportunistic defense, which has intercepted 17 passes this season.

Wednesday, USC gave its offense plenty of work against the Cal defensive scheme, even using the first-team defense to simulate some of the Bears' formations.

"We gave our offense a lot of looks at the stuff they do that's unique," USC head coach Pete Carroll said. "We worked hard at that today. It's been good preparation."

Sarkisian said the burden of recognizing what Cal's doing will fall on Sanchez' and O'Dowd's shoulders.

"Those two guys are really bright and prepare really well. We're lucky that we see forms of the 3-4 versus our own guys all the time. That's every day," Sarkisian said. "It's not something new to us. Plus, we got extensive time in training camp heading into the first ball game."

The Trojans faced Virginia in the season opener, torching their 3-4 defense for 558 yards and 52 points.

"There are some similarities, but (Cal is) more multiple," Carroll said. "They do more coverage stuff and change up their pressures a little differently.

"They're really good. They give people problems."

Still Sarkisian is confident the Trojans can handle it.

"I don't foresee it being that big of a deal, but we've put a lot of time and effort into it," Sarkisian said. "I think our guys will be fine at handling it."

Still, Cal's three-man front and occasional eight-man coverage schemes are different, and that alone makes it worth talking about.

"There's a greater level of flexibility in the 3-4 defense that just makes you have to adjust," Carroll said. "We're working on it. It's not rocket science, but it's a change."

Back and braced

Defensive tackle Averell Spicer returned to the practice field for the first time since spraining an ankle over two weeks ago.

Spicer ran on the side and did some drills, helping to simulate the movements he'd need on the field.

After practice, Spicer limped back the locker room with a grin on his face.

"It feels good. I got to run on it some and do some different drills, stuff I'd have to do if was playing," Spicer said. "I haven't run on it almost two weeks now. I expected it to be a little sore."

Spicer said he's anxious to get back on the field to see what effect the injury will have on the rest of the season.

"This is really the first time in season that I've had two weeks off to injury," he said. "Every other time, I've had to take time off for injury, it's been in the offseason."

Spicer met with team doctors on Tuesday, and they told him he no longer needed to wear a protective boot on his ankle, opening the door for Spicer's return.

"It's my goal to play Saturday. I want to play," Spicer said. "If they don't think I'm healthy enough, they're not going to let me go. They don't want me to further injure myself."

Extra Points

• Senior Kevin Ellison said Wednesday that he would not return for Saturday's game, meaning Will Harris will receive his second start of his career.

"Coach Carroll talked to me about it, and he told me to just not change anything up and practice the way I've been practicing," Harris said. "That's what I'm doing, preparing like I normally do.

"My main focus is to not do anything that's out of the ordinary. I need to stay within myself and do the things they ask of me"

Joe McKnight's injured toe continued to improve Wednesday, but that's no guarantee he'll make it to game time. Last week, McKnight re0injured his toe during the Trojans' final full practice before facing Washington.

"Last week we made it to Thursday, and he got hurt Thursday. If he makes it through tomorrow, he's in good shape," Carroll said. "We'll make sure he gets through it. Then, he'll have all of Friday and game day to make sure he gets more rest."

Blake Ayles (bruised knee) said he likely will not play Saturday.

• Wide receiver Vidal Hazelton said he expects to play a lot against Cal.

Michael Morgan (sprained MCL) returned to practice and expects to play Saturday.

Luthur Brown (shoulder) returned to practice and delivered a big hit to keep Stanley Havili out of the end zone on the final play of practice.

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