Trojans kick off blockbuster season at home

first_imgBrian Chin | Daily TrojanWhen USC scheduled this year’s season opener against Western Michigan in 2014, the Broncos were a middling team in the Mid-Atlantic Conference, an easy warm-up to Pac-12 play. Three years later, Western Michigan enters the Coliseum coming off of a MAC Championship, an undefeated 13-0 regular season and a berth in the Cotton Bowl. Granted, this edition of the Western Michigan Broncos is not the same as last year’s. Gone are several star players, most significantly the NCAA’s all-time leader in receiving yards — and top 10 NFL draft pick — Corey Davis. Also gone is 36-year-old head coach P.J. Fleck, who took his frenetic energy and exuberant “Row the Boat” slogan to the University of Minnesota (neither a Bronco nor a Gopher has anything to do with boats, but Fleck doesn’t seem to care). Replacing him is former Western Michigan quarterback and Syracuse offensive coordinator Tim Lester.Despite losing several elements of its elite 2016 roster, Western Michigan is still no cupcake opener. The team returns eight members from a solid 2016 defensive unit, along with running back Jarvion Franklin on the offensive side. The 225-pound bruiser trucked his way to over 1,300 yards last year.“This is as quality of a backfield [as you’ll find],” head coach Clay Helton said. “They have the three-headed monster that you hate to see: a really good running game, a really solid defense that held teams to 19 points a game and they’ve got the special teams player of the year in the MAC [Darius Phillips].” Another factor that will make Western Michigan a particularly challenging opponent is the heat. The Broncos run a fast-paced, high-volume spread option attack, and with temperature projections for Saturday in the mid ‘90s, hydration will be key for the Trojan defense.“One of the things we do from a sports science standpoint, and we’ve done for the last year, is our hydration testing,” Helton said. “It’s a daily, consistent basis of testing of where guys are throughout the week that way so we are able to catch [hydration issues] before they cramp up.”For the most part, USC enters its first game in healthy form. Senior right guard Viane Talamaivao (foot) and sophomore tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe (hip) both returned to practice this week, and Helton is optimistic that both will play on Saturday. However, the Trojans may be without sophomore wideout Michael Pittman Jr., who is doubtful with an ankle injury.Getting the start at receiver alongside junior Jalen Greene and slot-man redshirt junior Deontay Burnett is redshirt senior Steven Mitchell Jr. He is coming off an injury of his own, as Western Michigan will be his first game since tearing an ACL in the seventh week of last season.Another absence — however, not an injury-related one — is junior linebacker Cameron Smith, who is banned from playing in the first half. He is completing a one-game suspension as a result of a targeting penalty in the Rose Bowl. Despite being named one of the team’s captains, his suspension prevents him from being present at the coin toss, while sophomore Jordan Iosefa is set to make his first career start in his place.When USC released the team’s official depth chart for Western Michigan last week, kicker and punter were two of the only positions left unsettled. On Thursday, Helton officially concluded both competitions with redshirt freshman Michael Brown handling kickoffs, true freshman Chase McGrath taking over placekicking duties and junior Reid Budrovich unseating incumbent junior Chris Tilbey at punter. In previous weeks, Helton appeared pessimistic about the team’s kicking prospects without the dismissed Matt Boermeester. However, his tone seemed to change after Thursday’s practice. “I feel a lot more confident than I did [in weeks past],” Helton said. “I think [Brown and McGrath] have grown. I think the competition has really, really helped.” With Sports Illustrated covers, ESPN features and high pre-season rankings, the Trojans’ summer has been filled with lots of buzz and high expectations. On Saturday, they finally get to just go out and play football. “I told the guys [at the end of Thursday’s practice] I have nothing left to say,” Helton said. “It’s time to play. We’ve gone five weeks now and I’m really excited just to see where we are.”last_img