LOS ANGELES (AP) — If Jerry Kill could have picked the time and place for his Minnesota coaching debut, he wouldn’t have chosen high noon at the storied Coliseum with an angry horde of Trojans on the opposite sideline.
“I don’t like playing the first game with BCS (opponents),” Kill said. “I want to play at home. There’s a whole lot of difference between playing at home and going on the road, plus going to USC and the time difference, the whole ball of wax.”
Yet even in such unfriendly circumstances for the Gophers, No. 25 Southern California coach Lane Kiffin isn’t exactly brimming with confidence. He leads an elite program, but it’s coming off its worst season in a decade.
Both coaches have far more questions than answers about two teams moving from disappointing records last season into uncertain futures, starting Saturday.
“I would be blown away if this team is overconfident, No. 1, because we’re not very good,” Kiffin said. “And No. 2, because these guys … have a dynamic playmaker touching the ball every snap.”
That would be MarQueis Gray, the converted receiver who takes over as the Gophers’ quarterback against USC’s defense, which was among the worst in school history last year. Gray is a scintillating talent, but Minnesota doesn’t know exactly how good he’ll be before he faces USC’s talent-studded defense.
“For me, running the ball and not having the whistle blow when someone touches me, actually getting tackled, that’s what I’m looking forward to,” said Gray, who’s making his first visit to California this weekend.
The Gophers haven’t played in the Coliseum since 1979, and they haven’t won a game in the Golden State since 1964. Yet after Minnesota finished strong last season under interim coach Jeff Horton, it has a chance to avenge last season’s 32-21 home loss to USC.
But the Trojans haven’t been sitting still since going 8-5 last season in the first year of a two-year bowl ban under NCAA sanctions. Although scholarship restrictions will hurt the once-dominant Trojans for three more years, they’ve built on last year’s tumultuous run during the offseason, building camaraderie and teamwork they rarely exhibited last season.
“We feel so much more confident in our scheme, in the way guys are playing now,” said safety T.J. McDonald, the Trojans’ top returning tackler. “We’re just a year better all around.”
USC watched tape of Kill’s teams at Northern Illinois to prepare for the Gophers, but they’ll also draw on the experience of facing mobile Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas. Gray’s size and mobility are difficult to duplicate, but the Trojans face a weekly array of elite passers in the Pac-12.
“You’ve got to hit him and make him uncomfortable,” McDonald said. “You’ve got to punish him. You can’t give him second chances to get in the open field. You’ve got to remember he’s a quarterback. Quarterbacks don’t like to get hit, and as long as we remember that, we’ll be all right.”
Minnesota fans probably won’t recognize the offense they see, and not just because Gray is running offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover’s schemes.
“Just playing a faster pace, more aggressive, not so conservative as we’ve been in the past,” tight end Eric Lair said. “Coach Limegrover, you never know what he’s going to do. He surprises us sometimes.”
The Trojans will run much the same power-based offense that usually worked well last season, albeit with changes including an overhauled offensive line. USC hasn’t announced the names of its two starting guards.
Kiffin also hasn’t chosen a starting running back, which likely means at least three ball-carriers from Tailback U. will get roughly equal chances to test Minnesota’s defense. Curtis McNeal, Dillon Baxter, D.J. Morgan and Amir Carlisle all were listed equally on USC’s maddeningly noncommittal depth chart.
There’s no question who will be handing the ball to them, however.
Matt Barkley starts his third season at USC already in sixth place on the Trojans’ career passing yardage chart, and he appears poised for a breakout season. Minnesota finished dead last in the FBS in sacks last season, and pressuring Barkley is a top priority for the Gophers’ new defense.
“I’m much more relaxed in the pocket than I was last year,” said Barkley, who threw for 192 yards and two scores at Minnesota last season. “The game has slowed down a lot for me.”
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