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Countdown Q&A: USC (Holiday Bowl)

USC v Arizona State Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Another season is coming to a close, so lets finish out the last official game of 2023 with the final Q&A series post of the year. Sometimes we only gain a little insight, but often our football brethren from across the country share a wealth of knowledge about their respective teams and what we may see when they roll the ball out there in the next few days.

The Cards final opponent of 2023 is the Trojans of USC. After a year that had preseason expectations circling the College Football Playoff the back half of the year for USC could not have gone much worse for the team and reigning Heisman winner Caleb Williams. Since the Trojans aren’t typically on the Cards radar I needed some help, so I reached out to our friend over at ‘Trojans Wire’ to get a read on what this USC team is going to bring with them to San Diego both figuratively, and quite literally with players opting out of this contest almost daily. My man Matt Zemek provides the answers to it all. Lets get it.

Before we get too deep into the specifics of this game I’d love to hear your “condensed” version on the college football post season. While I’m not a diehard traditionalist I do remember when bowl games meant something and it was a nice honor for your program. Now, I feel as if they are glorified pre-spring practices outside of the New Years Six. You okay with that transition or you like the old school mentality?

Ohio v USC Photo by Focus on Sport via Getty Images

I wish we had the 1985 bowl system, except for one new addition: a plus-one game after the bowls. Basically, imagine a world in which we have the old bowl system but then played a national championship game one week afterward: Auburn versus Miami in the 1983 season. BYU-Washington in 1984. Colorado-Georgia Tech in 1990. Washington-Miami in 1991. Keep the old bowl traditions but have the flexibility needed to play a game after the bowls are all over. This would have been the perfect solution to college football’s problems, instead of the BCS, which began the new reality in which teams were disappointed to play in the Rose Bowl if it wasn’t the national championship (later, the playoff) game. We could have had a system in which traditions were kept but debates were settled on the field. The plus-one is the best thing college football has never tried.

Coming into 2023 I was paying a bit more attention to the USC Trojans than I have in seasons past (crazy what a reigning Heisman trophy winner will do), and while they had some flaws they still looked early like a team who would be in the mix nationally come mid-November. After starting out 6-0 what were the major contributing factors to them dropping 5 of 6 down the stretch?

The main factor is that Alex Grinch was a bad defensive coordinator. That might be an oversimplification, but let’s be real: It was clearly the No. 1 reason this team lost five games. It’s true that the USC defense did not lose the Notre Dame game – Caleb Williams did – but it definitely lost the other four games to Utah, Washington, Oregon, and UCLA. USC and Lincoln Riley were not serious about defense. You have seen the coaching staff changes in recent weeks; those staff changes should have occurred 11 months ago.

Even if the casual Louisville fan knows very little about the 2023 Trojans there has been one thing circling the interwebs the last couple weeks as it pertains to this game and that's the missing starters for USC. No starting QB, RB or WR1, so what's the depth looking like for this one on the offensive side of the ball?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 14 USC at Notre Dame Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With Caleb Williams off to the NFL and Malachi Nelson transferring, Louisville will face only one USC quarterback: Miller Moss, who has waited for his big moment behind Caleb Williams for two seasons. Moss is basically auditioning for a QB1 role either at USC or at another program. It’s a pivotal moment in his career. He doesn’t have a lot of experience in terms of live reps in meaningful situations. He got a little bit of mop-up duty early in the season, and little more. He is untested and a total mystery. Being brutally honest, I am not expecting a strong performance from him against a really good Louisville defense.

To put it frank, the USC defense this year was….um…..less than ideal, giving up over 438yd/g and a tick under 35pt/g on average. Where do teams attack this defense, and where do you think Brohm and staff will look to target?

USC was soft this year. Louisville should try to ram the ball down USC’s throat, then set up play action for big splash plays. I know UL has some real workhorses on the ground. Bear Alexander is the only really special defensive lineman USC has. The rest of that line generally has been contained. This is a far easier assignment than Florida State, that’s for sure!

Of the remaining Trojans who have not opted out of this one, give me a name or two on each side of the ball to watch for? Whats the game plan with the backup QB?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 18 UCLA at USC Photo by Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Bear Alexander is clearly the guy Louisville has to watch for when it has the ball. Alexander has been USC’s best defensive lineman by far in 2023. Louisville should run away from where he is.

Expect a lot of short, ball-control passes with Miller Moss to establish a rhythm and some confidence. Also expect USC to run the ball early and see if its offensive line can form a tougher identity. USC’s O-line disappointed this season. Lincoln Riley will want to test that unit and see if it can mash a little in San Diego. If USC can run the ball really well in this game, that would build confidence heading into the offseason and the Big Ten. If Louisville’s front four plays a great game, it’s hard to see how USC will win.

While Louisville was left in full blown scramble mode due to the FSU playoff exclusion (planned to go to Orange Bowl with FSU in playoff), the result when the dust settled was a difficult cross country trip for numerous fans less than 48 hours after many of them are cleaning up their wrapping paper on Christmas evening. It may be a light crowd but I think Louisville fans are still on a football high and will be invested in this one from afar. What do you think we see in this one on Wednesday?

I know Jack Plummer isn’t especially good, but when he faced USC’s defense a year ago at Cal, he threw for over 400 yards. New USC defensive coordinator D’Anton Lynn will NOT be coaching the Trojans in this game, so it’s hard to see USC’s defense performing at an elite standard. The signs point to Louisville winning this game with a modest working margin – not a blowout, but not a squeaker. Louisville 33, USC 20.


A big ‘thank you’ to Matt for his time to jump on with me and provide a look at what USC is coming with tomorrow night. You can give him a follow right here and the check out the ‘Trojan Wire’ feed as well.

While the mass exodus of players from USC has me feeling a higher level of confidence than I would have back in lets say September if they played this game then, there are still some dudes on the field that can make plays for a team which was preseason Top 6 nationally. I think Brohm tries to get Plummer settled in early with some short stuff, lean on the ground game to establish the run, and then let Plummer take a shot here or there. I may be in the minority but I think if we see a struggling Plummer again Brohm has a shorter leash in a game like this and lets some other guys get reps in the final game of the year. I like Louisville to continue the trend of coming out fast and they go up 10-0 early and then kind of coast on that margin throughout the game. Cards grab their eleventh win of the season and put a cap on a very special year. Cards 38-28.