Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. Or, at least, the Wicked Witch of the West Coast Offense. She flew over Howard..."/> Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. Or, at least, the Wicked Witch of the West Coast Offense. She flew over Howard..."/>

USC Game 1 Preview: Virginia


Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. Or, at least, the Wicked Witch of the West Coast Offense. She flew over Howard Jones Field all during Fall camp spreading her infamous injury bug.

While Mark Sanchez seems to have completely recovered from her scourge and his dislocated knee, the injury did keep him from playing in the Trojans two controlled scrimmages at the Coliseum as well as the final Mock Game.

The last game-type action that Sanchez saw was the annual “Huddle,” that earmarked the end of spring practice. Neither Sanchez nor Mitch Mustain looked particularly great that day. The one quarterback who did was Aaron Corp, listed as #3 on the depth chart at the time.

In 2007, Sanchez appeared in 8 games and was 69-114 (60%) passing for 694 yards with 7 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. He started three games for the injured John David Booty. His best performance was at Notre Dame, where he was 21-38 for 235 yards with 4 TDs and no interceptions. USC won that game 38-0. In the loss at Oregon, Sanchez was 26-41 for 277 yards with 2 TDs and 2 interceptions.

While there may still be some question about how much the knee injury may hamper him, there is the greater question of whether he is game ready as far as his overall conditioning.

The same is true of the offensive line, which has only one full-time starter, left guard Jeff Byers, returning from last year. However, he missed most of Fall camp with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever of all things. Zack Heberer, the right guard, also missed much of Fall camp with an injury. Both Byers and Heberer have been back for a week now.

The good news for Virginia is that it usually takes an offensive line a month or so to really feel comfortable working together. In that regard, Virginia is fortunate that they are playing the Trojans early.

The bad news for the Cavaliers is that the injury bug seems to be in remission. Not only is Sanchez coming around, but versatile running back, C.J. Gable returned to practice yesterday from an ankle and hip sprain and had a terrific day running the ball. Also, cornerback, Cary Harris, returned with a brace on his sprained shoulder.

But enough about the Trojans. How about this week’s opponent, the Virginia Cavaliers?

Head coach Al Groh shares several similarities with Pete Carroll. They were both NFL coaches and both served as a head coach of the New York Jets. Both have a son on their coaching staff. Brandon Carroll coaches the tight ends and is the Trojans recruiting coordinator. Mike Groh is Virginia’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Both Carroll and Groh are starting their eighth year as head coaches at their respective schools.

But there the similarity ends. Carroll has been highly successful with a 76-14 record. Overall, Groh has had only modest success. His record stands exactly at .500 (77-77) in the collegiate ranks but a very decent 51-37 at Virginia.

His current squad has only ten returning starters from last fall’s 9-4 Gator Bowl team, which means he is counting on a number of inexperienced players to step up.


Whereas Pete Carroll named his starting quarterback last spring, Groh has yet to do so. He needs to decide before Saturday between Peter Lalich, a sophomore who appeared in eight games, and Scott Deke, a redshirt senior who has only seen action in one game.

Groh was expecting Jameel Sewell to win out in the quarterback competition. But Sewell was declared academically ineligible last spring. The loss hurt the Cavaliers because of Sewell’s mobility. Last season, Lalich connected on 35 of 61 passes (57%) for 321 career yards, but he lacks the mobility and athleticism of both Sewell and Deke.

The rest of the Cavalier backfield stacks up fairly well with tailbacks, Cedric Peerman and Mikell Simpson. Peerman was the ACC’s leading rusher through five games, averaging over 100 yards before suffering a broken leg. Simpson filled in for him, and the Cavaliers didn’t really lose a beat. Simpson gained 570 yards with eight touchdowns on 113 carries. Against Maryland, he put up over 100 yards rushing and 100 yards receiving.

Both are expected to share the duties at running back while Rashawn Jackson, a 6-1, 253-pound converted linebacker, returns at fullback.

Kevin Ogletree returns at wide receiver after missing the 2007 season with a torn ACL. He is the fastest player on the team and should give the Trojans defensive backs a good test. He is joined by Maurice Covington (6’4″, 225 lbs) on the other side.

With Ogletree unavailable last season, Groh went to a double tight-end offense.

John Phillips (6-6, 260) returns this season. Phillips appeared in all 13 games last year, starting 8. He had 17 catches for 193 yards and 2 touchdowns.

Like the Trojans, the Cavaliers offensive line is inexperienced in the middle. All American offensive guard Branden Albert, drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs, was the 15thoverall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft. That left Eugene Monroe (6-6, 320) Outland Trophy candidate at left tackle and Will Barker at right tackle as the only experienced players on the offensive line.


Former Marshall University head coach Bob Pruett takes over as defensive coordinator this season for Virginia’s 3-4 defense. In 2007, Virginia’s defense ranked 16th nationally allowing 19.7 points aNd 13th in rushing, allowing just 106.9 ypg. In total defense the Cavs ranked 23rd allowing 332.5 yards per game.

Like USC, the linebackers and defensive backs are the strength of Virginia’s defense. Three of four starters return from last year at linebacker. Jon Copper led the Cavs with109 tackles. He also had 3 sacks, 2 interceptions and 2 fumble recoveries. Senior Antonio Appleby had 60 tackles and 2 sacks. Senior pass rushing specialist and outside linebacker, Clint Sintim, led the linebackers with 9 sacks. Like Trojan linebackers, Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing, Sintim is a candidate for the Bronco Nagurski Award.

The secondary has two returning starters: cornerback Vic Hall and free safety Byron Glaspy. Hall, the most experienced DB on the squad, is only 5’9″ and may have trouble defending the likes of Patrick Turner and David Ausberry.

Glaspy, a former walk-on like Jon Copper, made a career-high 71 tackles in 13 games last season as part of a defense that allowed just nine rushing touchdowns, fifth in the nation. He’s also the Cavs punt returner.

The coaching staff is also high on sophomore Ras-I Dowling (6-2, 200). Dowling played in 12 games and recorded 44 tackles. He led the team with nine pass break-ups and shared the team lead with two interceptions.

As for the defensive front three, the Cav’s biggest loss was at defensive end, where Chris Long was the overall #2 pick in the NFL Draft. Only junior nose guard Nate Collins (6-2,280) saw much of any real action in 2007, backing up starter Allen Billyk. Collins played in all 13 games and recorded 31 tackles.

Redshirt sophomore Sean Gottschalk (6-4, 275) appeared in nine games as a reserve defensive end and recorded four tackles. He also played on the kickoff return team Senior Alex Field (6-7, 270) will be at the other defensive end. Field played in all 13 games as a reserve and had11 tackles.

Special Teams

Last week, Groh named Yannick Reyering, a German national who led UVA’s soccer team in goals in each of the past three seasons, as the new place kicker.

Here’s the Cavalier lineup at a glance…


QB – P. Lalich; S. Deke; M. Verica

TB – C. Peerman/M. Simpson; R. Horne; M. Millien

FB – R. Jackson; K. Payne; C. Orshoski

TE – J. Phillips; J. Torchia; A. Devlin

WR – K. Ogletree; D. Inman; S. Jobe

WR – M. Covington; K. Burd; C. Koch

LT – E. Monroe; Z. Stair; L. Milstead

LG – Z. Stair; P. Slebonick

C – J. Shields; A. Miholta

RG – B.J. Cabbell; B. Cuffee

RT – W. Barker; Z. Stair; L. Milstead


DE – S. Gottschalk; M. Conrath

NG – N. Collins; N. Jenkins

DE – A. Field; J. Fuller

LOLB – C. Sintim; A. Clark

LILB – A. Appleby; J. Bivens; T. Fells-Danser

RILB – J. Copper; J. Bivens; T. Fells-Danzer

ROLB – D. Burrell; J. Detrick

CB – R. Dowling; C. Minnifield

CB – V. Hall; M. Parker

SS – B. Glasby; M. Leemhuis

FS – B. Woods; C. Mosely

(NB – T. Womack)


PK – Y. Reyering; R. Randolph; C. Hinkebein

P – J. Howell; J. Thornton

LS – D. Aiken; C. Reiss

PR – V. Hall; M. Simpson

KR – M. Simpson; C. Minnifield; K. Ogletree; J. Green

Holder – V. Hall; S. Deke

A crowd of 61,500 fans is expected to attend. There is a chance for scattered thunderstorms in Charlottesville for Saturday’s game, with an expected high of 83 degrees…

Oddsmakers opened the Trojans as a 17-point road favorite. The odds currently favor the Trojans by 19 ½ points. While I prefer not to make any predictions but simply give an overall preview of USC opponents based on the facts as I know them, I can offer one suggestion – take the points.