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O/NSO: Western Michigan edition

The Obvious: The 2017 USC Trojans, pre-ranked No. 4 nationally with seasonal dreams of a Pac-12 title and College Football Playoff inclusion, will commence their highly-anticipated campaign by hosting the defending Mid-America Conference champions, the Western Michigan Broncos, on what’s expected to be a blistering hot Saturday afternoon (2:15 p.m. PT/ 5:15 p.m. ET) in the historic Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

The Not So Obvious: Yep, Saturday’s game could be the hottest home opener (yikes) since that Purdue Coliseum opener back in 1998, but more on that later. On an historical note, the 2017 Trojans will be the 125th USC football team. As for Saturday, it’s not just the first meeting between Western Michigan, who went 13-1 last season until they lost to Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl, but it’s also the first meeting of the Trojans and a Mid-America Conference school. However, don’t think that Western Michigan is another tomato can like some of the previous Trojans home openers (think Idaho and Arkansas State). Last season, the Broncos beat two Big Ten teams (Northwestern and Illinois), so they’re not likely to be intimated by the Trojans or the Coliseum.

The Obvious: The Trojans opened a 27-point favorite to defeat Western Michigan.

The Not So Obvious: Apparently Western Michigan is saying “bring it on,” considering the Broncos landed in L.A. on Wednesday. Usually teams from the Midwest or East come in on a Thursday. Despite the confident arrival, local WM media in Kalamazoo predict the Trojans to trounce the Broncos 45-17. What should give WM pause is the Trojans have a 20-1-3 all-time record in season openers immediately following a Rose Bowl victory. However, Western Michigan, which is located in Kalamazoo, will win even if they lose. Their reported payoff for playing the Men of Troy in the Coliseum comes out to $1.2 million.

The Obvious: Saturday’s game featuring the Trojans and Broncos will be nationally televised live on the Pac-12 Networks (2:15 p.m. PT/5:15 p.m. ET).

The Not So Obvious: The Pac-12 broadcasters for Saturday’s opener will be Roxy Bernstein (play-by-play), Anthony Herron (analysis), and Lewis Johnson (sidelines).

The Obvious: Saturday’s Trojans game radio broadcast from the Coliseum will air live on ESPNLA 710 AM with Pete Arbogast (play by play), John Jackson (analyst) and Jordan Moore (sideline).

The Trojans ESPNLA 710 USC pregame show (10:15 a.m. PT) and two-hour post-game show will feature a variety of talent that includes Arbogast, Jackson, Moore, Shaun Cody, Chris Fisher, Travis Rodgers, Dennis Thurman, and Rachel Frain.

The Not So Obvious: The Western Michigan broadcast can be heard on flagship station WKZO (96.5 FM) with Robin Hook (play-by-play) and John Creek (analyst).

Saturday’s game will also air on Sirius XM satellite radio (channel 93/197, online channel 959) and on the Tuneln Radio app.

The Obvious: Saturday’s Los Angeles weather calls for mostly sunny with a high of 97 degrees, low of 80 degrees, 41 percent humidity, and 0 percent precipitation.

The Not So Obvious: There will be “cool zones” set up at all the Coliseum gates to help fans battle the heat. However, the real weather forecast may be whether the weather indeed plays a part in the outcome. This will be a real test of conditioning and stamina for both the participants and the fans. For veteran Trojans supporters, this weekend’s game could bring back sweaty memories of the 1998 Coliseum season opener against Purdue. The Trojans and the 56,623 in attendance that day literally struggled to survive the furnace that registered 118 degrees on the field, even though the game had an 11:10 morning kickoff. The Trojans won the scorcher over the Boilermakers, 27-17, but by the time the afternoon hit, the Coliseum gathering had thinned out considerably.

Offensively on Saturday, the Trojans will be led by 2016 Pac-12 Freshman Offensive Player of the Year and 2017 Heisman Trophy frontrunner, sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold. All indications are that Darnold is improved from his dreamlike first season. Standing in Darnold’s way is a Western Michigan defense that prides themselves on some very “exotic” blitzes and schemes, so we’ll see whether the rebuilt Trojans offensive line can pick up the expected pressures and dominate. We’ll also see whether “new and improved” junior tailback Ronald Jones ll can do damage to a veteran Western Michigan defense, which is especially strong at linebacker. The biggest unknown for the Trojans offense are the inexperienced wide receivers. Then there is the question whether returning vets like juniors Deontay Burnett and Jalen Greene and senior Steven Mitchell Jr. can catch their way into being impact players while inexperienced younger players – like talented true freshmen Tyler Vaughns lV – get their feet wet.

Defensively, we’ll find out whether the Trojans can play the first half effectively without the leadership of preseason All-America candidate Cameron Smith, the standout junior inside linebacker, who is being held out the first 30 minutes because of a targeting call and ejection in last season’s Rose Bowl against Penn State. Taking Smith’s place for the first half against Western Michigan – a team that will be starting a new and inexperienced quarterback in redshirt sophomore Jon Wassink – will be sophomore Jordan Iosefa. Iosefa will be joined on the inside by another inexperience but athletic linebacker in sophomore John Houston Jr. The Trojans defense will also be looking to make a successful first-game transition at nose tackle, as senior Josh Fatu has the opening daunting task of replacing departed all-star Stevie Tu’ikolovatu. While they looked productive in practice, we’ll see whether true freshmen nose tackles Marlon Tuipulotu and Brandon Pili can hold their own in their first college game. They won’t, however, be alone along the D-line because all-star candidates like junior tackle Rasheem Green, junior outside linebacker Porter Gustin and senior outside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu will the key anchoring points in the front seven. While the Western Michigan fast-paced offense doesn’t figure to resemble the passing attacks of the Pac-12, we’ll see whether the Trojans secondary – minus lockdown corner Adoree’ Jackson – can play at a high level with senior co-captain and safety Chris Hawkins and a pair of juniors, corner Iman Marshall and safety Marvell Tell lll providing the leadership. Junior corner Ajene Harris had a wonderful training camp and also making his starting debut will be sophomore corner Jack Jones, who is considered to be extremely gifted but still a work in progress.

The Trojans special teams will unveil a new placekicker on Saturday, and it’ll be true freshman Chase McGrath, formerly of Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei High, who beat out redshirt freshman Michael Brown, which is not all that shocking based on practices and scrimmages. Brown, however, will handle kickoffs for the Trojans and that’s not a bad consolation prize. However, the big surprise was that junior Reid Budrovich has unseated 2016 starter Chris Tilbey, a junior, as the Trojans punter. Of note, both McGrath and Budrovich are walk-ons who beat out scholarship players.

The Obvious: Lynn Swann is the USC athletic director who was also a Trojans All-America receiver, played on John McKay’s 1972 national championship team and is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a Pittsburgh Steeler.

The Not So Obvious: In his State of Troy message this week, Swann donned his coaching hat and said, “Western Michigan was a strong program last year. They have a veteran team coming back, so you don’t take them for granted. You play them hard. You play them straight. You don’t try to do a whole lot because it’s the first game out of the box and your team needs to find its rhythm. From that standpoint, we are ready. The coaches have done a nice job putting together a game plan and giving the players confidence over the last few weeks. It comes down to Saturday and executing and finding out what is the personality of this year’s team.”

The Obvious: Clay Helton is in his second season as head coach of the USC Trojans.

The Not So Obvious: In regard to Western Michigan, Helton says, “They are a very confident team, a team that won 13 games last year and has a lot of those pieces back. I am very impressed by both their tailbacks, (Jarvion) Franklin and (Jamauri) Bogan. I think they are extremely, extremely talented in a run-first offense. I think it’s something that Coach Lester believes in, and their offensive line is the strength of their team. The strength of their offensive is that big offensive line and those running backs. They have a new quarterback coming in who was very productive in high school and won some championships and have a good receiving corps.

“Defensively, definitely the rock of their football team. They have a lot of people back and one of the better linebacking corps we may face all year. They have a really talented, talented corner in Darius Phillips. It’s going to be a challenge for us and in college football, you’d better bring your “A” game or you’re going to get your butt beat.”

The Obvious: Guiding Western Michigan is first-year head coach Tim Lester, who replaced the highly success and popular P.J. Fleck, now the HC at Minnesota.

The Not So Obvious: Lester is a former Western Michigan quarterback who led the Broncos to the MAC championship game in the late ’90s, throwing for 11,299 yards and 89 touchdowns.

The Obvious: The 2016 Trojans offense averaged 34.3 points per game while the Western Michigan defense allowed 19.8 points per outing.

The Not So Obvious: The 2016 Western Michigan offense averaged 41.6 points per game while the Trojans defense allowed 24.2 points per game.

The Obvious: As been reported, the Western Michigan/USC game was brainchild of Alec Gores, a local SoCal billionaire private equity investor, who promoted the idea for the game to USC president Max Nikias and former athletic director Pat Haden.

The Not So Obvious: According to WM head coach Tim Lester, Gores, who played two seasons at Western Michigan in 1974 and 1975, will also host the Bronco players at his Southland house during their trip to L.A., and arranged for his beloved Broncos team to have a private screening of a yet-to-be-released motion picture.

The Obvious: The Trojans starting quarterback is sophomore Sam Darnold (6-4, 215), who has appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, ESPN The Magazine, and a host of other preseason college football magazines.

The Not So Obvious: The Western Michigan quarterback is first-year redshirt sophomore quarterback Jon Wassink (6-2, 205). The last time Wassink was on the field and took a meaningful snap was when he led Grand Rapids South Christian High to the 2014 MHSAA Division 4 state title.

The Obvious:The Western Michigan opener will mark the debut for many of the Trojans heralded 2017 freshmen class, and one of those who will walk down the fabled Coliseum tunnel for the first time is true freshman nose tackle Marlon Tuipulotu.

The Not So Obvious: On his first game and walking down the Coliseum tunnel, Tuipulotu said, “It’s going to be exciting, my first college game. Being around that atmosphere is going to be different. You’re a part of it now and walking down the tunnel, it’s going to be exciting.”

The Obvious: Although the Trojans have no players from Michigan on its current roster, the Cardinal and Gold do have a football history in the state.

The Not So Obvious: In fact, the Trojans have five lettermen in its history whose hometowns were in Michigan: CB Bruce Dyer (1970-71) from Dearborn Heights, ILB Dennis Johnson (1977-78-79) from Flint, WR Ronald Johnson (2007-08-09-10) from Muskegon, DE Nick Perry (2009-10-11) from Detroit, and OG-C Bill Redding (1968-69) from Grosse lle.

The Obvious: Western Michigan has no players from the state of California.

The Not So Obvious: The Trojans, however, do have some more Michigan connections. Current special teams coordinator/tight ends coach John Baxter was a Michigan assistant in 2015, USC offensive quality control assistant Keary Colbert was a wide receiver with the Detroit Lions in 2008, and USC special teams quality control assistant Mike Tuiasosopo’s uncle is legendary former Michigan State All-America fullback Bob Apisa. And if you remember Apisa, consider yourself a college football historian.

The Obvious: The Coliseum will feature two new videoboards and scoreboards, which replaced the old peristyle boards.

The Not So Obvious: When you see the new videoboards on each side of the peristyle end, respectively, the first question will be, “Why did they place them in the stands and not at the top of the Coliseum like they did the huge and well-received video board at the closed end of the Coliseum?” Will they sell seats behind the two boards?

The Obvious:
The Trojans will again have game promotions during all home games.

The Not So Obvious: Among the promotions for the Western Michigan game will be a pregame flyover and an appearance of the AFCA national championship trophy, which will be on display at the game.

The Obvious: And finally, one of college football’s most recognizable mascots, Traveler, will again be on hand to celebrate USC touchdowns and strut to Conquest.

The Not So Obvious: Saturday will mark the debut of Traveler lX, and Trojans fans are hoping that he gets a healthy workout throughout the four quarters of football. Saturday’s halftime show is rumored to be a tribute to the great tradition of Traveler.

Greg Katz

Now entering his 59th season of either writing, broadcasting, or just plain watching USC football, WeAreSC columnist Greg Katz began his affiliation with the website back in 2001, introducing his well-received O/NSO (The Obvious/The Not So Obvious) column and later adding his respected IMHO Sunday opinion and tidbits column. Greg, a former ESPN.com college football columnist covering USC, is also a member of the Football Writer's Association of America. He is also known in Southern California as a professional public address announcer, having called the the 1996 Rose Bowl Game between USC and Northwestern. Greg also holds a master's degree in athletic administration and was a former varsity high school coach of 27 years.

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