USC coach Lane Kiffin knows Washington coach Steve Sarkisian quite well, of course.
The two served as assistants together at USC for five seasons under Pete Carroll in the early 2000s. During the final two years, they shared playcalling duties, Kiffin as the offensive coordinator and Sarkisian as the assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach. And since, they have kept in touch, remaining close friends.
But they will be on opposite sidelines come Saturday, as Kiffin and the No. 11 Trojans (4-1, 2-1) travel up the Pacific Coast to Seattle to face the Huskies (3-2, 1-1) — the third time the two head coaches have squared off against each other and the first time in the Evergreen State.
Washington has won two of the teams’ last three meetings with Sarkisian at the helm.
“I obviously have a great deal of respect for Lane and what he’s done there,” Sarkisian said Monday during a news conference with reporters. “That hasn’t been an easy task. He’s done a nice job. They’ve got a good football team.”
As “good” as USC might be, it also appears to be improving.
Following its mid-September loss at Stanford, the team has reeled off consecutive wins over California and Utah, climbing as high as No. 9 in the USA Today coaches’ poll, which counts as one-third of the BCS formula.
“Our guys have responded well,” said Kiffin, as his team enters its fourth road game of the season. “And I think they’ll do it again this week.”
In their previous matchup against the Utes, the Trojans’ passing game finally clicked. Senior quarterback Matt Barkley completed 23 of 30 passes for 303 yards and three touchdowns — 18 of them going to star wide receivers sophomore Marqise Lee and junior Robert Woods. Each finished with a touchdown as well.
On the season, the tandem has combined for 83 receptions, 921 yards and 12 touchdowns. And Lee’s 52 receptions and seven touchdowns rank as the third- and fourth-most in the country, respectively.
“I’m just doing what I’m supposed to do,” Lee said. “I worked harder. A lot of things I needed to improve on, and that’s what I improved on. My catching, my running [and I] got bigger thanks to the weight room coaches.”
Washington remains aware of all that.
“Lane’s a creative guy,” Sarkisian said. “He finds a variety of ways to get the ball in Lee’s and Woods’ hands, whether it’s the quick-screen game, whether it’s bringing them out of the backfield, whether it’s getting them one on one on the perimeter with corners, whether it’s with double moves down the field. He does a nice job moving them around.”
But despite 38 total points in its latest win, USC racked up its fair share of penalties against Utah, as it was penalized 14 times for 100 yards. And on the season, the Trojans have been penalized a total of 50 times, the fourth-highest among Football Bowl Subdivision teams.
Some of USC’s drives have stalled as a result.
“We’re making plays,” Barkley said. “We’re moving the ball downfield. But just at times we’re either doing stupid things like penalties, or it’s just one dropped ball or missed block where it can open up the game. Those plays will come.“
The Huskies have faced similar offensive difficulties as well, totaling more than 21 points just one time this season, a 52-13 win over Football Championship Subdivision Portland State on Sept. 15.
They can thank injuries for that, especially on the offensive line with a handful of potential starters out of the lineup. Junior tackle Erik Kohler and sophomore guard Colin Tanigawa have been sidelined for the year with knee injuries. Collectively, the unit features just one senior in center Drew Schaefer. As a result, quarterback Keith Price, who has thrown for 882 yards but has completed less than 60 percent of his passes, has faced quite a bit of pressure this season and has been sacked 12 times.
USC, comparatively, has sacked opposing quarterbacks 17 times this season, 11th most in the country.
Kickoff for Saturday’s game is scheduled for 4 p.m. at CenturyLink Field, the home of the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks. Husky Stadium is currently undergoing renovations. Still, noise is certainly expected.
“You go up there and the crowd is extremely loud,” Kiffin said. “They play better there. The concern for us is handling the crowd, playing with good composure.”
The game will be televised nationally on FOX.