LOS ANGELES (AP) Southern California would have a pretty good shot to win the Sun Belt Conference. That much is clear after the sixth-ranked Trojans dismantled Arkansas State and Idaho by a combined 99 points to begin the season.
''I think it's going to be different,'' freshman linebacker Cameron Smith said Wednesday. ''I feel more passionate and like it's more of a college game than these last two, so I'm really excited.''
Smith is just one of the youngsters tasked with slowing down fifth-year Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan. Cornerback Kevon Seymour has been limited in practice by a knee injury he suffered against the Vandals, putting touted freshman Iman Marshall in position to make his first career start.
Marshall has played the most snaps of any USC defender through the first two games, picking up the slack after Adoree Jackson was hurt in the first half against the Red Wolves and again when Seymour went down, recording seven tackles and two pass breakups. Coach Steve Sarkisian gave the Long Beach Poly product high marks, saying Marshall has benefited greatly from such an extensive workload.
''Iman has played very well,'' Sarkisian said. ''He hasn't played perfect, but I think his level of play really increased from Week 1 to Week 2 and he's getting extended reps now going into Week 3.''
Even if Jackson and Seymour had not been hurt, Marshall would have played as part of USC's concerted effort to rotate more extensively this season. Against Stanford's deliberate pace on offense, coaches can be more selective about whether to play defensive starters longer or when to rotate in backups. That could be especially valuable in managing Jackson's snap count, as the sophomore also plays receiver and returns punts and kicks.
The main focus for Jackson, Marshall, and the rest of the USC defense will be making sure the streaky Hogan that shows up at the Coliseum is the erratic Hogan.
In his 25 wins, tied with Michigan State's Connor Cook for the most among active FBS quarterbacks, Hogan is averaging 206 yards passing per game and has thrown 45 touchdown passes against 15 interceptions. In his nine losses, Hogan's efficiency drops off dramatically to just 185 yards per game and three touchdown passes against seven interceptions.
Well aware of Hogan's tendencies both good and bad, defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox is turning up the heat on USC's pass rush. Plenty of opportunities have been created while hitting Arkansas State and Idaho quarterbacks nearly two dozen times, but coming away with just two sacks has Wilcox frustrated.
Factor in Hogan's mobility and ability to break off long gains as a runner, and bringing him down is vital.
''Believe me, I want more sacks because you get (opponents) behind the chains,'' Wilcox said. ''We're hitting them. We need to get there a count sooner, and when we have chances, to get them on the ground, which we did. We need to finish them. We need to get them on the ground.''