USC still facing questions about its physicality

LOS ANGELES -- Most agreed that the first couple of games on the 2015 USC football schedule would be nothing more than NFL-type exhibitions, and the identity of the Trojans team would be become clearer after they open Pac-12 competition by hosting Stanford on Sept. 19 and then are tested the following week at Arizona State.

So with all due respect to last Saturday's cupcake, Arkansas State, and this Saturday night's heavy underdog, the Idaho Vandals (0-1), what really can be learned about the No. 8 Trojans (1-0) playing two vastly inferior opponents from the pedestrian Sun Belt Conference?

Well, for starters the Trojans validated against Arkansas State that they are -- at the least -- a very talented team on both sides of the ball that seems to have tightened up some of last season's shortcomings.

However, the jury is still out whether the Trojans are an intimidating physical force that wears down and imposes its will on opponents.

Let's ask this question: Did you see a nasty disposition on both sides of the ball against Arkansas State? If not, do you expect to see a more pronounced "big bully" mindset against Idaho?

Let's face it, in the tough Pac-12 South, you'd better be ready to punch it out and prove your macho both at home and on the road.

During the tail end of training camp, Trojans head coach Steve Sarkisian blew a fuse before a scrimmage when he referenced to his team a story by a Los Angeles Times reporter proclaiming that after seeing practices of both the Trojans and UCLA, the Men of Troy were clearly lacking the physicality and aggressiveness of their Westwood neighbors.

After watching the Trojans and the Bruins compete against inferior opponents in their season openers last weekend, the view by many in the Coliseum press box was that the blue and gold looked clearly the more physical and aggressive team than the cardinal and gold.

Now suggesting UCLA is currently the more physical college football team in town is blasphemy to USC fans, as the psyche of a football player starts with the foundational core of being physically and mentally tough.

To his credit, Sarkisian has stressed over and over in spring ball, the offseason, and again during training camp the importance for his team to be hostile and intimidating. The coach fully understands that for the Trojans to return completely to championship form, they'd better be prepared to be the baddest dude on the Pac-12 block.

"We need to improve our physicality and develop a bully mentality," Sarkisian said before training camp.

Make no mistake about it, in last Saturday's 55-6 trouncing of Arkansas State, the Trojans played hard and appeared aggressive at times. However, they did not look consistently forceful or overly nasty on defense, and the offensive line certainly didn't look physically dominating, as Cody Kessler was sacked five times in the first half. In defense of the offensive line, two of the sacks were attributed to Kessler's indecision and the other to a running back.

When asked what was the difference in the second half when his O-line vastly improved its pass protection for their Heisman Trophy candidate, Kessler said the offensive line played basically with more attitude.

So, perhaps the idea of being a physically imposing team has as much to do about attitude as just plain physical ability. If it is, the Trojans have this Saturday night against Idaho to establish a greater swagger before engaging Stanford in little over a week.

The good news regarding the Trojans physicality is that if you use Arkansas State as hors d'oeuvres, some of the USC tradition of aggressiveness, domination, and intimidation appears to be slowly returning just by the very nature of Sark's past two nationally-applauded recruiting classes.

Newcomers like true freshmen linebackers Cameron Smith, Osa Masina and Porter Gustin would fit right into the Pete Carroll USC linebacking tradition of Rey Maualuga, Brian Cushing, and Clay Matthews. Defensive back Iman "Biggie" Marshall also looks like a Carroll-type recruit -- big, fast, physical, and tough.

When the Trojans have had their most physical teams, they reflected the attitude of their head coach; yet there was also a "voice" leading the physical assault like legendary defensive line coaches Marv Goux and Ed Orgeron, respectively.

So until the Trojans host UCLA on Nov. 28 for perhaps the Pac-12 South title, there will be a continuous week-to-week debate to which university, USC or UCLA, is the true big bully in the City of Angels.