USC Midseason Report: Lots of Work To Do
When the Trojans started the season, they were ranked No. 1 in the preseason rankings and had a pretty good idea of who they were.
They had a Heisman-contending quarterback, two RBs that ran for over 1,000 yards last year, two receivers that caught for over 1,000 yards, and four returning starters from an O-line that tied for fewest sacks allowed in 2011.
But after six games, a loss to Stanford (AGAIN), a horde of Farm fans rushing the field (AGAIN), a press-conference cut short by a coach that doesn’t want to talk injuries, and a Heisman campaign put on life support, USC finds itself ranked 10th in the first BCS poll and with a lot of work and bit of luck required to get back in the serious conversation for a spot in the national championship game.
But a more immediate issue is the sudden struggle the team has with its identity. The offense, which was originally considered to be one of the best in the nation, has yet to produce a complete and balanced performance. The stats are stunning: an average 10 penalties and 78 penalty yards per game, the worst in the NCAA. The third-down conversion rate is 30%, the ninth worst in the nation and the worst of any team ranked in the top 25. The offense has not scored in the third quarter since the second game of the season against Syracuse. Matt Barkley ranks 30th in passing yards and 44th in passing efficiency, and if he throws one more interception, he will tie his total count for the 2011 season.
In addition, the Trojan offense has been a wild rollercoaster of unpredictability. You simply do not know what you are going to get with this team. During the season opener against Hawaii, the passing game was showcased by Coach Kiffin’s play calling. Barkley threw six TDs, and USC bagged a 49-10 victory. Yet the team was unable to establish its running game, getting less than 100 yards rushing combined from its three running backs.
Now let’s fast forward to last week’s game against Washington. In the interim, we’ve seen the offensive line become an inconsistent unit, and without its starting center, Khaled Holmes, as an anchor, it is prone to collapse, as was seen against Stanford when Barkley got smacked again and again. In response to this, the play calling has become much more conservative, possibly to prevent Barkley from getting sacked. We’ve seen Kiffin call run plays on 3rd and 17 instead of using Barkley and the receivers to get the long conversion. On one hand, the change to a run-oriented offense has allowed Silas Redd to demonstrate his skills, as he has rushed for over 100 yards in three games. On the other hand, it has grounded the Trojans’ passing attack, and Barkley needs to pass more to work out any issues he is dealing with.
Another problem this conservative style creates is that it allows opposing teams to linger longer than they should. In the fourth quarter of the Washington game, the defense was able to force a red zone fumble to prevent the Huskies from making it a one score game. The offense drained some time off the clock, but left Washington with five minutes to score. The defense came through again with an interception by Josh Shaw, and that should have been the last time the defense had to make a stop. But instead, the USC offense goes three and out, forcing the defense to make the Huskies fumble again to put it away. It’s one thing to not go for style points, it’s a completely different thing to make the defense go through extra work to put a game away.
Now let’s talk about that defense, which has pulled off some impressive things so far. Of course, the conversation begins with the unit that ironically was considered to be the weakest group the Trojans had at the start of the season: the defensive line. The departure of Nick Perry to the NFL and the preseason injury of Devon Kennard left the unit without two of its strongest players, but in came JUCO transfer Morgan Breslin, and now the D-Line is even stronger than last year. Breslin has energized the unit, landing seven sacks so far the season. In total, the entire defensive line has racked up 22 sacks, a total that ties for fifth in the nation. This pressure has made it very difficult for opposing QBs to make good passes and has taken the pressure off the secondary.
In the back seven, the Trojans have become a team that can make big plays when they need to. So far, USC has forced 16 turnovers, which ties them for 12th in the nation and places them 3rd in the PAC-12. One more turnover and the Trojans will tie their total for the entire 2011 season. T.J. McDonald and Nickell Robey have done a good job taking advantage of QB mistakes, as have linebackers Dion Bailey and Hayes Pullard, who have done a good job keeping 3rd down conversion attempts just shy of the yellow line.
Still, the defense still needs work. After starting cornerback Isiah Wiley was ruled academically ineligible, replacement Torin Harris has not done a good job holding down the fort. Kiffin tried some other guys on the depth chart, but nothing stuck, allowing their opponents to create a strategy that went along the lines of “throw where Nickell Robey isn’t.” And when the D-line can’t force a bad pass out of the QB, that strategy has worked. In addition, the Tampa 2 defense that USC uses still leaves large pockets for receivers to exploit. Just run a post just past the range of the linebackers and BAM, a first down completion. The system allows receivers to have two or three yards of open space, so opponents can just follow a system of pass, catch, immediate tackle, repeat. If USC wants to stop tougher teams, then it needs to put as much pressure on opposing receivers as it does the quarterback.
On Saturday, USC will face the easiest opponent remaining on the schedule: the Colorado Buffaloes. Kiffin announced earlier this week that he will be reopening the position battle at left tackle between current starter Aundrey Walker and backup Max Tuerk. Walker has struggled filling in the LT hole left behind by Matt Kalil, drawing in false start and holding penalties and leaving Barkley’s blind side open. Hopefully the competition will result in improved blocking, fewer penalties, and more confidence in the O-line, which will lead to more passing plays.
After Colorado, USC will travel to Arizona for its final game outside of Los Angeles. This is where the Tampa defense will really be tested, because it will be going up against the spread offense, which it is supposed to prevent. After that, it’s the big game against Oregon, where we will finally see just what the Trojans are made of.
At the moment, the preseason No. 1 ranking is now an afterthought in the national championship conversation, but if the team is 8-1 in three weeks, look out. They could find themselves back in serious contention and with a possible marquee showdown against Notre Dame at the end of the schedule. But USC can’t think that far ahead. There’s still a lot of work left to do, and if the Trojans can’t get it done by the time the Ducks enter the Coliseum, they may find their “Unfinished Business” season irreparably crushed.