USC went into the Meadowlands and beat Syracuse on Saturday, in a game muddled with weird storylines, given a 71-minute weather delay, a brief Syracuse comeback, questionable play calling and an expanding list of casualties for the Trojans.
The Trojans came out of the gate flat in the first quarter as conservative play calling ultimately forced SC to roll the dice on fourth down three teams early in the game. Lane Kiffin decided that the Trojans would practice the art of the screen pass on Saturday, as the USC passing game consisted of a barrage of screens to Marqise Lee and Robert Woods for minimal gains.
While screens are excellent play choices for setting up the run and the deep ball by drawing the safeties up to the line of scrimmage, Kiffin opted to forgo creativity in the passing game, throwing over the middle of the field just a couple of times and squandering the end-goal of a screen-loaded playbook.
Two end-around reverses to Lee and Woods were big gainers for the Trojans, picking up 99 yards on two attempts, but those were just two of the three or four creative plays that USC attempted all game long.
Just once did the Trojans throw the ball deep down the middle of the field, with that lone toss resulting in a Shamarko Thomas interception for Syracuse. The route didn’t appear to be run poorly by Robert Woods, it was just bad throw from Barkley, as he under-threw his man by two or three yards. Yet, despite the play working but not executed properly, Kiffin never tested the Syracuse defense down the middle again.
Instead, Kiffin drew up a gameplan to further pound the ball on the ground and employ even more screens to Lee and Woods. The plan wasn’t a total loss, as Barkley was able to open up the Syracuse defense for five touchdown passes inside the red zone, and one from 29-yards out for Barkley’s longest completion on the day.
The running game showed glimpses of cohesion, but in the end, the offensive line was outworked by Syracuse, and the Trojans posted 258 yards on the ground, though that number is wildly deceiving. If you take out the two gadget plays, the reverses to Lee and Woods, the Trojans had just 159 yards on 31 carries, good for 5.1 yards per rush.
A lack of push on the offensive line generated long runs when the Trojans were able to get out of the tackle box and into space, but it handcuffed the Trojans all night. Ten times(or 38 percent of the time), Silas Redd or Curtis McNeal rushed for a two-yard gain or less, which was a problem first seen against Hawaii in the opener.
Inconsistencies on the offensive line and in the running game enabled Syracuse to hang around longer than they probably should, giving life to Ryan Nassib, which the senior took advantage of in third quarter. Two quick strikes by Syracuse cut USC’s lead to just five, and for the first time in the young season, the Trojans appeared to be in a dog fight.
Either way, the Trojans shouldn’t have let Syracuse keep up as long as they did. The USC secondary was tested in the second half and the corners were repeatedly beat, making life easier for Nassib and his receivers. Torin Harris appeared to be plenty rusty after just getting back into a ryhthm at practice, while Kevon Seymour played with heavy hands and Anthony Brown was too aggressive. The Trojans miss Isiah Wiley at corner, and unless they can somehow to piece together a way to find a serviceable center play Josh Shaw there, the Trojans will be prone to defensive lapses.
It’s moments like those when you find out what a team is made of, and in general, the Trojans answered the bell outside of the weakness at corner. Linebackers Hayes Pullard and Dion Bailey stepped up for the Trojans on the defense, and on offense, both Silas Redd and Xavier Grimble shook off defenders to get extra yardage, which in Grimble’s case, was enough for a 22-yard touchdown reception.
USC’s offense scored enough to not worry about it, but the absence of kicker Andre Heidari could be problematic in the future for the Trojans, and All-American candidate Khaled Holmes needing to be carted off of the field is also something to be concerned about.
The Trojans have a big game coming up on Saturday against Stanford, and judging by the two team’s similar skill sets, the video against the Orange could be pretty popular for those at Stanford. But if Kiffin is going to sleep easier at night, he’ll have to hope that injuries to Heidari and Holmes don’t require surgery, and that the Trojans can bounce back and play up to Stanford like they did a year ago.