Swing pass to the left. Dropped.
Run up the middle. Stuffed.
Eight yard run on third and long. Short.
It was a painfully familiar story for fans of the USC Trojans at the start of the third quarter against the Washington Huskies.
They came out of first half with a commanding 17-point lead and a chance to put the final nail in the coffin. Instead, the Trojans continued a disturbing trend – they failed to score points of any kind in the third quarter and what could have been a blow out turned into a tight defensive struggle.
This season USC has scored 194 points. Of those, just 14 have come in the third quarter. Marqise Lee returned the second half kick off against Hawaii and Matt Barkley threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to Robert Woods against Syracuse.
In the four games since, the third quarter production has been nothing short of underwhelming. Trojan third quarter drives have resulted in eight punts, three missed field goals, a fumble, one turnover on downs and zero points.
So what is the problem?
“I think it’s just the little things that you saw last week, with the penalties and undisciplined [play],” Barkley explained after the Washington game. “If we play undisciplined like that, we’re not going to have a blowout game, it’s going to be close. Those are things that we need to fix in terms of stalling drives.”
Barkley’s third quarter play certainly hasn’t helped. In that quarter this season, his completion percentage sits at 59% compared to 63% overall. He has thrown one touchdown pass in the third. To put that in perspective, he averages 2.5 touchdowns in each of the other three quarters.
But it is not just Barkley that seems to regress in the third.
Four of USC’s eight offensive penalties against Washington came in the third quarter. Three of those were pre-snap.
The otherwise effective Trojan run game seems to suffer from the same halftime hangover.
USC running backs average 5.10 yards per rush on the year, but in the third quarter that number plummets to 3.89 despite a near equal number of attempts.
The Trojan offense has a mental block when it comes to the third quarter and that is reflected in their play, but where does that mental block come from?
It actually starts in the first half.
After two quarters USC has never trailed this season. Even against Stanford, when the Cardinal defense hammered Barkley and the offensive line, USC entered the half up by seven. Unfortunately, in that game the defense was unable to hold and the Trojans suffered their first and only loss.
Kiffin’s strategy since that game has become very clear: “I continue to remind myself of the one goal, and that’s to win the game. Are the numbers what we’re used to? No, but we won.”
Yes, the Trojans won, but playing not to lose has its own risks – risks that USC has been flirting with all season.
Matt Barkley and the Trojan offense have looked at their best when they are allowed to be aggressive. Entering the second half with a passive mentality has led to passive play. Lack of focus has led to mental mistakes because the Trojan offense is not being asked to fire on all cylinders, Kiffin seems content to limp through so long as he gets a win.
The good thing is, he can point back and say that he got those wins. They may have been ugly, but they were hard fought road wins nonetheless. And he gets credit for that.
However, there is no quicker way to invite an upset than to let a home team stay within striking distance. Every game hinges on a few key moments and too often this season USC has had to rely on those moments turning their way.
Against Utah, the Trojans were bailed out by an ineligible man down field penalty that wiped out a 44-yard touchdown pass. That would have put the Utes up 28-24 going into the half and could have changed the complexion of the game completely.
Late in the third quarter at CenturyLink, Washington was down to the USC goal line and looked like they would score. Instead the Trojan D managed to force a fumble and kept the Huskies from closing within a field goal. Had Washington scored, with the momentum on their side and a rowdy home crowd in the loudest stadium in the country, it could have turned nightmarish for the Trojans.
Throughout the game on third and long, Kiffin opted to concede the drive and put his defense back on the field.
“There were a few really long situations on third down and the last thing I wanted to do in this environment was to sit there drop back and let these guys rush us so the quarterback could get hit,” Kiffin said.
That ultra-conservative mentality makes sense on third and 15 or third and 20. But on third and eight or third and ten there are other alternatives. Using extra protection, employing a roll out, getting the ball out of the QB’s hand quickly could have kept Barkley’s jersey clean while giving the offense an actual chance to stay on the field. Credit to the running backs for getting as close as they did on several of these occasions, but running up the middle is not the way to get long first downs.
Of the greatest concern is what this mentality tells the players. Kiffin has essentially informed his offense that he doesn’t trust the line to block when it is most important, he doesn’t have faith that Matt Barkley can stand in and take the heat, he doesn’t believe that receivers Marqise Lee and Robert Woods can step up and make a play.
Just as four of the first six games were on the road, four of the next six are at home so Kiffin’s conservative approach may give way to a more aggressive mentality with home field advantage on his side. However, with only two games before the big match up with Oregon, one of which is on the road, there isn’t a lot of time to build the confidence of the offense, especially if the goal is to see them hit their stride against the Ducks.
Increased offensive production, especially in the crucial third quarter is the key to fighting back into the BCS picture.