The pageantry at USC is quite a site. The cardinal and gold strewn tailgates on Trousdale and the Spirit of Troy playing make game day a thrilling experience. It was great to be back in the Coliseum tonight and see the Trojans in person. Despite the lackluster opponent, the crowd showed out in force and was loud when it needed to be. In the end, USC pulled out the 17-14 win, but it was very ugly.
There are two theories to subscribe to after a game like this.
Pessimist: USC just squeaked by a middle of the road ACC team (ignore the fact the ACC got destroyed this weekend). In the first two games, they have failed to show consistency and are headed for a disastrous finish in the back half of their schedule. The team that showed up the first and second weeks won’t stand a chance against the likes of Oregon or Stanford and even Arizona. The Trojans struggled against Washington State last year, and it was a sign of things to come. There are parallels between tonight’s performance and that game.
I tend to be a positive, so I will subscribe to the optimistic theory.
Optomist: At the moment, the Trojans are 2-0. Neither win was particularly pretty, but we have seen that USC can win in a slugfest. They can also win when their offense struggles and they rack up a ton of penalties. In addition, USC has two more games before they even play a threatening opponent. Minnesota’s defense was torched by South Dakota today in Minneapolis as the Golden Gophers were upset. After that, the Trojans travel to Pullman to face a Washington State team that needed 16 points in the 4th to beat Montana State by 1. There is still plenty of time to work out the kinks and be ready for the tough games against Stanford and Oregon.
Offense: The offensive line failed their first test against an experience defensive line. Matt Barkley was on the run all night and the running game couldn’t mount a consistent effort because the penetration by the defensive line was overwhelming. Looking forward, the lineman need to step up and provide better protection.
Under duress, Barkley moved well and had that beautiful 20-yard scramble for a 1st down. He clearly has improved his mobility and ability to extend plays with his legs. He was off target on occasion–I can think of a few underthrows and overthrows—but he had an decent day passing. He managed to avoid throwing an interception and would have had better statistics if it weren’t for a few drops.
Robert Woods played beyond his years again and had a beautiful diving catch that set up the touchdown right before the half. Overall, the wide receivers did a good job of getting open and creating space quickly. Rarely did Barkley drop back and find his receivers covered up. They even did an excellent job of stretching the field vertically and getting open deep.
Dillon Baxter finally got to play but he didn’t manage any spectacular runs. My guess is he was just adjusting to the flow of the game and will continue to get better and better.
Defense: You really couldn’t ask for more from the defense. When the offense fumbled and gave the Cavaliers a short field, the defense responded by forcing an interception. The Cavaliers moved the ball a little bit, but the defense improved mightily over last week. The coverage was tighter and the holes weren’t as porous. Virginia ended up with 14 points, but the final drive was filled with soft coverage that was designed to prevent a quick score. The defensive line managed only one sack, but there was a lot more pressure and aggressive pursuit of the quarterback than last week. Sure, the defense bended, but it never really broke and that’s they key. Credit Monte Kiffin and Ed Orgeron for working out some of the kinks.
Special Teams: The punting is exceptional and so is the coverage. Baxter has done an excellent job at upgrading this unit and allowing USC to control field position and not put the defense in a short field when their offense can’t move the ball. In the kicking game, Houston is an upgrade from last year. He missed the 49-yarder, but he had the leg for it. In a close game, it is nice to know that USC has a kicker on the roster that can kick it far. Last year, anything over 35 seemed too long.
Third down conversions were horrible. At one point, the Trojans were 5 for 15 in that department. They need to work on sustaining drives and coming through in the clutch.
Discipline wise, USC needs to get their act together. They committed over 100 yards of penalties and many of them were ridiculous. The Trojans held too much and that killed the momentum on a lot of their drives.
At the end of the day, USC is 2-0. It hasn’t been pretty, but let’s be thankful we aren’t the team across town that just got annihilated 35-0 at home and is headed for an 0-4 start. The days of USC dominance are on hold for now, but the winning tradition can still continue. Hopefully USC can work on the mistakes this week in practice and show up focused in Minnesota.