No. 18 USC extended its winning streak against Big 10 teams to 11 as the Trojans collected a 32-21 road win over the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Lane Kiffin improved to 3-0 in his tenure at USC in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score indicates. Despite the lack of a large margin of victory, the Trojans played their best all-around game in Minneapolis. Gone are the days of running opponents out of the stadium. Nevertheless, the Men of Troy are undefeated and that is nothing to sneeze at. There aren’t that many teams left that can claim that. In fact, USC hasn’t started 3-0 since 2007. Slowly, the team is starting to gel. The lurking question is whether or not they will be ready in their first major test when they travel to Stanford on October 9.
Special teams deserve to be mentioned first because of the amazing improvement this unit has made over last year. The punt game was solid and helped prevent Minnesota from starting with good field position. In addition, the blocking was spectacular, allowing Robert Woods to take one to the house and light a fire under the USC offense. The kick coverage did its job and didn’t allow any big returns to give the Gophers momentum. In 2009, it was dreadful any time the special teams unit was on. This year, there is a lot of confidence and the credit needs to go to new coordinator John Baxter, who came here from Fresno State.
Despite the successes in other phases, the kicking game is still a mystery. Joe Houston has an outstanding leg, but his accuracy is suspect. I would love to see Kiffin go for it more when USC is between the 30-35 yard lines on 4th and less than 10.
Then there is the lunacy of going for two. As many have pointed out, it is Mitch Mustain’s job to read the defense and then decide if he wants to run a two-point conversion or kick the conventional field goal. However, Mustain shouldn’t even have the option. Cut out the gimmicks and just put the ball between the uprights. Sooner or later, this fooling around is going to cost USC a win if it continues.
Credit the offensive line for bouncing back in a big way this week. After being manhandled by Virginia, the line opened up holes and allowed for a slew of impressive runs. They looked bad in the first drive, but quickly picked it up. The Trojans managed 216 yards on the ground, and many of those runs were the product of gaping holes.
Allen Bradford should start next week against Washington State. He averaged 9.9 yards (13-129) and broke a huge 56 yard touchdown run. The fumble near the end of the game won’t help his cause, but he still ran with such power and force. He fought through tackles and was able to extend plays. Other backs did well and Dillon Baxter’s load was increased. Baxter didn’t break any big runs, but he is slowly coming along. At a time when the passing game was suspect, the offensive line and tailbacks took charge and led the USC offense to the endzone single-handedly.
It is impossible not to be in love with the play of Robert Woods at the moment. The true freshman has played with such poise and knows how to run routes precisely to create separation. He always seems to break a tackle and squeeze more yards than he should out of every play. Ronald Johnson deserves praise as well for getting wide open on that 53 yard touchdown pass. He had three to four steps on the defensive back and made it easy for Barkley to throw it in there.
Speaking of Barkley, he played mediocre today. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget he is still a sophomore. He threw two interceptions to two touchdown passes while completing 64% (16-25) of his passes. There were several miscommunications between him and the receivers. The passing game was off with the exception of the bomb to Johnson. Barkley did manage some nice throws where he threaded the needle, but overall there were too many miscues. The offense needs to get on the same page heading into the gauntlet of games ahead. They can’t rely solely on the running game like they did today.
The fact that USC has surrendered a touchdown in the final minute of the game is a concern for the Trojans. When they need a stop, will they be able to get it? Aside from that, the defense improved again from week to week. The front seven created deep penetration and allowed a meager 81 yards on 37 attempts. The defense never let the Gophers establish a running game and lived up to the expectations placed on them in the preseason.
Mainly, there is concern about the secondary. On those little bubble screens and short passes, USC is solid. However, down the field is another story. Wide receivers are given too much room to make a catch and then gain extra yards. Shareece Wright is playing at a high level, but freshman Nickell Robey needs to step up his game. The safeties also did a nice job of closing on several plays as Jawanza Starling had his name called several times.
Overall, there is cause for optimism on defense. They forced two interceptions and held the Gopher attack down for the most part. Most importantly, they missed very few tackles. Each week, the number of missed tackles has steadily declined. Tougher offenses await, but for now the progress on defense is a huge positive.
USC improved drastically today in the discipline phase of the game. Seven penalties for 72 yards is still too many, but it is an improvement over the 120 average of the first two weeks. It is also important to consider the fact that some of the penalties called today were suspect (i.e. the pass interference call on Robey that looked like it was on the offense). The Trojans put themselves in long down and distance situations on a few occasions, but the penalties didn’t wipe out big gains like they did the last two weeks. Week by week, USC is making the necessary adjustments to win ball games and that is all you can ask for.