For two straight games, the Trojans have played three solid quarters of USC football, on both sides of the ball. And yet, for those same two games, the Trojans have given their opponents life by not taking advantage of opportunities on offense to extend their leads and kill off games.
Against Arizona State, the Trojans had the ball in Sun Devil territory while up 27-18 midway through the fourth quarter. A touchdown would’ve likely ended the game, making a 16-point lead that would’ve required ASU to convert on a pair of two-point conversions without giving up a point, just to force overtime.
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USC ultimately stalled. They punted with Cody Kessler and promptly allowed a 98-yard touchdown drive to put ASU right back into the game. You know what happened next.
On Saturday night against Arizona, the Trojans had the ball with good field position at their own 40-yard line early in the fourth quarter while leading 28-13. Any sort of points would have made it a three possession game to effectively put it out of reach.
USC ran three plays, lost two yards and were forced to punt.
They would ultimately punt on all three of their drives in the fourth quarter, averaging just 3.69 yards per play due to ultra conservative play calling.
Arizona then took advantage of USC being forced to play a well-cushioned deep cover-2 defense with a pair of reserve, true freshmen cornerbacks. And like ASU a week before, the Cats created their own momentum to crawl back into the game.
Luckily for Steve Sarkisian, the Trojans hung on via a missed field goal with just seconds left.
But it should have never been that close.
Before Arizona recovered an onside kick with 1:07 left, the Trojans’ lead never really felt vulnerable, despite the Wildcats coming within a two-point conversion of equalizing.
USC controlled most of the game offensively and defensively and were making the big plays when they needed to on both sides of the ball. They forced Arizona to settle for field goals throughout the first half, and were successful in finishing their own drives in the end zone for the first three quarters.
USC had a pair of 75-yard drives on 11 and 13 plays respectively in the third quarter. The offensive line was getting substantial push throughout the night. Kessler had plenty of time in the pocket and there were big lanes for Buck Allen to run through.
There was no reason to change anything.
For the second week in a row, the Trojans should have won the game comfortably by sticking to what was working and finishing on offense.
But for the second week in a row they didn’t because Sarkisian played not to lose offensively.
The Trojans dropped into a shell. Play calling found itself getting awfully predictable and incredibly conservative.
Like ASU the week before, Arizona could afford to stack the box, as they knew that Sarkisian was not going to take his chances to run his offense and take advantage of the looks the Cats were giving him.
With a defense that was as gassed as USC’s was on Saturday night, in addition to being considerably down in numbers and playing with true freshmen due to injuries sustained in the game, the Trojans should have been focused on gaining yards, scoring points and allowing the clock to take care of itself.
The offense has proven to be disciplined in respect to turnovers this season, and was chewing up time of possession throughout the third quarter on its own.
At some point, Sark has got to put his faith in his offense and stay the course. If not, it’s going to keep costing him games, or at minimum, pairs of khakis.