Steve Sarkisian has made it clear that USC football’s modus operandi is process, process, process. If the Trojans play ‘Trojan football’, they will take care of business and win games.
“I don’t want to shift the focus away from us,” Sarkisian said of the Stanford game during his Sunday conference call last week. “This is really about us preparing ourselves to play, and not changing the way that we prepare based on who the opponent is.”
That’s a philosophy that definitely can work. Case in point, it’s won Nick Saban an awful lot of games throughout his coaching career.
But the problem comes in not only committing to that process, but having flexibility within the process to react on the fly when things don’t work out as you intend, leading to a comfort of self-assessing the plan.
Without those adjustments, sticking to the process is just pre-meditated tunnel vision.
That happened to the Trojans on Saturday night at the Coliseum. The sixth-ranked team in the country couldn’t stop a Stanford offense that was so listless in the first two weeks that practically no one in the media thought they could score more than 17 points.
Sep 12, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian on the sideline against the Idaho Vandals at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
They put up 41, while dominating time of possession to keep USC’s high-flying offense off the field.
All of that preparation and commitment to the process that the Trojans stressed during the week was for naught. All of that focus on executing out the game plan proved null and void.
“Honestly, I think our preparation wasn’t where we wanted it to be tonight,” JuJu Smith-Schuster said. “We did preach about stopping Stanford on third down, and they executed.”
The Cardinal executed. USC didn’t. That was the recurring theme among the Trojans after the game, and yet there wasn’t much talk about what they could have done to swing the pattern of execution in their favor.
“We had them in situations [we wanted], but we didn’t execute and we couldn’t get off the field,” Su’a Cravens said. “They kept converting third downs.”
Stanford was 8 of 12 on third downs, which allowed them to piece together eight drives of seven or more plays. They had just one three-and-out, and that was to start the third quarter when USC finally looked like they changed things up.
After spending much of the first half trying to react defensively and contain Stanford, the Trojans came out of the tunnel aggressively. They appeared to have adjusted to the game plan.
The halftime lead that the Cardinal had built up was gone after USC’s offense fed off blitzes and sacks re-took the lead with a Steven Mitchell touchdown catch.
But it was a mirage. Stanford came back with three-straight scoring drives of 10 or more plays to close out the game with a 41-31 win.
Tunnel-vision re-engaged. Game plan reinforced. First loss of the season inevitable.
“They kept getting to third-and-1 or -2 and then their momentum builds,” Sarkisian said. “I thought we came out with good energy, got a stop and went down and scored. But we have to look at the tape and see what needs to be done.”
And so the cycle begins for the Trojans’ way. Win during the week and things will take care of themselves on Saturday.
Fix problems at the McKay Center, stick to the process at Howard Jones Field and reap the rewards at the Coliseum.
Again, it can work. It has worked before. But the process has to include flexibility. Waiting to address issues in the film room and not from the coaches box isn’t helping anyone.
That’s what teams do when they over-buy into their perceived prowess.
“If we can get any positive from this game, it’s that we can’t worry about the hype,” Justin Davis said.
Needless to say, after losing to Stanford while favored by double digits, there won’t be much hype going forward.
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