USC Football: Loss to Washington Falls on Offensive Decisions


Steve Sarkisian coached one of the most shocking losses in recent USC football history on Thursday night. The Trojans lost to his former team, Washington, despite being 17-point favorites.

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Behind several miscues, including baffling coaching decisions and a general lack of urgency and execution in all phases of the game, the Huskies escaped the Coliseum with a 17-12 win.

What exactly led to the loss? For starters, they abandoned highly successful running game.

On a night in which the Trojans’ offensive line had trouble in pass protection and Heisman Trophy candidate Cody Kessler had an uncharacteristically bad game, USC’s running game was able to get it done and make up for some inefficiency.

With backs Tre Madden and Ronald Jones II leading the way, they totaled 190 yards while averaging a smidgen under five yards per carry. But it should have been much more than that.

The passing game was stuck in neutral and the Trojans were continuously behind the chains as a result. It also didn’t help that Kessler was without two starting receivers  –Steven Mitchell and Darreus Rodgers– along with preseason All-American center Max Tuerk.

“I think Cody was a little off,” Sarkisian said. “But I’d say our team was a little off. That’s what I have to dissect and figure out. He was a little off, maybe it was the first interception on the first screen pass, but that’s football.”

Yet despite being cognizant of Kessler’s struggles, the game plan insisted on forcing the pass, especially late in the game when Washington’s defense was dropping into a deep Cover-2 that left running lanes to be had.

In the fourth quarter alone, USC averaged 8.9 yards per rush. They could have run on every single down if they needed to. The Huskies couldn’t stop it, while the Trojans rotated backs to keep everyone fresh.

Oct 8, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian reacts in the second quarter against the Washington Huskies at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

But with an even 50-50 rush to pass ratio, Kessler was 3 of 7 passing for 33 yards and a sack in the final 15 minutes. That includes a pair of passing plays during the game’s most critical set of downs, on what would be the Trojans’ final offensive opportunity.

USC was down five points when they started their final drive at their own 24-yard line with 6:59 left in the game. They mostly likely needed a touchdown and a defensive stop to win the game.

From the start, the drive had promise after the Huskies committed their second roughing the passer penalty of the quarter. Coupled with a 10-yard pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster, it gave the Trojans 25 yards on their first play.

Five plays –four of which being runs– and 26 yards later, Sarkisian’s offense found themselves with a 3rd down & 6 at Washington’s 25-yard line.

Needing six points to take the lead, and more than four minutes on the clock, the Trojans effectively had two plays to pick up six yards and an entire playbook to use.

That should have seen Sarkisian and Helton dial up a run on third down, as it was the definition of four-down territory.

Whether or not USC didn’t convert on fourth down or made a field goal, they would still need to force Washington’s offense to go three-and-out to get one more chance on offense, as they could only stop the clock once.

To put it simply, the potential reward of converting and being that much closer to taking the lead far outweighed the unnecessary risk of reducing UW’s lead while simultaneously giving the defense an ultimatum in the name of potentially saving a few yards.

But instead of having a two-down mindset that would have allowed them to run, they went back to the air on third down. Kessler was sacked for the fifth and final time.

“I felt good about the call and hindsight’s 20-20,” Sarkisian said. “We’d probably run it now that we got sacked on it. After every game we look at ourselves first as coaches and why we did what we did and then we get into fundamentals and techniques. You can second-guess lots of things about tonight, but we made the call and it didn’t work out the way we wanted it to.”

Even after the sack, the Trojans still had a chance to make things right, as it set up a 4th & 10. But Sarkisian opted to kick a field goal and put maximum faith in his defense.

Kicker Alex Wood then doinked a 46-yard field goal off the crossbar.

“If we kick it, we make it, we’re down two and we [need to] get a stop,” Sarkisian said after the game. “The defense was playing well. It was a natural decision, especially after the sack.”

You can second-guess lots of things about tonight, but we made the call and it didn’t work out the way we wanted it to.-Sarkisian

That’s an interesting rationale –despite its minuscule merits– as it directly conflicted USC’s late game tactics against Stanford three weeks prior.

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Then, while down 10 points with under a minute to go, Sarkisian insisted on going full steam ahead in hopes of scoring a touchdown rather settle for a field goal.

It bled time off the clock, as the Trojans attempted meaningless third and fourth down plays when they were still relying on an onside kick that should have made the order of their two scores irrelevant.

Thursday night’s situation was the inverse, as a touchdown would’ve negated any need for an onside kick or defensive stop. Yet Sarkisian was in take-the-points mode as he should have been against Stanford.

He didn’t get those points and on the ensuing drive, Washington converted on third down with a six-yard pass to Jaydon Mickens. The Trojans were left with nothing to do but stand and watch time run out.

Sarkisian’s right. Hindsight is 20-20. But it didn’t much foresight to see that the Trojans were driven into the ground in the final minutes.

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