USC Football Is Less Than the Sum Of Its Parts In 2016

Sep 17, 2016; Stanford, CA, USA; USC Trojans head coach Clay Helton reacts during a NCAA football game against the Stanford Cardinal at Stanford Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 17, 2016; Stanford, CA, USA; USC Trojans head coach Clay Helton reacts during a NCAA football game against the Stanford Cardinal at Stanford Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports /

USC football stumbled to a 1-2 record against Stanford on Saturday as a growing identity crisis threatens to derail the Trojans’ 2016 season.

Greek philospher Aristotle once said, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Clearly, Aristotle never watched USC football in 2016.

The frustration surging through the Trojan fanbase is a direct response to the fact that this edition of USC is decidedly lesser than the sum of its parts.

It was clear as day on Saturday in Palo Alto, as David Shaw’s Stanford Cardinal emerged with a comfortable 27-10 victory.

After the game, Shaw was far from elated, crediting his team with playing well, but not exceptional.

The Stanford head coach was right. His team was not exceptional against the Trojans. But teams don’t need to be exceptional to beat USC, because USC does that themselves.

The parts were actually quite bright at times, particularly for the much-maligned offense.

Running backs Justin Davis and Ronald Jones averaged 5.04 yards per carry, a true average not skewed by one or two long runs. The Trojan backs consistently bulled forward for around five yards each time they touched the ball.

The offensive line blocked with renewed gusto, getting push on the Cardinal in the trenches and opening up running lanes with much more regularity than the first two games of the season. They allowed just one sack.

USC receivers and tight ends offered plenty of options. Steven Mitchell gained 55 yards receiving on five catch and run plays. Tyler Petite hauled in three catches for a game-best 73 yards.

Darreus Rogers converted three first downs on four catches. Deontay Burnett did the same on three catches for 41 yards.

Max Browne flashed the talent that made him such a highly-coveted prospect coming out of high school. Stepping up in the pocket, Browne threw two perfect strikes to Petite, the first setting up a the Trojans only touchdown. He also hit JuJu Smith-Schuster in the endzone for what should have been the second touchdown, but the combination of uncalled pass interference and a dropped one-handed attempt saw the pass fall incomplete.

Unit by unit, individual to individual, USC’s offense performed at a level that should have created a sense of encouragement.

Yet, they only scored ten points.

Penalties, six false starts to be exact, and mind-boggling play-calling and personnel decisions are to blame. Coaching is to blame.

Tee Martin, USC’s play caller and offensive coordinator, put his inexperience on display.

David Shaw’s primary receiver, Michael Rector, was shut down by Adoree’ Jackson. So he found a way to get the ball in his hands away from Jackson, on a reverse which produced a 56-yard touchdown.

Martin’s No. 1 receiver, Smith-Schuster, couldn’t get into the game and no attempts were made to get him the ball in dangerous spots until it was too late.

Shaw’s top offensive weapon, Christian McCaffrey, carried the ball 30 times at an average of 5.5 yards per carry and caught four passes.

Martin’s top offensive weapons, the running backs Davis and Jones, combined for just 25 carries.

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Meanwhile, the Trojan offensive line traded missed assignments during the play for miscommunication before the snap. USC faced third-and-long five times against the Cardinal and converted just one, thanks in large part to false start penalties and other offensive line breakdowns.

After the game, Davis didn’t mince words, telling Joey Kaufman of the OC Register, “If we don’t play disciplined with this talent, this talent is going to go to waste.”

USC’s talent is going to waste, there is no question about that.

USC is not a disciplined team, there is no question about that.

USC is not a well-coached team either.

Midway through the action on Saturday night, NFL analyst Daniel Jeremiah offered a telling commentary.

“Watching college football, one thing jumps out — some teams run an offense, other teams just call plays.”

Stanford is the former. USC is the latter, a squad with talent but no identity. One that runs plays, not an offense.

It’s evident in the ups and downs of every recent Trojan season, game and drive. Sometimes the talent wins out and the plays are enough, as it was against Utah State. Too often though, the plays fail, the players make mistakes and there’s no system to keep them afloat.

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Where USC goes from here depends on changing that — on becoming a team and not just a collection of players who occasionally do things right at the same time.

As with all things, the buck stops at the top, with the head coach, whose own decision-making has limited the opportunities for his players, choosing to punt early in the fourth quarter against Stanford and contributing to a brewing quarterback controversy by using Sam Darnold outside of his designated red zone package.

“This is going to become a good football team,” Clay Helton insisted after the loss.

The Trojans are loaded with good players, and several great ones, but they are far from a good team.

They have less than a week to become one, with the season, the Pac-12 south, and perhaps Helton’s job, on the line in Utah.