The reality is USC vs. Western Michigan was full of positives and negatives for the Trojans. The choice to linger on one or the other comes down to perspective.
USC’s season opener against Western Michigan was like the age-old question posed over the proverbial glass of water. Half full? Or half empty?
Your answer to the question says more about you than it does the actual glass or the water within. Just as each response to the Trojans 49-31 victory will always come down to perspective.
The half-empty camp can focus on the 263 yards on the ground USC’s defense conceded to the Broncos, who rushed at 5.5 yards a pop.
They’ll point to the way USC’s two-man defensive line lacked push or penetration. To the lack of adjustment up front despite WMU’s success rushing the ball. To 31 points given up. To the fact that it took the Trojans more than three quarters to put a MAC team away.
Their complaints couldn’t end with the defense either.
USC’s offense, particularly in the passing game, was a shadow of last year’s attack with JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers supplying reliable options to Sam Darnold.
On Saturday, the Heisman Trophy favorite threw two interceptions, both tipped with receivers unable to make a play.
The performance of the Trojan pass catchers was far from encouraging after an offseason of questions surrounding the unit.
In fact, the performance of the Trojan pass catchers was far from encouraging after an offseason of questions surrounding the unit.
Deontay Burnett was as advertised with seven catches for 142 yards, but few others stood out. Besides Steven Mitchell’s four catches, Jalen Greene and Tyler Vaughns combined for two receptions. Both dropped passes.
The drops were a major problem, but it was more than that. Darnold struggled to connect with his receivers in the first half in part because his receivers simply weren’t making the kind of plays Smith-Schuster and Rogers were capable of last year.
And despite those clear struggles, offensive coordinator Tee Martin still dialed up 21 pass plays to 13 rush plays in the first half when Ronald Jones II was rushing for 9.4 yards per carry.
Of course, Jones II himself is a talisman for the half-full crowd, along with USC’s entire rushing attack.
The junior running back was electric against Western Michigan, finishing with 159 yards and three touchdowns. Freshman rusher Stephen Carr supplied a mouthwatering preview of his ability with two touchdowns, including a long of 52.
With a running game that potent, half-full proponents can say the passing game will have time to figure itself out while the running backs carry the load.
The glass half-full camp also has one big piece of evidence in their favor—the Trojans got the win.
They couldn’t say that last year after capitulating to Alabama. They couldn’t say that two weeks later while dropping a second September loss to Stanford. And they couldn’t say it again when leaving Salt Lake City with a third loss on the season.
Western Michigan isn’t Alabama, to be fair. If the Trojans had put in a similar performance against the Tide the W likely wouldn’t have come.
All the same, the Broncos aren’t scrubs. Written off after the loss head coach P.J. Fleck and potent passing game weapons like quarterback Zach Terrell and wide receiver Cory Davis, Western Michigan came to the Coliseum with a plan to play to their strengths.
They rode a trio of running backs, LeVante Bellamy, Jamauri Bogan and Jarvion Franklin, who would be welcome at most Power 5 programs, against a Trojan front seven replacing two key figures in Stevie Tu’ikolovatu and Michael Hutchings, and playing the first half without an All-American caliber middle linebacker in Cameron Smith.
The half-full crowd can point to the defense’s performance upon Smith’s return, limiting the Broncos to 104 yards on the ground, a number bolstered by one 48 yard run.
The Trojan defense gave up one touchdown in the second-half, on a semi-miraculous 27-yard double-pass trick play that didn’t actually trick USC, with the ball barely slipping by an in-position Porter Gustin.
A half-full perspective says WMU gave USC their best shot. And USC took it.
There’s something to be said for knowing how to win games. That’s a skill Western Michigan excelled at in 2016 as they ripped off 13 straight. It’s a skill the Trojans developed over the course of the second half of last season, winning nine in a row.
And it’s a skill that seems to have carried over the offseason with a 10th consecutive victory. In January, USC played a perfect fourth quarter of football to down Penn State. To start September, they came up with the big plays in the final period, turning a 28-28 deadlock into a 49-31 surety in closing seven minutes.
It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was a learning experience for the Trojans. It was humbling without being harmful, getting the first game jitters out of the way and shaking off the rust without adding to the loss column the way last September played out.
At least that’s what the glass half-full crowd would say.
The half-empty side can still say the harm is yet to come with Stanford looming. The red flags are there.
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After the game, head coach Clay Helton walked the line between the two camps.
“I’m happy it wasn’t easy and was a hard-fought game,” he said. “We know that there’s a lot of progress that needs to be made and very quickly. This is a team that knows how to get better week in and week out, especially our veterans.”
He added, “I’m happy with the win, but I’m also a realist in that there’s a lot of work to be done.”
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So how should the glass of water that was USC vs. Western Michigan be judged? Half-full? Half-empty?
Maybe it’s not actually that glass of water. Maybe it’s more akin to the quantum mechanics paradox of Schrodinger’s cat—the one that’s in the box with a vial of poison, both dead and alive until you open the box and visually confirm one or the other.
The Trojans’ red flags like missed tackles, dropped passes, penalties and a deficient defensive front against a MAC foe can coexist with USC’s potent rushing attack, strong finishing and positive team character against a previously 13-1 MAC Champion, for the time being at least.
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Against Stanford, the box will be opened to reveal the truth of the 2017 Trojans.