Turnovers have USC Football on path to reliving 2012 nightmare

Harry How/Getty Images
Harry How/Getty Images /

What is wrong with USC Football’s 2017 offense? The underachieving Trojans need to stop turning the ball over or risk following in 2012’s footsteps.

The Trojan offense is loaded with talent. An Archie Griffin Award winner at quarterback, a Biletnikoff Award candidate at wide receiver, a Doak Walker Award candidate at running back and former five- and four-star talents litter USC’s roster.

Yet the Trojans have woefully underachieved in 2017, scoring more than 30 points just three times in eight games. They scored just seven in the first half against Utah. They were shutout in the first half against Notre Dame.

What is going wrong with USC’s offense? Coaches insist isn’t not as big of a mess at it seems.

“I think it came down to just three or four plays to be quite honest with you,” quarterbacks coach Tyson Helton said after the loss to Notre Dame. “It was pretty obviously turnovers.”

That is a recurring theme.

Looking back at USC’s performance against Notre Dame, both Helton and offensive coordinator Tee Martin saw the ball move well. Quarterback Sam Darnold put in an efficient outing, hitting 20-of-28 passes for 229 yards and two touchdowns in three quarters of action.

The Trojan offense has indeed moved the ball well this season, in general. Advanced statistics back that up.

USC ranks 12th nationally in Success Rate, a measure of how successful a team is on a play-by-play basis, relative to the down and distance. On 46.7 percent of plays, the Trojans gain “successful” yardage. That may not seem like a lot, but the nation’s top Success Rate team, Oklahoma, succeeds on just 54.9 percent of plays and only a handful of teams are sitting above the 50 percent mark.

The major difference between USC and the likes of Oklahoma, Ohio State, Penn State, Notre Dame, Clemson and Miami, just a few of the other teams who rank in the Top 15 of Success Rate this season, is just how careless with the football the Trojans have been.

By now, most Trojan fans should have seen the gory numbers, but they’re worth repeating.

USC ranks 127th nationally with 19 turnovers lost this year. Only San Jose State has given the ball away more.

USC ranks 127th nationally with 19 turnovers lost this year. Only San Jose State has given the ball away more.

Sam Darnold specifically has accounted for 15 turnovers, leading all players in college football. He has lost possession more on his own than 107 teams as a whole.

The Trojan quarterback certainly has not lived up to the Heisman hype around him, some of which links back to his overall play. For instance, he has not been at his most accurate as a sophomore, with his completion percentage dropping from 67.2 percent to 63.5. Even that’s not a bad mark. It’s the turnovers which have held him back.

“In my personal opinion, there’s really not a change from last year and this year as far as his style of play, his consistency, the plays that he’s making,” Helton said. “He’s just been a little more less-fortunate this year with some of the interceptions that he’s had.”

The trouble for Darnold and USC’s offensive coaches has been identifying a way to turn that turnover luck around.

“It’s something we talk about each and every day. It’s a focal point for us,” Martin said. “It’s a little bit surprising because that was something that wasn’t a part of our character last year and years before. It’s something that we’ve got to stop doing. It hurts us. It hurts our team and we’ve just got to do a better job of not turning the ball over.”

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To be fair, after throwing six interceptions in the first three games, Darnold has reeled back his throwing mistakes with four interceptions in the last five. That’s not a great rate, but for a gunslinger like Darnold, it’s certainly something USC could live with.

What the Trojans can’t live with is the way those turnovers haven’t just gone away, the numbers have simply transferred to the fumble category.

In the past three weeks, Darnold has committed five fumbles and each of those was rooted in a different mistake.

Against Oregon State, the ball literally slipped out of his fingers as he went back to throw a routine pass.

Against Utah, Darnold botched a zone-read exchange then didn’t hold the ball securely on another run. Later, the quarterback was credited with a fumble when his backpass to Ronald Jones II fell incomplete and the Ute defenders jumped on the ball before the running back.

Against Notre Dame, a high snap led to chaos in the backfield, a scrum around the quarterback and an Irish defender running out of the pile with the ball.

Putting an end to those problems have proven difficult. Two special teams turnovers haven’t helped matters.

“I feel like we do a really good job in practice of trying to protect the ball,” Helton said, pointing to turnover circuits and ball security drills the quarterbacks are put through regularly.

“We’ve got to hope those things work themselves out.”

That’s an understatement as 6-2 USC creeps closer and closer to that dreaded 2012 comparison.

The similarities are plain to see. The Trojans have been here before, with a highly-ranked USC team led by a preseason Heisman favorite struggling to live up to the hype and flaming out in embarrassing fashion.

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The 2012 team is a cautionary tale for the 2017 squad in more ways than one, but turnovers deserve some particularly relevant highlighting.

USC ranked 20th in S&P+ offense in 2012. They averaged 6.60 yards per play, that was good for 10th nationally. They were also 10th in Play Efficiency, the precursor to Success Rate. But averaging 32.1 points per game was not good enough production for a team with so much talent on offense.

The 2017 squad ranks 27th in S&P+ offense. They average 6.27 yards per play, ranking 12th in Success Rate. And again, averaging 31.9 points per game looks like severe underachievement for the talent on the field.

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Offensive production like that should not result in a 7-6 record. But that’s how 2012 ended, largely because of turnovers.

The 2012 Trojans committed an astounding 34 turnovers. With 19 already on the board and four regular season games left on the slate, the 2017 USC squad is nearly on pace to match that total.

After a familiar 6-2 start to the season, the 2012 team went on to lose four of the next five games. They committed 16 turnovers in that span, dropping contests to Oregon, UCLA and Notre Dame by no more than 11 points each. Protect the ball and those outcomes may have been different.

Protect the ball against Washington State this year, and USC might have escaped the Palouse with a win instead of a three-point loss. Protect the ball against Notre Dame and perhaps the Irish still overpower the Trojans on their way to victory, but it certainly doesn’t happen with the rival jumping out to a 28-0 lead on the back of three first half turnovers.

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Protect the ball against Arizona State and perhaps USC will remain in the drivers seat in the race for the Pac-12 South crown.