Scoring three points isn’t going to cut it. Yes, there were glimpses of success. Yes, Stanford’s defense isn’t a push over. But three points? Never will that be OK. Especially when the Trojans let successful-looking drives go waste with a fumble on fourth down, a Michael Pittman illegal motion penalty that put them behind the sticks, and JT Daniels’ first-career interception on a desperation drive late in the game. USC needed more than three points on those three drives, and that’s not even mentioning the eight other drives that resulted in zilch.
USC’s pass protection:
The Trojans seemingly couldn’t pick up a Stanford blitz on Saturday night. The Cardinal were twisting, stunting and delayed-blitzing their way into the backfield and USC kept whiffing on their men, losing their assignments or doubling rushers that freed up gaps for Stanford’s defenders to streak through. The result? Mayhem. Officially, the count was four sacks and four hurries, but that doesn’t account for all of it. Daniels had to evade the pocket multiple times a la Sam Darnold, and was dead to rights on the game-changing fourth down play late in the first half. Unless the line can start protecting against blitz packages with more regularity, USC (and Daniels) could be in for a long season.
Because of a rash of injuries, USC is only playing with two tight ends: Tyler Petite and Erik Krommenhoek. They combined for one catch last week and one this week. All four targets went to Petite, the senior. While it’s unfair to say he should’ve hauled in all four passes —one of which featured tight coverage from Stanford defensive back Frank Buncom— he was in position to pick up multiple first downs that could’ve nudged drives along for an offense struggling to string together first downs. Daniels has got to have a safety valve at tight end and needs to get the connection to Petite going, whether it be through tighter passes or more successful pass catching.
There hasn’t been a quarterback hyped as quickly and as loudly as JT Daniels in a while. But it’s important to remember he’s an 18-year-old true freshman. He looked it in his first career road start, completing just 16 of 34 passes with two interceptions, for a gaudy 88.4 passer rating. While he was tasked with out-of-his-control factors like Stanford’s excellent pass coverage —they totaled a whopping 11 breakups— and a ruthless pass rush, Daniels still struggled at times to deliver. He didn’t have time to go through his progressions and routinely threw behind receivers. That’s what freshmen quarterbacks do, especially when rattled without reliable pass protection. But it’s something he’ll need to work on, making Saturday night a potentially valuable learning opportunity going forward.
Or lack thereof. Look, USC’s offensive line wasn’t getting the job done when it came to deciphering the blitz. By no means did the Trojans lose because of play calling. They also didn’t win because of it either. Tee Martin and company weren’t criminally poor in their managing of the offense, but could’ve done more to try to negate the impact of the pass rush. USC is one of the most effective screen passing teams in the country, in part because of the emphasis the coaching staff puts on receivers to block. Yet they seemingly rarely go through with it. They should’ve let that strength be a safety blanket more than it was, along with moving the launch point to try and buy Daniels time to get ball out. Instead, every three and five-step drop was a roller coaster ride.