USC football committed to massive change in 2019, but the stats show they haven’t come close to flipping the script on last year’s problems.
So here USC football finds themselves again.
They are 5-4 entering the final three-game stretch of the season, with bowl eligibility still hanging in the balance.
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The Trojans may not repeat the mistakes of 2018, when they fell flat on their face by losing the last three contests. But they have already failed to correct many of the same issues which put them in that hole in the first place. So who knows.
It’s clear the fixes USC put in place—from staff changes to tweaks in practice—simply haven’t been effective when looking at four key stat rankings in 2019.
The first is the easiest: Penalties
In 2018, USC ranked 122nd nationally in penalty yards per game, with 73.58 yards counted against them each outing. Clay Helton vowed to address that, highlighting it as one of his biggest responsibilities. The Trojans brought referees to practice and gave players consequences for drawing flags, including being taken out of the lineup for a play and doing up-downs.
They have improved in regards to penalties. Just not very much.
So far in 2018, USC ranks 117th in penalty yards per game, averaging 70.11.
Failing to fix the penalty problem is hardly the most egregious issue with the Trojans this year. After all, Pac-12 favorite, Oregon, ranks just slightly ahead of USC in that regard. It’s not the reason Troy has faltered.
Turnover margin has played a much larger role in wins and losses.
Again, turnovers were identified as an issue in need of addressing after the 2018 season. Back then, USC ranked 119th with a turnover margin of -0.83.
What is that figure in 2019? It’s worse. At -1.0, USC ranks 121st in turnover margin so far.
That’s a reflection of the offense being wasteful and the defense struggling to be opportunistic.
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The Trojan offense has had just one game without a turnover all season. The defense has been held without a turnover three times, with six of their 10 takeaways coming in just two games.
To isolate the offense for a moment, consider this: USC has drastically improved their offensive output from 2018 to 2019, going from 83rd in total offense with 382 yards per game to 42nd with 434 yards per game. That is a credit to new offensive coordinator Graham Harrell.
However, USC hasn’t seen a drastic change in outcomes—improving marginally from 26.1 points per game to 30.4 points per game—in large part due to their inability to finish off drives.
The Trojans finished 2018 ranking 98th in red zone offense. With three games left in the 2019 season, they rank 99th in red zone offense.
As for the defense, their struggles have resulted in a head-scratching opposite of the offense. Last year they gave up 388 yards per game. This year, they’re giving up 427 yards per game. Yet they have only conceded one more point per game—28.3 in 2019 versus 27.0 in 2018.
Those yards have been demoralizing enough though, as opponents have been able to keep USC’s offense off the field while wearing down the defense.
The Fremeau Efficiency Index tracks a stat called “First Down rate,” which reflects the percentage of drives which result in at least one first down or a touchdown. In essence, how often a defense forces a three-and-out or less.
Last year the Trojans were poor in that regard, ranking 90th by allowing opponent drives to achieve a first down 75 percent of the time.
This year, it’s worse. USC ranks 128th out of 130 schools in FBS with a First Down rate of 84.8 percent.
If USC was a bend-but-don’t-break defense, that might be forgivable, but they break far too often to get away with it.
When it comes down to it, the Trojans didn’t go far enough when they set out to address their myriad problems.
They made some staff changes, but kept too many key figures in place, most notably defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast and special teams coordinator John Baxter.
They altered practice, but they didn’t transform it.
Half-measures haven’t been enough.
Need more proof? We’ll leave you with a few more stat categories which feature the Trojans among the nation’s worst in 2019:
- 94th in turnovers gained
- 101st in passes intercepted
- 94th in total defense
- 91st in rushing defense
- 122nd in first downs defense
- 118th in line yards allowed (Football Outsiders)
- 125th opportunity rate allowed (FO)
- 111th in stuff rate (FO)
- 119th in turnovers lost
- 124th in passes had intercepted
- 99th in red zone offense
- 100th in time of possession
- 90th in rushing offense
- 97th passing yards per completion
- 92nd in passing downs line yards (FO)
- 127th in kickoff return defense
- 99th in punt returns