USC vs. Notre Dame: Another Coach, Another Emerald

Notre Dame vs. USC
October 17, 2015 at 4:30pm
Notre Dame Stadium: 80,795 (of 80,795)
Total Time: 3 hours 23 minutes

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An empty trophy case. Another emerald for the Shillelagh.

The greatest intersectional rivalry in college football was a competitive and exciting match-up…for three quarters. At least the Trojans didn’t lay down and die after the Irish took the 24-10 lead. That’s already improvement in and of itself. Kind of like opening a Pringles can and seeing it’s not half empty. Don’t you dare make a joke about how it’s half full.

Through some deception and amazing feats by Adoree’ Jackson, USC pulled themselves back into a tie. The forced fumble by Jackson saved the defense from giving up another score down at the goal line. Next, Helton reused a well-designed trick play of Cody Kessler throwing a lateral to Jalen Greene, who then threw finally to Juju Smith in the endzone. That play gave USC some momentum and life after a first quarter lull. On the next Trojan possession, Jackson struck again on a screen pass, taking it 83 yards for the touchdown.

They even had a chance to take the lead before the end of the half. However, Alex Wood’s 36-yard field goal veered left and bounced off the upright, leaving the halftime score at 24-24. Maybe I jinxed it in my last post by saying that the special teams would be next to fail. Along with the missed field goal, the Trojans allowed the Irish to block a punt and return it for a touchdown. The twist of the knife was that it was scooped up by former Trojan running back, Amir Carlisle. The first line of the punt team left seven Notre Dame special teamers unblocked, allowing them to reach the 3-man wall unimpeded. It’s not something that happens for Notre Dame reguarly. According to the NBC broadcast, it was the first punt block by Notre Dame in five years. Those two special teams mistakes alone accounted for 10 points. The Trojans only lost by 10 points, by the way.

As bad as those two plays were, special teams cannot be singled out. The offense and defense both had their share of struggles. Both of them probably did worse in the second half than the first. Beyond the first touchdown on the first drive of the half, USC’s offense could not score in the second half. Perhaps electing to receive the first half every game shows a lack of commitment to adjustments.

With or without adjustments, the Trojans were getting in their own way with 10 penalties for 105 yards. Five of those penalties came from the offensive. There would’ve been a sixth on Chad Wheeler for holding, but it was declined in favor of a fourth down stop. Three of them were false starts (Talamaivao, Wheeler, Banner), one was holding (Banner), and the last was a personal foul (Lobendahn) for hands to the face. The offensive line continues to a penalty factory.

Two offensive linemen alone account for 5 penalties each. It may not sound like much, but with 45 penalties on the season, each accounts for 11.11% of the team’s penalties. In total, the offensive line has been flagged 17 times for 160 yards. That is 37.8% of the team’s penalties and 36.6% of the team’s penalty yardage. That isn’t even counting the negated potential yards of the plays nor is it counting the penalties that were declined. Combining these issues with not giving Kessler enough time on most plays, the Trojans stall out of so many drives.

No USC drive this season lasting 10 or more plays ended in a touchdown. USC’s average touchdown drive lasts for 1:56 in 5.45 plays for 66.76 yards.Yet, they cannot score a touchdown in a 2-minute drill. When trying to score a touchdown in the final minutes against Stanford, Washington, and Notre Dame, USC looked sloppy and were unable to come away with anything. Each of those drives were chock full of penalties, sacks, and no completions. In those 31 plays, USC only managed to get five plays over 10 yards and one play over 20 yards. This Trojan offense lives and dies by the explosive play—and in those three final drives, they certainly died without an athletic play to bail them out.

If you can’t depend on the offense to score consistently, then you need to depend on the defense to make stops more consistently. That’s not happening either. Notre Dame’s starting quarterback and running back have been out for the season, but nobody said anything, it might’ve been hard to notice. After Malik Zaire (QB, fractured ankle) and Tarean Folston (RB, torn ACL) went down with injuries, DeShone Kizer and C.J. Prosise picked up right where they left off. Kizer threw for 227 yards and 2 touchdowns and ran for another 47 yards. Prosise carried the ball for 143 yards and his very own pair of touchdowns.

The defense had some occasional stops on the Notre Dame defense, but ultimately, they still allowed the Irish to score 34 points (not counting the punt block return). It was sad to see that two corners had to resort to pass interference to stop potential touchdown receptions. For some plays the defensive backs got beat and other times it was perfectly placed passes that were near indefensible. The Trojans also had trouble stopping the runin the second half of the game. In the end, it comes back down to the defensive line not being able to penerate the offensive line. The sacks that the Trojans did pick up were coverage sacks. Lots of missed tackles also allowed Irish players to slip out for huge chunks of yardage. Fans want to blame scheme, front 7 talent, player development, or game preparation. At this point, it’s hard to tell which is the biggest issue, as it’s likely some combination of all of these.

Regardless of whether or not the Trojans can fix everything up for the rest of the season, they are stuck at a 3-3 record for the first six games of the season. The last Trojan team to have three losses through six games was in 2001, Pete Carroll’s first season. They were 2-4 before finishing the season on a 4-2 run.

CommBro Breaker

I could go on forever about the negatives I see about this team, but I’ll let other people say it for me. I don’t want to make it seem like I’m unreasonably negative or anything like that. Take these positives and maybe have a drink…just as long as it’s not too much:

Two plays Ronald Jones’ big 65-yard run, the Trojans did something unfamiliar (at least for the past 2 years). My mind was blown—in a good way. The play started out with a huddle. Then Kessler lined up under center with a fullback behind him in (22 personnel) and finished with a play action pass to tight end, Taylor McNamara. It really made me miss all those aspects in our offense.

In addition, the downfield blocking continues to be a bright spot on this offense. The offensive line and especially the receivers get to the second level and more. One standout among standouts is Deontay Burnett. He followed the play and managed to level someone on Jones’ 65-yard run. If you go back to the video above, he’s #80 at about the 2:09 mark. Burnett contributed in the passing game as well, with catches of 19, 28, and 6 yards. His performance in this game better have earned him more playing time!

Misleading Stat of the Week: 

USC has scored exactly 31 points and allowed exactly 41 points against teams that are currently ranked in week 8 of the AP and Coaches polls.
Context: USC only played two teams that are still ranked. Not much of a sample size.

USC is rank #3 in the nation in fumbles. USC players have only fumbled 4 times.
Context: USC is #118 in rushing attempts with only 198 attempts. Even air raid, pass happy Washington State has almost as many as the Trojans with 143 attempts.

Depressing Stat of the Week: USC is rank #98 in penalties per game at 7.5 and is rank #115 in opponent penalties per game at 4.67 per game. The 2.8 penalties per game differential is the 3rd highest differential in the nation. Only TCU (3.7) and San Diego State (2.9) are worse. That would land the Trojans at #126.

Ball State, on the other hand, has the highest negative differential. They average 3.9 less penalties than their opponents per game.

USC vs. UW: Thursday is the New Monday

USC vs. Washington
October 8, 2015 at 6:00pm
Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum: 63,623
Total Time: 3 hours 8 minutes

Can we all just agree that, no matter the outcome, Thursday night games are a terrible idea? Between all the traffic, missing work/school, and lack of tailgating it’s hard to really stop and enjoy the game. Then you get home at some ridiculous hour and have a full day of work/school to look forward to.

The band takes the field and the stadium is still more than half empty

The band takes the field and the stadium is still more than half empty

They are terrible like Cody Kessler was right out of the gates. Did he just fail a midterm or something? Most of his passes were off target, finishing the night with 16/29 (55.2% completion) for 156 yards, 0 TDs and 2 interceptions. He was off from the very start of the game, compounding on his usual errors. Uncoincidentally, it was probably his worst game since the 2013 home loss against Washington State.

Maybe it was because the Washington defense kept hitting after the play. There were multiple roughing the passer penalties and one was even called for targeting. Maybe it was the starting center, Max Tuerk, leaving after injury. Or maybe because backup Toa Lobedahn continually snapping the ball low. Despite all of that, they came just a few plays short of an ugly win. You can blame Kessler some, for sure, but maybe the blame should ultimately go to the 40-year old guy with 20 more years of football experience who gets paid millions of dollars to account for this kind of stuff. Quarterbacks, or any player for that matter, are allowed to have off days. It became quite apparent that throwing the ball, especially the deep ball, wasn’t going to work. And neither were passes to the flats for negative yards. Hey Sark, that’s not what they mean by #tbt. That’s also not how you get people to “Turn Up,” in any sense of the phrase, slang or otherwise.

When asked about not making the adjustment to run more, Sark simply said “Hindsight is 20-20.”

Pretty sure most people had the foresight to see otherwise. The offense was offensive to viewers. Thanks to the whole Thursday night thing, the whole nation got to watch USC stink it up in primetime on ESPN. The dismal third down conversion rate of 7.6% (1 of 13) led to the lowest point total they’ve been held to since a 14-10 showing mid-2013 against Notre Dame. How could they be so unprepared after returning from a bye week? That falls on the coach, as the team falls to 0-2 at home against Pac-12 teams and 3-2 overall.

In one game the defense fails. This game, the offense fails. Watch out special teams, you might be next. Following the trends, USC should beat Notre Dame since Sarkisian usually doesn’t lose two in a row. Then they’re right on schedule to play Utah at home. With Pac-12 having a sweet road field advantage and Utah having notoriously good special teams, the perfect storm can hit the Trojans for to continue their streak of losing every other game. But don’t worry, I’m not done talking about the offense just yet.

The three turnovers USC gave up is the highest by a Sarkisian-coached USC team. Last season, the Trojans only lost a total of 12, good for #2 in the nation. Thanks to mistakes and subpar play, the Huskies only managed to get 7 points off those turnovers.

The normally accurate kicker, Cameron Van Winkle, missed a 31-yard field goal attempt, dropping his career 90% from the 30-39 yard range down to 81%. If UW true freshman quarterback, Jake Browning, had a little more experience, he could’ve connected on some of those deep passes and put the game away long before USC’s final drive in the fourth quarter. Much like USC, the Huskies bungled themselves up with penalties that kept the game close.

The inter-Pac-12 game penalties continue to plague this USC team. They were flagged 8 times for 62 yards. Quite comically, no infraction or player got called twice. Each of the flags were all unique little snowflakes commited by different people: offensive facemask, unsportsmanlike conduct, illegal shift, false start, substitution infraction, illegal formation, holding, and offside. Eight strangers with one deadly connection—and it’s not disagreements over Daisy Domergue.

Right down to the end of this painful, USC managed to stay in it. After scoring on the RoJo touchdown, the crowd woke up and probably surprised the crap out of Washington. The defense then delivers a tackle for a loss and sack to pitch a three-and-out. The USC offense answers…with three straight passes to get their very own three-and-out. The defense trots back out and scrapes together another three-and-out. This your chance offense! Nope, let’s botch lining up and waste a timeout. That wouldn’t be the end of the problems though.

The decision-making on the final set of downs was downright baffling. USC was at the Washington 25-yard line with a 3rd-and-6 with the following to consider:

  • Kessler throwing badly most of the night
  • Offensive line not pass-blocking well half the time
  • Averaging over 6 yards per carry
  • Down by 5

Put in a fullback and run the ball. If you get the first down, nothing to worry about. Keep going. Even if you don’t convert, it should be a convertable 4th-and-short. Instead, the call is to try a pass. Okay. Kessler feels phantom pressure, scrambles and gets sacked even though Adoree’ was open across the middle. Fine, you still got a shot at the end zone to try to win it. Wait what?

That fan’s reaction closely mirrorred mine. Did you give up on winning? What are you thinking, coaching staff? Under four minutes to go, with only one timeout remaining, a single first down by UW, and the game is sealed. Can you really bet on your defense to get a third straight three-and-out or maybe a turnover? Then you have to drive the length of the field to get a field goal or touchdown. There are too many moving parts with that plan and risk builds up exponentially with each layer. Sark didn’t have to worry about any of it because the field goal missed and the Huskies got a first down. Have some guts and just go for it on fourth. I doubt fans would’ve criticized that call even if it failed.

That field goal kick was almost symbolized the game. You think it’s not going to make it, it starts to look like it will and ends up just frustratingly and comically short. The final thud of the ball against the crossbar

To make matters worse, the Trojans exited the game four more injuries to key players.

CommBro Breaker

I’m sure Trojans and Huskies can bond over handing off instead of passing.

Also, you no longer have to wonder whether a 1-loss USC team can sneak into the playoff.

Misleading Stat of the Week: USC has 0 passing touchdowns in the month of October, which is tied for last in the nation.

USC vs. Stanford: Error 404 Defense Not Found

USC vs. Stanford
September 19, 2015 at 5:00pm
Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum: 78,306
Total Time: 3 hours 10 minutes

404 error

Fig A. Wilcox’s play sheet

Let’s just get right to it. The last time USC won out in September was in Lane Kiffin’s first year (2010). September losses have pretty much become a habit with the Stanford capping off a five year streak.

Speaking of 2010, that’s what USC’s defense looked like. Stanford was completing passes all over the middle of the field and running it up the gut successfully. It was as if we had a 4-0-4 formation on defense since the linebackers were nowhere to be found! Just kidding, that’s mean. Outside linebacker Su’a Cravens made a lot of plays and was one of the redeeming factors on defense.

Although the transitive property doesn’t really work in college football (or football in general), here’s something to think about:

How does USC’s defense allow more points than a Central Florida team that goes on to lose to Furman. The Furman Paladins are in the same FCS conference as the Wofford Terriers, which even Idaho could beat.

USC Stanford UCF

Despite continued subpar play by the offensive line, Cody Kessler managed to string together respectable drives and decent numbers. Bad snaps and a run game that eventually faltered. Sure, he made mistakes

Kevin Hogan had one of the best games of his career. Although his statistics are comparable to Kessler’s the stats don’t tell the entire story.

I’d venture to say that if Kessler had the same amount of time in the pocket as Hogan, the USC offense would probably never have punted.

With the time of possession slanted (angled?!) heavily in Stanford’s favor, it was hard to get on the field and score points. Stanford controlled the ball nearly twice as long as USC did. Who would’ve thought USC would get caught in a shootout with Stanford? No side produced any turnovers and both teams had nine meanginful possessions, so it came down to punting, turnovers on downs, and being held to field goals.

Punts:
USC: 3
Stanford: 2

Field Goals:
USC: 1
Stanford: 2

Turnover on Downs:
USC: 1
Stanford: 0

So if we do the simple math, if USC had one less turnover on downs and punt, they would tie Stanford. Suppose one went for a touchdown and the other was held to a field goal. The score would’ve been tied.

USC would routinely forced a third down situation and Stanford answered by converting an astouding 66.7% (8/12) of third downs. Had USC stopped them two more times, this game could’ve been extremely different.

Alternatively, had the offense converted some more of their own third downs, the outcome would’ve been different as well. Going 4 of 10 on third downs isn’t pretty, but it’s hard to ask an offense to do much more than they did. Let’s be honest. Kessler’s stats are probably still Heisman worthy. In three games, he’s thrown 89 passes and completed 78.7% for 922 yards, 10 TD and 0 INT. He has also continued to improve on things he has been criticized for. For one, he took off and ran for the first down when the lane was there. That 18 yard run set up the touchdown to retake the lead.

Unfortunately, his underthrown swing pass to Tre Madden earlier in that drive is what ultimately killed USC’s running game. After running successfully in the first half, Madden, fell awkwardly after making the catch. He would not run the ball again. After the running backs picked up 126 yards in the first half, they posted a measly 22 yards in the second half.

What’s more concerning is that the offensive line couldn’t protect Kessler on numerous occasions. Their pass blocking remains one of many weak points for this team. The line also picked up half the teams penalties (4 for 45), all by the returning starters Chad Wheeler, Zach Banner, and Max Tuerk. Some of them like the personal foul were completely preventable. Those costly penalties quickly caused drives to stall out.

That wasn’t the end of stupid penalties though. There was stupid stuff like an unnecessary holding that got Adoree’ Jackson’s kickoff return called back. To make matters worse, they tacked on an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. What would’ve been a touchdown, quickly became starting within their own 10-yard line.

Through the first two games, the Trojans picked up just nine penalties. Against Stanford, it came out to eight—and that’s not counting all the offset and declined penatlies.

The defensive line could not create enough pressure with a standard 4-man rush. Furthermore, Hogan had a wide open left edge when he was flushed out of the pocket. Had Hogan not get rolled up under Anthony Sarao at the start of the second half, he may have exploited the lack of contain on the left edge many more times. Regardless, Hogan threw some of the best passes of his career and certainly the best he ever played against USC in three tries. On multiple deep passes he had perfect touch, making them pretty much indefensible once in the air.

Needless to say, Sark needs to get together with Coach Connelly and Wilcox to work on some things.

CommBro Breaker (some things to make you less depressed)

Only three teams haven’t turned the ball over this season: USC, LSU, and West Virginia. Both LSU and WVU have only played two games to USC’s three.

No kickoffs out of bounds this week!!! Special teams win!

Wide receivers have been blocking really well—better than they have been in years. They have turned some standard runs into big gains. On JuJu’s 54-yard catch and run, Darreus Rogers and Steven Mitchell Jr. threw key blocks.

Double CommBro Breaker

Misleading Stat of the Week: USC is last place in the Pac-12 standings.