First look: USC

The USC Trojans are in a must-win situation against Arizona State after dropping three of their first four games this season.

For the University of Southern California, it’s not a question of if it will put together a series of wins, rather it’s a question of when.

USC has one of the most talent-packed rosters in the Pac-12, yet is has stumbled out of the gates in 2016. The Trojans are 1-3 for the first time since 2001 and are in sole possession of last place in the Pac-12 South.

“They are as talented as any team we will play,” Arizona State head coach Todd Graham said. “Probably will be the most talented team physically and speed-wise that we are going to play against and obviously going on the road, we got to do a great job of playing Sun Devil football. Their record is not indicative of what type of team they are.”

USC lost 31-27 to No.18 Utah Friday night in Salt Lake City at Rice-Eccles Stadium after the Utes scored the game-winning touchdown with 16 seconds remaining to cap a 15-play, 93-yard drive. The Trojans were in control of the game early and had a 27-17 lead in the fourth quarter, but couldn’t stop Utah’s offense late in the game.  

The Trojans’ sole win came against Utah State on Sept. 10 after USC lost its season opener 52-6 to Alabama. After falling in back-to-back weeks against two ranked teams in Stanford and Utah, the Trojans are now 1-5 overall under head coach Clay Helton.

Helton started the 2015 season as USC’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, but was named interim head coach after USC fired Steve Sarkisian in October. After leading the team to a 5-2 record as interim head coach, USC made Helton its full-time coach.

“They played Alabama, they played Stanford, and they played Utah so I just think they played really good people and they were close games,” Graham said. “You know obviously they got beat soundly by Alabama, but they played Stanford and it was fairly close and Utah was a really close game. They turned the ball over, hurt themselves.”

USC is tied for last in the Pac-12 this year in turnover margin at minus-1. USC has fumbled the ball three times and has thrown three interceptions.

USC’s Tee Martin became the Trojans’ first-year offensive coordinator at the end of 2015 and while Helton did a lot of the play-calling last year, Martin called the first game of his career in USC’s loss to Alabama. Despite the switch in play-callers, Graham said USC looks “very similar” in terms of offensive schemes.

In addition to Helton’s less than ideal start after permanently taking over the Trojans, USC has already switched quarterbacks this season. USC junior quarterback Max Browne started the year as USC’s No. 1 quarterback after spending three seasons waiting in the wings for his shot behind former USC quarterback Cody Kessler.

Kessler was drafted in the third round of the 2016 NFL Draft by the Cleveland Browns. He made his first career start on Sunday in the Browns’ 30-24 overtime loss against the Miami Dolphins. Under Kessler, the Trojans went 10-4 in 2013, 9-4 in 2014 and 8-6 in 2015.

Browne, a Sammamish, Washington native, was a top-ranked high school quarterback out of Skyline High School before committing to USC in 2013. In his four-year career at Skyline he set state records for passing yards (12,953, eighth best nationally) and completions (882) while completing 70.4 percent of his passes for 146 touchdowns and 25 interceptions.

However, after starting the first three games for USC and getting blown out by Alabama and losing to Stanford 27-10, Helton pulled the plug on Browne, replacing him with redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold for USC’s game against Utah.

Darnold threw for 253 yards and ran for a touchdown in his first career start.

“Darnold, (they) run read zone with him,” Graham said. “Very athletic, can run. Both of them (Browne and Darnold) have very similar arms in throwing the deep ball really well. Hit the seams really well and I think both of them managed what they are doing and they are similar. The difference is the athleticism in Darnold.”

Between Browne and Darnold, USC is last in scoring offense in the Pac-12 with a 22-point per game average. ASU leads the Pac-12 in scoring, averaging 48.8 points per game.

Despite the lack of USC points on offense, Graham had high praise for USC’s offensive personnel, which he said is very similar to 2015.

Last season, USC dominated ASU 42-14 on Sept. 26 at Sun Devil Stadium. ASU didn’t score its first points until late in the third quarter and ASU fumbled three times, all leading to USC touchdowns. Kessler was 19-of-33 for 375 yards and USC junior receiver Juju Smith-Schuster led the Trojans in receiving with five catches for 103 yards and two touchdowns.

“Very similar team (to 2015),” Graham said. “Very talented. As talented as a team, we have not played and will not play against better running backs. Receivers, they got four or five receives that are big time. This will be the best offensive line we play against. The tight ends, they are very talented so they look very similar (to 2015) in that regard.”

In the run game, USC is ranked No. 9 in the Pac-12, averaging 135.2 yards per game behind a trio of running backs in the rotation. The Trojans’ run game is led by senior tailback Justin Davis, who has 47 carries for 261 yards and one touchdown this season.

Last season, Davis was an All-Pac-12 honorable mention and started the last eight games of 2015. He ran for 902 yards on 169 carries with seven touchdowns and caught 18 passes for 189 yards and had 11 kickoff returns for 211 yards.

Sophomore running back Ronald Jones broke USC's freshman rushing record last season, running for 987 yards, scoring eight touchdowns and averaging 6.5 yards per carry. This season, Jones is only averaging 4.3 yards per carry and has one touchdown off 31 carries for 132 yards.

In the trenches, USC senior right tackle Zach Banner anchors USC’s talented offensive line. Banner, 6-foot-9, 360 pounds, has been starting for the past three seasons at right tackle and began the year as an All-American candidate. Last season he was on the All-Pac-12 first team.

Opposite from Banner is 6-foot-6, 310-pound senior left tackle Chad Wheeler. A four-year starter, Wheeler is USC’s most experienced offensive lineman, however he has been slowed the past couple of years with a knee injury and off-the-field issues.

USC junior guard Damien Mama is a second year starter at left guard for the Trojans.  Last season Mama, 6-foot-4, 325 pounds, was an All-Pac-12 honorable mention player.  

The Trojans are No. 4 in the Pac-12 in sacks against, allowing seven through four games. However, USC’s offensive line has struggled with missed assignments and mistakes all season, including six false starts against Stanford.

On the special teams front, USC is No. 1 in the Pac-12 in punt return with a 40.2-yard average and one touchdown. The Trojans are No. 3 in kickoff return with USC junior Adoree' Jackson in charge of both punt and kickoff duties.  

“(USC is) dynamic in the special teams with Adoree’,” Graham said.

Jackson returns for his third year as a starting cornerback and also makes an impact as a wide receiver and returner. Jackson is USC’s first three-way player in nearly 20 years.

Last season, Jackson made 35 tackles, had eight deflections, a forced fumble and an interception for a touchdown on defense, while recording 27 receptions for 414 yards (15.3 avg) with two touchdowns and seven carries for 36 yards (5.1 avg) on offense. On special teams, Jackson had 30 kickoff returns for 690 yards (23.0 avg) and 24 punt returns for 251 yards (10.5 avg) with two touchdowns.

Jackson was the only player nationally with at least 400 yards receiving, 600 in kickoff returns, 200 in punt returns and 30 tackles. He was second nationally in punt returns touchdowns (2, first in Pac-12) and No. 25 in punt returns (10.5, third in Pac-12).

While Jackson doesn’t have any receptions this season, USC has a group of four veteran receivers with 10 or more receptions this season. Smith-Schuster leads USC in receiving with 19 receptions for 197 yards and two touchdowns.

Last season Smith-Schuster was USC’s leading receiver, catching 89 passes for 1,454 yards and caught 10 touchdowns. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound receiver averaged 103.9 yards per game, over three and a half times the next leading wide receiver, junior Steve Mitchell.

Senior wide receiver Darreus Rogers is close behind him with 18 catches for 211 yards, averaging 11.7 yards per catch.

Looking at USC’s defense, first-year defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast leads the group after Helton hired Pendergast in January after USC fired former defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox. Pendergast had previous experience with USC, running the Trojans defense in 2013 when the team led the conference in total defense (335.2 yards per game).

That year, the Trojans’ defense ranked in the national Top 25 in total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense, pass efficiency defense, sacks, interceptions, red zone scoring defense, third down conversion defense and fourth down conversion defense.

This season under Pendergast, USC has been allowing an average of 29.2 points per game (No. 9 in Pac-12) and 394.5 yards per game (No. 7 in Pac-12).

Pendergast runs a 5-2 defense, which is only slightly different than the 3-4 defense USC ran in the past. The 5-2 looks almost exactly like the 3-4. It has three defensive linemen and four linebackers, with two of those linebackers standing upright at the line of scrimmage.

The 5-2 defense is pressure-based, yet the Trojans have only managed four sacks this season, ahead of only Washington State in the Pac-12.

Graham credited USC’s defense for being “big, talented and physical.”  

USC sophomore defensive end Porter Gustin has been creating havoc in opponents’ backfields, recording 32 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss, including two sacks. Last year as a freshman, the 6-foot-5, 260-pound player appeared in all 14 games for USC and had 25 tackles, seven tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks.

USC sophomore linebacker Cameron Smith leads the team in tackles this year with 43, two tackles for loss, one pass breakup, and one forced fumble and fumble recovery. The 6-foot-2, 245-pound linebacker had 15 tackles, one forced fumble and a batted pass in USC’s loss to Utah Friday night.


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