I'd like to just say "three unforced turnovers". That's not true. I'd like to say "three &#$% unforced turnovers".
That isn't the story from the LA Coliseum as much as that really burns me.
Instead I think we need to concentrate on the first 30 minutes of action when the game went from in doubt to let's stay healthy, collect our check, and find bright spots to build on.
First the defense
We all hoped that the added size up front could address some of the defensive problems. In the first half, USC had nine possessions, eight of them full possessions (the 9th came with 30 seconds left on the clock). USC scored four times, punted three times, and turned ball over on downs once.
The possession that ended on downs, USC gained 9 yards on four plays, failing to convert a 4th and 2.
The possessions ending on punts went six plays for 41 yards, eight plays for 27 yards, and three plays for 2 yards.
Half of USC's possessions in the first half produced 79 of the 315 yards offense the Trojans put up.
USC's first scoring drive was four plays for 77 yards with 61 coming from a pass to JuJu Smith. The third scoring drive was one play, a 65 yard run by Tre Madden.
Exactly 40% of USC's yards in the first half came on two of the 38 plays they ran.
The second scoring drive of the night came after a 49 yard punt by Luke Ferguson, a low liner was returned 31 yards by Adoree' Jackson to the Red Wolf 40. A 31 yard pass, a five yard motion penalty and 14 yard pass created a 40 yard scoring drive.
The final score of the first half came on an eight play, 68 yard drive.
Despite giving up 315 yards and 28 points in the first half, the Red Wolves in 30 minutes sacked Cody Kessler five times. Outside of the Tre Madden 65 yard touchdown run, USC posted 40 yards net rushing on the other 18 carries (helped greatly by the -35 on the five sacks).
This is a much better defense. Against a Juju Smith or Tre Madden or Adoree' Jackson in a foot race situation, Arkansas State fairs poorly, but so will quite a few others on the USC schedule. Joe Cauthen isn't likely to see his defense face an arsenal that deep in size and speed again.
AState did not post any 60+ yard plays in the first half. The longest offensive play was Warren Wand going 26 yards. He had a net of 30 on three carries with no lost yards. The next longest offensive play for AState was a 19 yard run by Fredi Knighten. In a footrace situation, the Red Wolves offense wasn't a great match against USC.
The Red Wolves made it into USC territory twice in the first half. The first was a five play 31 yard drive that made it to the USC 31. Knighten was picked off at the 10 yard line. The second was 10 plays for 54 yards that ended on an incomplete pass on 4th and 3 at the USC 27. The two drives combined accounted for 85 of the 135 yards the Red Wolves put up in the first half.
Fredi Knighten completed on 35% of his passes going 6 of 17 with one pick for a total of 40 yards but he accounted for 49 of AState's net 95 rushing yards. Warren Wand had 30 yards on three carries, Gordon had three carries for 11 yards and Johnston White 4 yards on one carry.
Again looking only at the first 30 minutes, you attrbute part of the problems to USC having a big and fast defense that was well disciplined and did not fall for any misdirection and stayed home, but the inability mount a credibile passing game, or really the threat of an effective passing game was a major problem. The difference in winning or losing? No. The difference between going to the halftime break still a credible threat vs being out of the game? Absolutely.
Luke Ferguson headlined the special teams action. His lone kickoff of the first half went to the end zone and Adoree' Jackson was held to a 23 yard return. Ferguson had six punts averaging 45.8 yards and outside of the low lined kick that lead to a big return, his punting was top-notch. His only other kickoff went to the goal line and was mishandled and resulted in USC starting at the two. Ferguson punted one more time and finished with a 45 yard average and two punts downed inside the 20.
AState botched its extra point attempt when Cameron Birse read a two point try out of the pre-kick spread formation and then lost the handle on the ball. It ended up ruled an incomplete pass but was more of a fumble.
Gordon and McKissic were solid on kickoff returns and Blaise Taylor had one punt return for 6 yards and Chris Murray one for no gain.
Special teams takeaway
We learned nothing against USC. We arrived in Los Angeles knowing Luke Ferguson is an effective punter and good at kickoffs. We knew Gordon and McKissic could do good things on kickoffs, that Taylor is good on punt returns, and Murray had looked good in practice. In short we had the special teams night we should have expected outside the mess on the PAT.