Trojans looking for turnaround on third down

After fading late last season converting third downs, those woes continue for USC, preventing offense from putting away opponents.

LOS ANGELES – USC had four third-down chances in the fourth quarter Saturday to put away Utah, four opportunities to run down the clock further or push its lead beyond three points and failed every time.

There was Marqise Lee's long catch-and-run negated by an ineligible man downfield penalty after the freshman wide receiver covered up a tight end. Quarterback Matt Barkley was sacked on the ensuing play.

On the next series, Barkley threw to sophomore Robert Woods for four yards when the Trojans needed five.

Then redshirt senior Brandon Carswell was inexplicably called for an illegal block on Barkley's quarterback sneak at the Utes 27-yard line, preventing a potential field goal attempt or game-securing touchdown.

Last, redshirt senior running back Marc Tyler could only manage a two-yard gain on third and three.

Four manageable third downs, four failed conversions for myriad reasons.

"It was a lack of execution on our part," Barkley said. "It just goes back to the concept of finishing."

The Trojans were just 6 of 15 on third down Saturday, 3 of 10 on tries of five yards or fewer. In their last six quarters of play, they have converted just 9 of 24 third down opportunities.

Those numbers are in stark contrast to last season when USC started off white-hot, converting 52.9 percent (45 of 85) through its first seven games before faltering to 35.5 percent (33 of 93) over the final five.

"We're a little bit off," head coach Lane Kiffin said. "For whatever reason we start the game a little better, and then as we get going, we're not as mentally tough in those situations as needed to do things exactly right as we get a little tired."

It is also indicative of larger issues with the offense, failures that have kept the Trojans from decisively putting away their opponents, forcing the defense and special teams to come through with game-saving plays in the final minute against Minnesota and Utah.

Despite averaging 393.5 yards of total offense per game, 5.5 yards per play, USC has scored only five offensive touchdowns.

There were red zone turnovers against the Utes, penalties and breakdowns in both games.

Inexperience on the offensive line and at skill positions reveals itself in that litany of missed opportunities against the Utes.

Kiffin said those failures on third down, especially third and short, are emblematic.

"It's very troubling," he said. "The game, for a lot of the game, was going the way we wanted it to go, which was make sure we were getting positive yards on first and second down because Utah's a great third-and-long defense. There were a lot of second downs where we were trying to get half to get to manageable third downs. Unfortunately, we didn't make the plays on a number of them. You wouldn't think you'd have a third-and-inches and quarterback sneak and get a 15-yard clipping penalty. Things like that, things where you think you're going to pick that up and then all of a sudden you're 15 yards back, (it) completely changes momentum."

Quarterbacks coach Clay Helton said Barkley bears responsibility to elevate the offense.

"You got to be efficient," Helton said. "Not only on first and second down, like Matt is at 70 percent (completions) right now, but you got carry that over to third downs also."

Barkley has completed 54 of 77 throws for 568 yards and four touchdowns this season, but is 8 of 18 converting third downs as a passer. His only interception also came on third down.

But Helton points to the rhythm Barkley showed in the first half against the Golden Gophers, capping three possessions out of four with touchdown throws. He believes that is what the offense can do on a regular basis.

"Look how efficient we were at moving the chains and how precise he was and how the tempo was going," Helton said.

Barkley wants to regain that form on third down and on the scoreboard against Syracuse.

"This is the week to make it happen," he said. "This is the week where we do convert those and we do finish drive and we do finish games out and put the team away."


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