It's not just about 3rd down for USC

There's a lot to emphasize for this USC team this week but staying away from the 18 third-down conversions they're averaging each game is high on the list going into Tucson.

They'll fight through it, Steve Sarkisian says, of last week's crushing loss at the final horn to Arizona State. They're getting there, he was saying after Thursday morning's no pads, helmets and shorts workout. But it's not like there's a minute to mess around.

For example, two of last week's major points of emphasis -- more escapability by the running backs and more active play by the defensive line -- came to fruition. Sort of.

Except when USC really needed to run the ball. Then the Trojns lost two yards running it in three plays on their last possession when a first down wins the game.

And although the D-line guys "got off blocks" the way Sark wanted them to, he said, and shut down the Arizona State run, they didn't get to the quarterback (just two sacks) and it cost them at the end.

So now what?

Well, "winning the one-on-one competition" battles in practice was one of them. And getting to the quarterback "in obvious passing situations" is another.

Then there's "attention to details," a must now that a thinning roster has to do things right all the way down the line after losing Victor Blackwell, Anthony Brown, Josh Shaw, D.J. Morgan, Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick, Jabari Ruffin, Kenny Bigelow, Lamar Dawson and Tre Madden and for this week, Ajene Harris and Jordan Simmons with Randall Telfer and Gerald Bowman practicing just once but playing. It all adds up.

Not that Sark is complaining about it, it just makes the point that you can't miss when you're playing with limitations. And you have to get better. Everywhere. It's what young talented teams must do.

And it's why one point of emphasis just jumps out at this team even with all the defensive "schizophrenia." It's this: Third down.

And all it means. Credit Max Meyer, Neon Tommy's senior sports editor and numbers cruncher for coming up with them this week. Here's the deal:

USC has had to run the most third-down plays per game of any of the Power 5 Conference teams at 18.0 (tied with Clemson and Northwestern) and defended the second-fewest in the Power 5 (59, an 11.9 average) behind only Georgia Tech's 53 (10.6 average).

Here's the weird part. The Trojans are really good at third-downs -- No. 4 in the nation and best in the Pac-12 defending them, allowing just 15 of 59 conversions (.254). And not too shabby at converting them themselves -- maybe it's all that practice -- at No. 25 in the nation with 42 of 90 (.467).

But neither are the kinds of numbers good teams strive for because of this. USC has had to run 90 third-down plays because the Trojans aren't getting it done on first and second downs. That's 31 third-down attempts more than their five opponents, who have run fewer plays overall (329 to 410). Sure, USC has run 25 percent more plays than opponents but been forced to run 52 percent more third-down plays.

So what does this say? It says a lot. For some reason, USC is both scheming and executing when it really has to -- on third down. But not so much the first two although Buck Allen's thought-to-be-game-cinching 53-yard TD run with 3:02 left came on second down.

All three of ASU's long TD's in the final period came on -- in effect -- first down although technically the Hail Mary came after a clock-killing spike on first down.

If only every down could be third down. And the way USC is playing offense, 18 times a game it will be. So here's the final point of emphasis this week.

'The disconnect is we're not getting as many explosive plays," Sark said of an offense that got beat with three long-range touchdowns (from 77, 73 and 21 yards out) to just one -- Allen's 53-yarder. But it's more than that. "It's an emphasis this week," Sark said.

"We need to get yards in chunks," Sark said. "We're getting yards in increments." Here Sark is mostly talking the passing game. Although the running backs haven't exactly come around despite last week's 220-31 total yardage advantage over ASU. USC is still being outrushed 4.9 yards per play to a measly 3.8 for the season.

And despite playing a couple of teams that couldn't throw the ball, USC is being out-yarded 13.0 to 11.2 per completion. And after not allowing a passing TD the first four games, USC gave up five -- and threw none -- last Saturday.

The solution: More deep routes, for the playcaller and the quarterback, call 'em and see 'em when they're there. Both ends of this have the responsibiity here.

As for the receivers, Sark has had this question this week: "What do you do when you get the ball?"

The answer came from Nelson Agholor Tuesday. Watch what Jaelen Strong did. how "On film, you can really learn a lot," watching Pac-12 teams play. Like Strong's ability to catch and advance the ball the way he did against USC averaging 20.2 yards on 10 catches.

"He did a great job of that against us," said Nelson, who averaged 16.4 yards a catch last season but has dropped down to 9.3 in the first five games this year. "That's where I can help more."

He's not the only one.

Footnoted



Safety Gerald Bowman (deep thigh bruise) and tight end Randall Telfer practiced Thursday and both will play at Arizona but will be monitored closely meaning more playing time for freshmen TE Bryce Dixon and safety John Plattenburg. "That's why they came to USC, to play right away," Sark said. "It's not just Adoree and JuJu." . . . After a month as a no-show, Sark said Victor Blackwell was removed from the USC roster as of Monday . . . Freshman wide receiver Ajene Harris will not make the trip to Arizona after not practicing all week with a left hamstring pull from last week . . . . redshirt freshman Steven Mitchell, hopefully back all the way from his knee surgery last fall, will be stepping in for him . . . Tailback rotation for ASU will be Buck Allen, Justin Davis and James Toland . . . Long-snapper Zach Smith was cleared for contact work after his concussion in the Oregon State game and will play Saturday. No more scrambling on punt situations.

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at weber@uscfootball.com.

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