Spread the Wealth
If Saturday night’s game was any indication, it’s going to be hard for any particular skill player to have huge stats this season. Not because there aren’t talented skill players, but because the Trojans have so many darn weapons.
While Juju Smith-Schuster (4 catches, 89 yards, TD) is the No. 1 receiver, he doesn’t have to the be the full focus of the passing game the way Nelson Agholor and Marqise Lee were in recent years. Junior Darreus Rogers caught the first pass of the game. Steven Mitchell Jr. had four receptions and a touchdown. Isaac Whitney, De’Quan Hampton, Jalen Greene and Christian Tober all had their first catches. And that’s just the receivers.
Five running backs carried the ball and four different backs and tight ends had receptions. It’s telling that USC put up 55 points on the board and seven players scored rather than one or two guys having monster performances.
Kenny Bigelow had been waiting on this moment for what seemed like an eternity. Nearly three years since his last game action, Bigelow was on the field with the Trojans and was making an impact.
“It was everything and more than I thought it would be. Playing in front of the Coliseum, that experience is one I’ll remember for a long time,” Bigelow said. “It was just amazing coming down here and playing in front of 90,000 strong. This is my first time actually being a part of it, being able to play and their energy fueled me tonight.”
Bigelow recorded his first career sack, had three tackles and also batted a ball down. A solid showing in his first game experience in a long time.
Sure, becoming the first true freshman linebacker to start a season opener since a guy named Willie McGinest did so in 1990 and first inside linebacker since Riki Gray (now Ellison) 37 years ago is an outstanding achievement, but Smith didn’t come to just show up. He tied for the team-high with seven tackles and also had a pass breakup.
“I think I played alright for the first game. I think there’s a lot to improve and we’ll reassess that on Monday. There’s some plays I wish I had back, but just have to keep getting better everyday.”
Seeing Adoree Jackson laying on the sideline after pulling up lame on the sideline in the midst of a 31-yard punt return caused every USC fan to hold their breath. If there is one player that the Trojans want to see on the field, it’s Jackson.
USC is calling the injury an abdominal strain, but Jackson described an injury to his hip flexor. He did not return to the game, but USC head coach Steve Sarkisian said he was held out as a precaution and that they hope to have him back “sooner rather than later.” Jackson did at one point in the second quarter grab his helmet and run into the defensive huddle, but his attempts to get back in the game were apparently rebuffed. Instead, he spent the remainder of the game sitting on the bench smiling as his teammates destroyed the Red Wolves.
Another concerning injury was the left wrist injury Steven Mitchell Jr. sustained. He went into the locker rooms for x-rays in the first half, came back out, added some extra padding to the back of his hand and went back into the game, but eventually “it was hurting him pretty good so we just held him out,” Sarkisian said.
That’s two of USC’s most explosive playmakers banged up in the opener against a team that is more finesse than physical. Hopefully, it’s not a sign of things to come when the Trojans get into conference play and the physicality goes to an even greater level.
Arkansas State true freshman Tajhea Chambers had quite a debut, tying for the team lead with eight tackles and collecting 2.5 sacks. That a Sun Belt freshman was able to get into the backfield to sack Cody Kessler 2.5 times is not a good sign. Kessler was sacked five times in the first half and was under a pretty constant wave of pressure.
The offensive line has been a work in progress this fall with a number of players rotating in and out of positions. Seven players played the majority of the snaps with Chuma Edoga and Viane Talamaivao subbing in with the starters. The group did not look great in the first half. But at the end of the day, the offensive line did provide enough time for the Trojans to throw for 320 yards and rush for another 228 yards, gaining 8.7 yards per carry (when eliminating the sacks and a kneel down).
One of the things Steve Sarkisian was disappointed in was that the Trojans only ran 64 offensive plays — 41 fewer than they ran in last season’s opener against Fresno State. Arkansas State had the ball for 87 offensive plays while the Trojans lived off the explosive play, getting four touchdowns of 40+ yards (one of those on defense).
Steve Sarkisian has talked about the substitution pattern USC is hoping to use throughout the season with a constant flow of players coming and going off the field. But to actually see it implemented was a sight to behold. The Trojans finally have depth again. Twenty-nine different defenders recorded at least one tackle.
Seeing Su’a Cravens running off the field with a substitute replacing him seems quite unusual, but it actually happened. Uchenna Nwosu isn’t the same caliber as Cravens (there may not be anyone in the country who is), but Cravens said Nwosu would probably be the leading tackler on any other team. When you can take an All-American candidate off the field, you know there are quality players on the depth chart.
And there’s a ton of young talent that got opportunities to play with 13 true freshmen playing and 23 Trojans making their debut. At one point in the fourth quarter, the Trojans had a lineup that featured three true freshman defensive linemen, three true freshmen linebackers and a pair of freshmen defensive backs all on the field at the same time.
“The only way in this game that you get better is by playing,” Sarkisian said. “You have to make mistakes and realize that’s what coach has been talking about.”
Red Wolves Contained
Arkansas State is known for scoring points — 30 or more in 32 of its last 47 regular season game — and under Blake Anderson, running trick plays. The Trojans quieted both of those. USC held the Red Wolves to six points, their lowest point total since 2008 and without an explosive trick play. The defense played great assignment football and neutralized a solid dual-threat quarterback. Fredi Knighten was just 8-of-23 for 86 yards and rushed for 58 yards on 14 attempts.
Switching it Up
One of the biggest issues for USC was the second half collapses. That was predicated on depth, but also a lack of halftime adjustments. As much as the offensive line struggled to keep Cody Kessler upright in the first half, Arkansas State was held without a sack in the second half.
With Steve Sarkisian no longer calling plays full-time, he was afforded the time to do more head coaching. At one point, he went into the offensive line huddle and starting drawing on the white board. He spent more time working with position groups and individual players rather than just focusing his energy on his play sheet.
Three Unsung Stars:
The safety position had a tremendous game overall with Chris Hawkins’ two turnovers, John Plattenburg’s ability to make open field tackles and Marvell Tell getting in on the action, but the Trojans’ co-leading tackler on Saturday night was super walk-on Matt Lopes, who had seven stops including one tackle for a loss.
Welcome to the squad. The Oklahoma tight end transfer earned his second career start in his first game with USC. While the tight end was focused in the game, McNamara got in the end zone on his first Trojan reception, scoring from two yards out.
We’d be remiss not to mention Masina’s fumble recovery for a touchdown on what was ruled a backward pass. When no one else wanted to pick the ball up, Masina ran over scooped and scored. It’s a play he’ll probably never forget. Masina also contributed four tackles, including one tackle for a loss.