Fast and Furious
In a loss, it’s easy to overlook the positives, but the USC offense was rolling early. Aside from a miscommunication that led to a punt on their second drive, the Trojans marched up and down the field. Their three first half scoring drives went 76, 75 and 92 yards in an average of 2:38. Stanford’s three-and-out drive to open the second half was nearly as long, lasting 2:13.
Again they didn’t have a lot of third down conversions, but it’s hard to convert on third down when you don’t get to third down. The Trojans averaged 10.6 yards per play on the three scoring drives that put them ahead 21-10.
Craving Some More
Cloning hybrid linebacker Su'a Cravens might make most of USC’s defensive problems go away. The beast played all 73 defensive snaps and another 11 on special teams for a team-high 84 plays. He was everywhere on the field making a team-high 13 tackles.
Su’a also collected his second sack of the season, pulling down Kevin Hogan for a nine-yard loss. Cravens should have been credited with another tackle for loss on the first play of Stanford’s second drive, when he juked by a would-be blocker and brought down Bryce Love in the backfield, but the referees missed the spot by a good yard and a half.
Cody Kessler had another solid game, tossing three touchdowns while throwing for 272 yards. He only took one sack and gave his receivers and just his receivers a chance to catch the ball. Heading into the fourth quarter, he had only two incompletions — a route miscommunication and a throw away because of pressure. He finished 25-of-32 with his final three passes falling incomplete as USC tried to beat the clock and the defense.
USC’s defense needed to clear its throat and let out a roar to show it was ready for its first challenge of the season. Instead, Stanford ran the ball down the Trojans' throat all night, but specifically in the second half when the Cardinal withered away the clock drive after drive.
On their third drive of the half, Stanford got the ball on the 46-yard line after a 30-yard punt. Eventually it scored a touchdown, but it took nearly seven minutes off the clock to go 46 yards! Steve Sarkisian said coming into the week that they had to win the early downs and force Kevin Hogan into obvious passing downs, but when it mattered most the Trojans couldn’t get it done.
Losing Third Down
The most telling statistic of the night was Stanford’s 8-for-12 on third down conversions, which was even better in the second half when it was 5-for-7. Even though it faced an average of third-and-6.75 yards on its third down attempts, the Cardinal seemed to have the right play call dialed up in every third down situation — like the third-and-7 screen to Christian McCaffery that went for 19 yards and put Stanford in field goal range where it could turn it into a two-score game.
And when Stanford didn’t have the perfect play call, Kevin Hogan made something happen. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Su’a Cravens jumped in the passing lane denying Hogan a quick screen, but despite a bum ankle, Hogan took off up the middle for a 10-yard gain on third-and-6. Later in the same drive, USC brought the house on third-and-9, sending seven rushers for the only time in the game. The Cardinal offensive line gave Hogan a solid pocket and he threw a dime to Austin Hooper despite Marvell Tell III hanging right on his hip.
Hogan also used his gimpy wheels to make a big play that was probably overlooked on the final scoring drive. Facing third-and-7 two plays after the McCaffery screen and on the 32-yard line, Hogan stepped up in the pocket away from some pressure from Greg Townsend Jr. and Rasheem Green. Rather than taking a sack that would have likely pushed Stanford out of field goal range, he hobbled forward for three yards to give Conrad Ukropina a shot at a 46-yard attempt and the senior hammered home the nail in the coffin.
Stay back. Keep away from this area. USC practically placed up caution tape in front of themselves in the form of penalty flags. They stalled great opportunities with dumb penalties. Quinton Powell was called for holding a player that was all but out of the play with Adoree’ Jackson zooming by on a kickoff return touchdown that came back. Max Tuerk's completely unnecessary late hit of a guy already on the ground turned a third-and-1 into a third-and-it-ain’t-happenin’.
Then when USC had to score twice in the final 2:27, Zach Banner was called for hands to the face that pushed the Trojans out of easy field goal range that could have been one of the needed scores. Penalties happen sometimes, but Banner never even attempted to re-adjust his hand to get it out of the defender's face and try to avoid being flagged. The defense couldn’t stop Stanford and the offense didn’t want to get out of its own way.
If you take out USC kneeling before the half, there becomes a huge connection between penalties and failure for the Trojan offense: On USC’s five scoring drives, the offense was only called for a penalty on one play and it was offset by a Stanford penalty — so it didn’t affect the drive. On the flip side, USC had a penalty on all four drives where it did not score.
Wherefore Art Thou Platooning?
All through training camp and the first two weeks, we’ve repeatedly heard, “We don’t sub. We platoon.” The coaching staff was adamant about playing multiple players early in games to keep their best players fresh for the fourth quarter. And then a real game happened and suddenly those rotations were gone. Su’a Cravens didn’t come off the field. In fact, most of the starters didn’t.
The defensive starters accounted for 78 percent of all the snaps and the offensive starters were on the field even more playing just less than 82 percent of the time. Backups like Jonathan Lockett, Kenny Bigelow, Uchenna Nwosu and Jabari Ruffin barely saw the field — the four combining for less than 20 defensive snaps. Other backups who saw significant time in the first two games were relegated to only special teams or didn’t play at all — Leon McQuay III, Malik Dorton, Jacob Daniel, Matt Lopes, Michael Hutchings.
The second team offensive line unit of Viane Talamaivao, Chuma Edoga and Chris Brown helped drive the ball 92 yards down the field for a touchdown in eight plays and never saw the field on offense again, except for three plays Talamaivao subbed in at the end of a drive. The first time the Trojans finally had a depth advantage, they completely neglected it.
A couple of USC fans were concerned about the way the Trojans came out of halftime and let the opposition march down the field on the first drive of the second half against Arkansas State and Idaho. That wasn’t a problem against Stanford. The defensive front caused pressure and earned its only three-and-out of the night thanks to back-to-back sacks.
The Trojans actually forced punts on Stanford’s first drive of each half…it was just all the other drives after that caused all the consternation. Those were the only two punts they forced.
Last year, one of the biggest complaints levied against the first-year USC coaching staff was they didn’t make in-game adjustments. People are still displeased with adjustments, even though Justin Wilcox tried different things in the second half against Stanford.
With the Cardinal going with a jumbo lineup that included extra offensive linemen positioned as tight ends and the Trojans unable to stop the run consistently or get enough pressure with four rushers against the look, Wilcox scraped the straight 3-4 approach and often in the second half went with a hybrid 5-3-3 lineup (also could be described as a 3-5-3 depending on your perspective).
Noah Jefferson came in to give two big-bodied tackles in the middle of the line, alongside Antwaun Woods or Cody Temple, with the two defensive ends and the rush end also on the line. Often Greg Townsend Jr. was a standing end on one side with the rush end on the other side. They took out a cornerback when Jefferson came in, often Adoree' (likely because they wanted the bigger Iman Marshall to be able to help in the run game). Su'a Cravens then shifted inside to play more of a middle linebacker role between a tightly compacted group of linebackers. The two safeties were also both playing within 5-6 yards of the ball.
Unfortunately, the defensive unit continued to get beat and even when they were able to slow the Cardinal on running downs, they couldn’t get the big third down stops as already mentioned.
Three Unsung Stars:
As mentioned above, Jefferson came in to provide bulk in the middle of the line and more than held his own: “Being so big and strong, I knew they couldn’t block me," he said. "They were soft up front, but looking forward, we’ve got to get better on our rushing lanes.”
Steven Mitchell Jr.
In the aftermath of the loss, Mitchell Jr.’s two-touchdown performance has gone a bit unnoticed. He finished with just 12 yards on three catches and didn’t have to go far for either one of his scores — 6 and 1 yards — but Mitchell Jr. showed his explosiveness by slicing through the defense for his touchdowns.
The kickers have played a big factor in the Stanford/USC games in recent history. This year was no different. Stanford’s Conrad Ukropina kicked a 42-yarder in the second quarter and a huge 46-yard field goal to make it a two-score game late. But Wood did his part for the Trojans. He nailed a 36-yard attempt in the fourth quarter and also was stellar on his six kickoff attempts. Even though he had just one touchback, he allowed his coverage unit to do their job, placing the ball near the right sideline on every kick, forcing Stanford to start on average at their own 21-yard line on kickoffs — four yards better than a touchback.