With the wide receiver unit banged up, missing three players and losing another in the game, someone had to step up and true freshman Deontay Burnett did just that.
Last week, Jalen Greene played only one snap. But with the Trojans banged up at the receiver position, Greene was needed to step up and catch the ball. But it was the arm of the former quarterback that made the bigger impact. After going down 24-10, USC needed a spark, so Clay Helton called a play that was imagined as soon as the decision to move Greene to wide receiver — the double pass. Not sure if even the best handicappers in the country could have predicted that Greene would go from playing one play to making one of the biggest plays of the game a week later.
Greene went in motion to the left side of the formation and caught a lateral throw from Cody Kessler. He then wound up and delivered a strike in stride to Juju Smith-Schuster, who took care of the rest, running away from the defenders for a 75-yard touchdown that began a 21-0 run by the Trojans.
Greene presents a different dynamic with his ability to throw the ball, but he has also looked really good catching the ball, showing good hands and a fluid ability to get in and out of breaks. Receivers coach Tee Martin said playing time is often based on the flow of the game and how many reps other guys are getting, but with the current injury situation, Greene seems like a guy that needs to be on the field.
Playing Behind the Line
The USC defense set a season high with four sacks, including recording back-to-back sacks for the second time this year. A pair of the sacks came from starting defensive linemen with another pair from the rush end duo of Scott Felix and Porter Gustin.
A couple of the sacks came thanks to tremendous coverage in the secondary and Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer holding the ball, but the Trojans also had seven tackles for loss — second most this season. It was definitely an inconsistent attack, but when USC took care of their assignments, they showed they could create some negative plays.
When Notre Dame jammed the middle to attack USC’s punt attempt, why didn’t the Trojans make some kind of adjustment? Instead, they let seven guys run right through the middle and hoped that the three-man protector unit of Zach Banner, Damien Mama and Cody Temple could somehow pick them all up. They managed to stop just one! Instead, the Irish blocked the punt and had six guys to pick the ball up and run it back in for a touchdown. It just happened to be the former Trojan, Amir Carlisle, that ended up with the ball and the score.
But it wasn’t just that punt. The Trojans also allowed a 25-yard punt return and Kris Albarado’s other two punts were 32 and 34 yards long. And they had no punt returns as the Irish were able to keep the ball out of Adoree’ Jackson’s hands.
USC also doinked a field goal off the left upright that proved crucial at the end of the game when USC needed two scores rather than trying to drive for the tying score. The kickoffs were all short of the goal line, being fielded at the 10, 7, 4, 3, 9 and 1-yard lines. And then the coverage of those kickoffs wasn’t spectacular. C.J Sanders had returns of 33 and 30 yards and Alex Wood and Su’a Cravens, who are the last line of defense on kickoffs, had to make two tackles.
In the first quarter, the Fighting Irish scored 21 points — the most in any quarter against the Trojans in the history of college football’s best rivalry. Part of the reason was USC’s inability to set the edge. Regardless of which side Notre Dame attacked and whether it was Scott Felix, Porter Gustin or Su’a Cravens, the Trojans allowed them to get wide and turn the corner.
“We were making mistakes in the first quarter and that’s why they got their early points. Once we composed ourselves and did what we had to do, we shut down their offense,” Cravens said before talking about the gap-assignment mistakes that popped up in the fourth quarter.
“We had to leverage the ball a little bit better,” USC linebackers coach Peter Sirmon said of the early edge issues. “We tried to backdoor a few blocks and the ball ran away from us. We got that taken care of and we started not letting the ball run away from us.”
The Trojans eventually corrected the issue, but it came after Notre Dame had over 200 yards of offense in their first three offensive drives and led 21-10. If it wasn’t from a great play by Adoree’ Jackson to cause a fumble inside the 5-yard line, the Trojans might have been run out of the building before they ever got a chance to make the adjustments.
Runs, Runs, Runs
And I don’t me those from DeShone Kizer and C.J. Prosise against the Trojans’ defense. After jumping out to an early 10-7 lead, USC gave up 17 straight points and things looked bleak. Suddenly, the Trojans found a spark with big touchdown pass plays to JuJu Smith-Schuster and Adoree’ Jackson along with a big run by Ronald Jones II to score 21 consecutive points, but then in the fourth quarter it was all Notre Dame as it scored the final 17 points of the game to take the 41-31 victory.
Much like last year’s USC men’s basketball team was plagued by long scoreless stretches, the same thing has become an issue for the football offense. The Trojans are an explosive offense, but struggle to ground and pound lengthy drives (like those two 90-yard drives by Notre Dame) that are demoralizing to defenses and give your own defense some extra rest. When the defense doesn’t let anything get over the top of them and USC’s playmakers can’t get a lot of room to run in open space, the Trojans have issues.
Adoree’ Getting Beat
It’s very rare that anyone can make the Trojans’ most dynamic playmaker Adoree’ Jackson look average, but that’s what Notre Dame receiver Will Fuller did. Jackson looked great on the offensive side of the ball where he had two carries for nine yards and an explosive 83-yard touchdown on a screen reception.
“I just remember coach saying stay in the game cause I’m giving you the ball. I was like cool. I stayed in there. I was supposed to go to the left, but I just had my vision open, so I looked to the right and seen everybody collapsed over and some people still behind me, so I just took off.”
But his single highlight was more than matched by Fuller, who got behind Jackson for three huge plays. On Notre Dame’s first play from scrimmage, Jackson got caught peeking in the backfield and Fuller beat him on a post pattern for a 75-yard touchdown. Fuller also drew a flag for back-to-back pass interference calls by getting behind Jackson at the end of the third quarter.
And after Keivarae Russell’s sensational interception of Cody Kessler in the fourth quarter, Notre Dame decided to take a shot and Fuller hauled in a perfectly placed deep ball for a 45-yard gain. Jackson said he tipped the ball, but Fuller was still able to haul it in to put the Irish into field goal range where they were eventually able to make it a two-score game with a 3-pointer.
“No excuse on my behalf. It was just me. It was a great receiver in Will Fuller,” Jackson said. “That’s just on me at the end of the day. No weather. No factors on my performance or anything like that. I have no excuses for something like that.”
“Fuller has great speed. There’s nothing deceiving about him. He’s just a good receiver so hats off to him, he played well. We were just out there competing.”
Toa Takes Charge
With Max Tuerk out for the season, USC officially shifted its offensive line, putting Toa Lobendahn at center and having Viane Talamaivao start at right guard. The line struggled at times to give running backs open lanes, but did a good job protecting Cody Kessler and giving him adequate time. Kessler was sacked twice (once on a coverage sack) and the Trojans racked up 590 total yards with 440 coming through the air.
That all started with Lobendahn in the middle.
“Being at center is a whole different position, you’ve got to identify the defense, call out the protection with whatever blocks we’ve got,” Lobendahn said. “I felt like we did good. My guys around me helped me out a lot.”
Freshmen Taking Over
The Trojans are slowly but surely turning the program over to their young players. Along with the sophomores like JuJu Smith-Schuster and Adoree’ Jackson that have been starring all season with three sophomore offensive linemen now starting, the coaching staff continues to give more and more opportunities to the freshmen.
The defensive coaches have pretty much handed the reins of the defense over to middle linebacker Cameron Smith. He has rarely come out of the game the last two weeks and he continues to make tackle after tackle. Osa Masina has also seen extended playing time recently at the WILL linebacker position while Porter Gustin rotates in with Scott Felix at rush end.
Even with Kevon Seymour playing more and more as he returns from his knee injury, Iman Marshall has been a fixture at cornerback for USC and Marvell Tell III has been a part of the safety rotation all season. We’re also starting to see more and more of Rasheem Green while Noah Jefferson seems to have taken over the majority of the second-team nose tackle reps.
On the offensive side, freshman tight end Tyler Petite received four targets and a career-high three receptions for 26 yards, including a career-long 17-yarder on the final drive of the game. During that final drive, the Trojans chose to use freshman Chuma Edoga at right tackle. He has been a part of the offensive line rotation in every game.
Ronald Jones II was the first running back off the bench this week and receiver Deontay Burnett had the biggest game of his young career as well. With the Trojans now 3-3, don’t be surprised to see young players taking over more and more reps.
Three Unsung Stars:
USC’s leading tackler on the season once again led the team in tackles. Smith finished with 11 tackles (4 solo, 7 assisted) and recovered a fumble.
Ronald Jones II
Six touches. Seventy-three yards. Oh so explosive. Once Jones II picks up all the other parts of being a running back, he’s going to be a special Trojan.
Lost in the shuffle might be the fact that Smith-Schuster finished with six catches for 139 yards and a touchdown. He notched his fourth 100+ yard receiving game and the sixth of his career. Smith-Schuster’s 75-yard touchdown grab from Jalen Greene was the longest of his career and the fifth of at least 41 yards this season.