If there’s one topic USC fans will be talking about and focusing on the next 4 ½ months, it’s simply this: What is it that USC must do to get back in the hunt – for a Pac-12 title and a spot in the College Football Playoffs?
The answer could not be more simple to answer – and difficult to do.
And unless it’s doable, it doesn’t matter how simple it is.
USC must be able to run the football – and stop the run. That’s it.
If USC can do both, and do both against a schedule with Alabama and Stanford as two of the first three opponents and both away from the Coliseum, it will have a chance to finish up where USC fans have mostly been dreaming about since 2008 or so.
Because as much as college football has evolved and changed, at the top end it’s pretty basic still. Block people and run the ball when you have to even if they know that’s what you’re doing and you totally dictate the way the game will be played when you have the football.
As we’ve seen over the years, any time USC can run the football, we know it can throw it. That’s a given. Other teams that can run it might not always have the quarterback or wide receivers to throw it. USC almost always will. So any USC team that can run it will also be able to throw it whenever it wants to.
Pretty simple stuff.
Alabama, Oho State, Oregon, that’s the way to go. This is not rocket science. Back in the day when Pete Carroll’s Trojan teams were just figuring out what it meant to be on the top of the pack in that turnaround 2002 season, we recall writing that all USC needed was a healthy Justin Fargas running the ball and everything would fall in place.
As it did – with USC winning 45 of the next 46 games. Pretty sound formula.
Before Justin, USC was a bit hit and miss, stumbling on the road in close losses to good Kansas State and Washington State teams despite a Heisman Trophy quarterback in Carson Palmer and a freshman phenom in Mike Williams.
The run game that extended through the “Thunder and Lightning” Era of LenDale White and Reggie Bush made it almost impossible to stop the run and stop the pass, as Oklahoma found out in that BCS Championship Orange Bowl game.
But in the game that ended the run, Texas did stop the run – literally – on that too-cute-by-half LenDale fourth-and-two. And in that game, the team that could run the ball won it all.
And a USC defense down in numbers and first-line talent couldn’t stop it.
So how does this line up for USC heading into the fall? Well, no excuses for USC not to be able to run the ball. They’re two-deep in top-line running backs in Justin Davis and Ronald Jones, which is where you have to start with two near-1,000-yard runners. The senior Davis (902 yards, a 5.3 average) and Jones, USC’s all-time freshman leading rusher (987 yards, a 6.5 average) has this team “loaded” according to the spring media guide.
And yet, the USC team they were the 1-2 punch for last fall somehow finished down at No. 70 in rushing yards, putting the Trojans in the bottom half of FBS teams with a 4.47-yard average and 168.2 yards a game. And way behind the likes of contenders Baylor (No. 2), Oregon (No. 5), Ohio State (No. 11), Stanford (19), Clemson (22) and Alabama (32).
All sorts of reasons for that including an undisciplined and unconditioned offensive line group that missed assignments and couldn’t manage to move dug-in defenses when they had to. Sure, scheme mattered. But get the O-line squared away and mean it when you say you’re going to run the ball and the rest pretty much takes care of itself.
A new O-line coach in old school Neil Callaway brings a culture change with him while his Western Kentucky coaching mate Tyson Helton brings a less-predictable scheming difference that could make all the difference to an offense that must be able to run the ball starting in Game 1. Alabama owes its national championship more than anything to a No. 1 defense against the run that allowed opponents just 75.7 yards a game and 2.43 yards a carry.
Because if Alabama has issues, especially after losing so many top-line defenders, it’s the ones Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones talked about the other day that the Buckeyes exploited two seasons ago. “We thought we could get the ball to the edge (passing it) and throw deep on them,” Jones said of the Ohio State win.
If this USC team can run it, the ability to get the ball to the edge and throw it deep changes everything . . . IF they can run it.
The same thing for USC against four of its top Pac-12 rivals – all in the Top 30 against the run – No. 6 Utah, No. 19 Washington, No. 20 Arizona State and No. 30 Stanford. Run it on them and USC will be able to throw it on them.
And yeah, we know what you’re thinking. How does USC do that with an all-new D-line after the top five Trojans have moved on?
Well, the good news is that despite USC’s relative passivity under former defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, the Trojans did finish 41st in the nation against the run, allowing 3.97 yards a carry and 149.3 yards a game.
Not that that helped the Trojans in giving up 262 yards against Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game, 177 to Wisconsin in the Holiday Bowl and 214 to Notre Dame in South Bend.
But those losses were balanced out by strong offensive-defensive rushing edges against Utah, Arizona and UCLA. Only against Oregon, where the pass defense broke down completely, and Washington, where the coaching failed similarly, did USC have the rushing edge and lose.
The good news for the defense is the back seven or eight or nine, however you define them, should be able to run with anybody with the likes of a healthy ILB Cameron Smith, edge guys Porter Gustin, Uchenna Nwosu and Jabari Ruffin and back-liners Adoree’ Jackson, Iman Marshall. The host of capable athletes surrounding them on both the second and third lines is encouraging with Clancy Pendergast’s coaching and scheming.
Which leaves, of course, the front line. Young, thin and barely experienced, there’s one saving grace here – or two if you combine Clancy’s one-gap scheme on top of the rebirth of junior Malik Dorton as the No. 1 spring guy.
Coach these young guys up, get them to play on the other side of the line of scrimmage, and maybe, just maybe you make up for experience with talent, scheme and support behind them.
And we mean THE QUESTION. Answer it correctly and good things happen for these Trojans.
Answer it with a yes – that they can run it and stop the run -- and the Trojans will have a chance every time out.
It really is that simple. Simple to say.
But tough as hell to do. Just ask all those other teams high on both lists. Alabama and Ohio State didn’t get there by talking their way to the top. Toughness – mental and physical – is what separates the contenders from the pretenders.
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