One of the questions asked on the WeAreSC Premium Board was which two players needed to have big games for USC. In my opinion, the answer was John David Booty on offense and Sedric Ellis on Defense. Although the point could be debated forever as to who the real stars had to be, I don't think anyone would argue that both of these guys played poorly. In fact, to my way of thinking, both had monster games. In his first starting role in a football game since December 2002, John David Booty came up huge indeed. He completed 24 of 35 passes for 261 yards and 3 touchdowns. He did not throw any interceptions and most importantly, he truly looked like a leader out there who obviously became more comfortable as the game progressed. Yes, he made a few interesting throws, but overall, he was just what the team needed. He never appeared frazzled and his calm demeanor was refreshing, especially considering it was his first start for SC and considering it was in a most hostile environment. Sedric Ellis also performed well, at least to my eye. He got good penetration, deflected at least one pass, and he certainly helped contain the vaunted Razorback rushing attack. Arkansas was forced to pass the ball and their ground game netted a mere 130 yards. Sedric seemed to be a real stalwart and it was evident that the defensive line was not as tough on those plays when he was resting.
Prior to the game, the general consensus seemed to be that Lane Kiffin would call a relatively conservative game. After all, the Trojans were starting an entirely new backfield. They were also going to use 3 freshmen running backs who would be playing in their very first game, and SC would also have the services of two other veterans of sorts who were both coming off long delays in their careers. In fact, Desmond Reed is still rehabilitating his knee and trying to overcome some distal leg nerve damage while Chauncey Washington is trying to come back from a two year hiatus and he is also continuing to rehabilitate a rather bothersome hamstring injury which he suffered during the summer workouts. In the end, Lane ended up calling a remarkably balanced game. There were 42 running plays and 38 passing plays. How is that for balance? Admittedly, many of the passes were of the safe, conservative variety but it is the end result that counts. It was also refreshing to watch SC score on some sustained drives that allowed that to completely frustrate and wear down the overmatched Arkansas defense.
So just how did the USC offense perform and is it a sign of things to come? Personally, I loved the way the Trojans moved the ball. That is not to say some questions did not come to mind. I can't help but wonder if I am the only fan who just does not get some things, like, "why a team with 3rd and short would go to the empty backfield on more than one occasion? I mean, that basically tells the defense that SC is going to pass the ball and it would seem to take away virtually one half of the options available to the offense. Similarly, I think I will always be amazed at a lateral type pass on first and goal to go that had a much better chance of being completed to a Razorback blitzing lineman than it did of landing in the arms of the SC receiver. See, some things change, but some things don't. Even with a huge victory, there is still a host of questions that arise!
To be fair, I have to complement Coaches Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian in bold terms. Despite leading the Trojans to unprecedented offense success last year, it seems that neither could get out from under the shadow cast by Norm Chow. Well, this is already the second season of no Norm Chow and to this writer's eye, both are doing fabulous jobs at this time. Sark seems to be bringing along John David Booty quite nicely. We often read that Norm would see something in the first half and then set things up for the second half. Folks, Lane did that with impeccable acuity against Arkansas last night. He set up the Razorbacks but good. When he unleashed the crossing patterns and throws to the fullback in the second half, Arkansas was helpless. By the middle of the third quarter, SC was toying with them. Had it been in SC's interest to do so, I am convinced that they could have scored another score or two. I also think that getting all three freshmen tailbacks in position to score a touchdown will pay off in spades as the season progresses. It simply can't be easy to keep them all satisfied, but it sure looked like Lane found a way to accomplish just that in this game. I also felt that Sarkesians influence on John David Booty was quite evident. It can't be just a coincidence that this third qb that Steve has tutored at SC produced stats quite comparable to those of his two predecessors. Congratulations for a job well done, at least up to this point.
How about this year's edition of the SC defense? There was much concern about the play of the Defensive Tackles and whether or not SC could get a pass rush going. Well, the Razorback quarterbacks were sacked twice and they threw 3 pics collectively. The Trojans defense also caused the Hogs to fumble three times, though SC was able to recover only two of them. This SC defense was quick as a cat the entire evening and they held Arkansas to 287 net yards. Remember the game was in Fayetteville and this was a highly motivated Razorback team that was determined to avenge last year's humiliating loss in Los Angeles. This game drew a record crowd and the overwhelming majority of fans were routing for the Hogs and against USC. Nobody can really believe that this Arkansas team did not have revenge and blood on their minds. Yet in the end, they could not even muster 300 total yards and SC's speed and athleticism was just too much for them to handle.
On all of the SC message boards that I frequent, so many posters have noted that Pete is simply a 4-3 guy and the Carroll led Trojans would never really run a 3-4 formation. Oh, some admitted that on occasions that Trojans might do such a thing, but surely not on any regular basis. Well, if last night's game is any indication, YES, the Trojans will employ a 3-4 and they will do it often. Brian Cushing seems to be the key to this alignment. He has the size and speed to play down on the end, but he also has the ability and body type to play upright and to move in space. I thought he showed incredible speed on a play that actually gave up a touchdown. Although Razorback Robert Johnson was able to get to the corner and score, anyone who watched had to be impressed at just how fast Brian Cushing really is. For a guy who weighs somewhere in the 240 pound range, he can simply flat out motor. It was also evident last night that SC can also succeed on many plays out of the more traditional 4-3 formation. Guys like Lawrence Jackson and Kyle Moore give the Trojans an excellent blend of size and speed and that duo also provides a little something extra against the run.
SC's pass coverage was overall very effective. Yes, Arkansas was able to mount one very impressive drive during which they converted on a number of third downs. None of the conversions was more worrisome than the 3rd and 16 make which seemed like a return to the ways of last year. As a fan, one should never forget that the other guys have ability too and they deserve plenty of credit when they complete nice plays. Still, one can't help but wish the SC rush had put the qb on his back sooner so as to make it harder for Johnson to complete a tough pass. Johnson passed much better when he had plenty of time. Even the best defensive back and the best linebackers in the game con stick with receivers so long. Almost any adequate college passer will hit his receiver when both the "thrower and the catcher" have what seems to be all day to throw. However, big-time completions were relatively few for Arkansas and picking off 3 balls in one game in some kind of accomplishment, especially considering how relative young and inexperienced the SC corners really are. Kudos go to all the safeties and cornerbacks for a job truly well done. I also have to make a special note of how athletic and fast Taylor Mays really is. When he came in late in the fourth quarter, he made his presence known quite fast and in a big way. That kid is a major stud who will be heard from for years to come. Meanwhile, I am still waiting to find out what kind of injury Josh Pinkard suffered on a punt return coverage late in the game. He is a major contributor to this team. Losing him for any period of time would be just awful, though if any team around has the talented depth to pull that off it is USC.
Three other areas of note that simply have to be mentioned related to the special teams, the receivers and the coaching overall. Troy Van Blarcom was an awesome weapon in this game. He kicked of many times and only one was able to be returned. Having a kicker perform as Troy did last night is a huge weapon for any team. It not only prevents the opponents from getting good field position, it is deflating to their psyche when their speedsters just don't get a shot to strut their stuff. Similarly, the Field Goal kicking of Mario Danelo is terrific. Although he did miss one PAT, he hit all of his field goal attempt and that was simply huge. It would have been very disappointing to end some of those early drive without scoring any points. The receivers just have to love the way things started out. Last season, I often got the feeling that Matt had a type of tunnell vision which allowed him to see only Dwayne Jarrett. Admittedly, when a guy is as awesome as DJ, that is not necessarily a bad thing. But tonight, JD Booty really spread it out. Fred Davis had a field day out there and he was one of three receivers to catch 5 passes. And who could have predicted that Ryan Powdrell would emerge as such as receiving threat? He actually caught four passes.
As for the coaches, what else can be said? With the exception of a few rather bizarre illegal procedure calls, the offense played relatively error free football. That is really something considering that the backfield was new. As for Kyle Williams and his 3 calls in one half, I have no idea. Whatever it was, the problem was resolved at halftime. He did not have another illegal procedure call. I also loved the fact that the Oline did not get called for holding. SC did get hit for 50 yards, but 15 of them came on a weird punt play and there were none of those killer personal foul, bonehead calls that drive everyone up a wall. Yes, once again, the Trojans came out well prepared, well conditioned and immensely talented.
I did not get to hear any post game comments by Coach Nutt, but it would be gratifying to hear him simply state the obvious. USC is a more talented team than Arkansas and they are very well coached. Listening to Coach Lou "whiney" Holtz is simply a bad idea. His proclamation that Arkansas would beat the Trojans was simply wrong. Similarly, his contention that Michigan would be the only really good team his beloved Irish would play is also wrong. Ya see, Granny Holtz, you overlooked one very important team---The University of Southern California Trojans. The reports of the Trojans' demise have been a bit premature. I am not making any bold statements or predications except one. This USC Team will continue to improve and if they play up to their amazing potential, SC will pose major challenges for each and every opponent on its schedule.