Considering that the USC Trojans have not lost a conference game since the defeat at California in the 2003 season, one can hardly complain about anything. On the other hand, after being thoroughly spoiled like never before, many Trojan fans have come to expect perfection, or something near that each and every time the USC Trojan Football team plays a game. Well, one thing is for sure, at least to my way of thinking. It is far better to have played less than a great game and to have come away with a victory than to have played a game that both teams simply "played too well to have a loser", yet have your team be the one with the Loss. On this particular night, there were a number of issues that came to my mind, but the one that is most important is that USC is still undefeated and on track to compete and hopefully win the Pac-10 title and thus on track to earn a bid to BCS Bowl game, and maybe even the championship game at that.
Before this game, many people felt that the speed and athleticism that the Trojans possess on the defensive side of the ball is so impressive that few teams will be able to put up major points against this unit. I am not sure if most consider 22 points to be major points, but I do have to think that gaining 287 yards through the air and 131 yards on the ground against this USC defense is more impressive than most anyone I know expected. This point of view seemed to be reasonable considering that Washington State had such a difficult time against the Auburn Tigers earlier in the year. Of course, it is easy to fall into that "comparative score" scenario and one should never forget that funny things can happen to a team on the road, especially in its first game of the season. Having seen much of that particular game myself, I can state without hesitation that the Cougar team that USC faced tonight was much more in sync and confident than the bunch that went down to defeat at Auburn. It certainly seemed that tonight, the Cougars were able to keep the Trojan defense on the field for long periods of time, especially in the first half and the plays that were called caused more than a few headaches for SC.
After having a relatively difficult time containing Washington State for much of the night, it seems reasonable to ask, what happened? Was the SC defense caught off guard? Was the makeshift offensive line that Washington State put on the field much better than anticipated? Did the Washington State offensive coaches and coordinators seem to have the SC's staff number tonight? Such questions might irk some SC Honks, but I was certainly impressed with the Cougars and their play calling. USC never sacked their quarterback, but on those occasions that they were able to get some very good pressure, they were able to throw a kink into Cougar's quarterback Alex Brink's rhythm and they were able to get him to misfire. However, for SC fans, it sure seemed like Brink had more than enough time to throw for much of the night and on many of those occasions, he just tore into the Trojans' defensive unit. Being a huge fan of maximum pressure against an accurate quarterback, I could not help but wonder why more heat was not brought. I readily admit that on Washington State's last touchdown, the blitz failed. SC did bring it, and WSU had the perfect solution for the middle linebacker blitz. However, on many many other occasions, SC did not bring extra rushers and the result was simple to see. Washington State moved the ball up and down the field and kept the all away from the Trojan's offense. I believe that game plan limited USC to only 23 offensive plays in the entire first half. Again, hats off to the Washington State offense for really stretching this defensive unit to its limit.
Up to this game, many felt that the USC defensive backs had not really been tested. Well, that assertion no longer holds water. The Cougars went after all the SC corners and they really had pretty good success against each and every guy in there. SC got called for pass interference three times and I don't think anyone would claim that the calls were bad. After watching the corners, the one question that comes to my mind again, is this: "Do the cornerbacks get taught to turn their heads and look for the ball?" Or are the corners taught to keep their eye on the receiver and react according to the receiver's actions? In this particular game, I can't recall seeing a single SC cornerback turning his head and looking back for the ball. As for anyone on the current SC squad playing the role of shutdown corner, all I can say is that nobody seemed to fill that role with particular success in the game against Washington State.
As for the Trojand run defense, it was not overwhelming. Two tailbacks averaged over 5 yards per carry against USC. Tandy managed 5.6 yards per carry while Woolridge accounted for a 5 yards per carry average. If one adds quarterback Alex Brink into the equation, then there were actually three ballcarriers who averaged 5 yards per carry or better, since he gained 16 yards on 3 carries for a 5.3 ypc average himself. It is not as if Washington State was running the ball down the Trojans' throat, but SC's defense was brilliantly kept on its toes by WSU and the Trojans certainly knew that they were in a real battle. In fact the one drive of the game that was most upsetting to yours truly was that drive which resulted in the Cougars last score. Just when it seemed like SC had taken a lead that might be comfortable, The Cougars went on a long drive which took less than two minutes to cut SC's lead to 6 points. It was at just about that time that memories of the Texas game began to creep eerily into my mind, and I don't mind admitting that I was less than certain SC would come away with the win.
So how about USC's offensive effort? Prior to the game there were all kinds of complaints that this offense is too conservative, it is not explosive enough, it was being played too close to the vest etc. etc. Well, to my way of thinking the offensive performance tonight was adequate and at times it was actually pretty good. SC scored one touchdown in each quarter and in the second half, the Trojans were able to play major ball control and managed to keep the ball away from the Cougars and their most competent offense. In perhaps his most amazing performance of his career, or at least close to it, Steve Smith was a MAN. Steve grabbed 11 catches for 186 yards and two touchdowns. Perhaps the most impressive part of his performance is that he managed to do this with the Cougs knowing he would be the go to guy. SC was already missing Dwayne Jarrett and then in the first half, reliable senior Chris McFoy injured his shoulder sometime after catching his first touchdown pass. That left the Trojans' receiving corps badly depleted. And although the Trojan Freshmen wide recievers are highly acclaimed, up to this point, none of the frosh has stepped up during game time. Vidal Hazelton, Travon Patterson and even Stafon Johnson were lined up wide on various occasions, but none of that trio caught a pass. Booty did not spread the ball out very much, completing 23 or 32 passes to one of four receivers, namely, Smith, Turner, Fred Davis and Chris McFoy. In light of Jarrett and McFoy's injuries, it does not take a great leap of faith to figure that the freshmen will have to receiver extensive snaps in practice in the next week to become more active members of the rotation.
Washington State was pretty tough to run against. USC did manage to gain 135 net yards on the ground, but nobody ever got in any kind of great rhythm. Emmanuel Moody was once again able to break off a long run and he gained 48 of his total 69 yards on that one play. It was nice to see Chauncey Washington healthy enough to be the leading USC rusher with 71 hard earned yards on 18 carries for an average of 3.9 yards per carry. The Cougars were much easier to pass against than to run against. John David Booty hit for over 70%, connecting on 23 of 32 (71%) for 3 Touchdowns and 1 interception. And in his defense, the one pick he through was on the last play of the first half at a time when it looked like USC wasn't quite sure if it wanted to sit on the lead or to go for a late score. After all, the first plays of that final drive were running plays, and only when one of the runs was moderately successful did SC try a hurry up sort of pass. Fortunately that particular turnover was not directly harmful to the Trojans, though we are all well aware of what Pete thinks of any type of turnovers.
Speaking of fumbles, pics and turnovers in general, this was one game during which SC lost the battle of the turovers. USC fumbled the ball 3 times, losing one whereas the Cougars fumbled only once, losing none and the Cougars also gave up one pic. This is not a good thing, so to speak and I can imagine Pete and the coaching staff will address that issue rigorously behind closed doors. However, once again, as a Trojan Fan, one should never forget that although this was a close game, and although not everything went perfectly, USC did win a road game in the Pac-10 and that is not an easy thing to do. And although both Cal and Washinton State got pasted against SEC foes, those games were on the road. I am not at all sure that coming into Pullman or coming into Strawberry Canyon would be something either Auburn or Tennessee would be anxious to do. In fact, the last time Auburn traveled west, it seems to me that they lost to a USC team in the Los Angeles Coliseum.
As for special teams, I think it is worth mentioning that once again Troy VanBlarcom was a great weapon. Not one of his kickoffs was returned. Similarly, the SC punter, Greg Woidneck did a very good job and one of his punts was pressure packed indeed. And it was also pleasant to see CJ Gable returning kickoffs. He has some real talent and it looks like he will only get better as he gets more and more shots at returning the rock. I also think that handling the ball on both punts and kickoffs is something that is likely to get some real attention this week since Reed mishandled one punt and Bradford muffed a kickoff. Fortunately, neither resulted in a Trojan turnover.
As a fan, does one have any business second guessing strategy, especially when USC won the game? Well, who really knows, but it is fun to do, so I will do it anyway. I personally have to wonder about a few things. First, with regards to the offense, I can't help but wonder why SC did not really try to get that last first down and put the game away without ever having to face the Washington State offense again. In this particular game, it looked to me like SC's offense was at least as successful as SC's defense. In fact, in the second half, SC's offense was flat out tough. At one point, late in the game, the Trojans had controlled the ball for two long drives and had taken up something like 10 or more minutes in those drives. Yet when SC had a chance to go for one last first down, they chose to conservatively run the ball and to turn the ballgame back over to the defense which had just been vulnerable to a rapid and long drive at the hands of the Cougard offense!
One might also ask if rushing only 3 and 4 for much of the night gave USC its best chance to shut down the WSU offense? I realize that just bringing up such a question is going to really bother some readers, but nonetheless, it does seem fair to ask. The last Cougard touchdown play notwithstanding, it looked to my eye that SC was more successful on those plays when it brought bigtime pressure on Brink than on those numerous plays where 7 and 8 guys dropped into coverage only to give up pass after pass anyway. It will be interesting to read the various opinions on this topic over the next several days.
In the end, as the saying goes, a win is a win and I will take a win any time. I had an awful feeling about this game and personally I am well pleased with the victory. Yes, there were a number of penalties that hurt SC. Yes, there were uncharacteristic turnovers. But we should remember this. SC won a tough game, in a very hostile environment and they did it without any of their top three fullbacks and without two of their top four receivers for much of the game. John David Booty is growing up before our very eyes and this tough test will pay large dividends as the season progresses. Looking at the film and reviewing what happened will help all the guys improve and it might also give the coaches some ideas how to approach future opponents who might look at this game film and figure that now they know how to nail the Trojans. Chances are that their efforts will fall short.