On Saturday, I was able to attend the USC game with a family member from Scotland. Well, if you want to split hairs, he's my girlfriend's sister's father-in-law; but they have one of those families where fifth cousins are treated like bothers and gardeners are invited to family reunions. So, as I was saying, Saturday afternoon found me at the USC football game with a family member from Scotland.
He'd never been to a football game before, but as a longtime rugby player and supporter, he was no stranger to hard-hitting, competitive athletics. He had a slight problem with the penalties, the fake field goal and why Washington had so few fans at the game, but he seemed to grasp just about everything else that was going on throughout the contest.
I say "seemed" because when we were discussing his introduction to American football at our post-game tailgate, he revealed that he didn't understand why it was illegal for defenders to tackle below the waist by wrapping up the ball carrier's legs. In rugby, he said, that's how all defenders tackle. It's the easiest way to bring someone down.
I sat there for a minute after he said that. Of course, I went on to tell him that tackling below the waist wasn't illegal and was, in fact, encouraged. But, as his comment sunk in, I realized that I couldn't think of a truly solid tackle by any Trojan player during the game, and, come to think of it, none really stood out from the Washington State game either.
Against Arkansas, Nebraska and Arizona, every single Trojan defender was flying around the field. They were playing with an absolute passion for the game and it showed in every tackle, every shredded block, every forced fumble and every momentum-shifting hit. But against both Washington schools, the Trojan defenders have seemed content to run people out of bounds, stop runners' momentum instead of drive them to the ground and merely take on blocks, rather than charge through them. It also seems that the amount of time defenders spend reaching in for the ball to strip it allows ballcarriers to gain so many extra yards. If you hit a guy solid enough and hard enough, the ball is going to eventually start coming out.
I know the defense was extremely pleased with themselves after the opening three wins and they've done enough over the past two weeks to get a couple more wins, but they've been walked up and down the field a little bit over the past two games.
I don't think the defense needs a formation change, a personnel change or anything as cosmetic as that. They need a moment. They need Nuke Laloosh's women's underwear; they need Petey Jones to come play linebacker for the Titans; they need Jerry Maguire to tell them to dance.
It's not enough for the defense to try bringing the crowd to their feet on third downs by waving their hands. The turnovers must start happening if the Trojans are to stop letting games come down to the final seconds. I can't remember a fumble forced by the Trojan defense over the last few years that came because a defender reached in with his hand to pull it out. Every one has been the result of a hard hit while wrapping up the ballcarrier. If USC defenders stop thinking about forcing turnovers and just start having fun instead of playing tight, the ball will start coming out and the defense will go back to carrying the team. Maybe we'll even be able to put together a nice little montage, complete with soundtrack.
Too Many Men On The Field:
With seven third-down conversions and three fourth-down conversions, the Trojan offense was able to successfully limit the amount of time Isaiah Stanback and the Husky offense were on the field. However, they were completely powerless to stop Washington head coach Tyrone Willingham.
During the game, Willingham was more visible than the midfield logo. He took more trips toward the hashmarks than the orange-sleeved television timeout guy. I started to get embarrassed for him, but then that turned to frustration when I couldn't explain to my Scottish first-timer why their coach was able to spend so much time on the field discussing various plays with officials. My only thought was that maybe the Pac-10 officials thought Washington would be so bad this season that they didn't even bother to send Willingham a 2006 rule book at the start of the season. By the end of the game, I was expecting the referee to finish his penalty announcements to the crowd by saying, "Holding, 25, offense, ten yard penalty… as long as that's okay with you, Mr. Willingham."
The Pretty Big Uglies:
Despite the injury to starting right guard Chilo Rachal, the offensive line played extremely well yet again on Saturday. After replacing three-fifths of its parts from last season, it was obvious that this line would have a much different attitude. Last year's line, with Deuce Lutui, turned into an offensive line that could shove any defensive line backwards five yards at the snap of the ball. As a result, the running game could be as dominant as the Trojans wanted it to be. Sure, the two guys running the ball had something to do with that, but the holes they had to run through were much bigger than this year's running backs are getting.
But as much as last year's line turned into a mauling, irresistible force, this year's line seems to be a technically sound, immovable object. Through five games, the line has allowed just five sacks against some of the best defensive ends in the country. The pass protection that Booty is receiving is absolutely amazing. He spent all of Saturday's game with as much time as he needed to find open receivers on every play. It's to the point where a four-man rush has no shot of getting pressure on the Trojan quarterback, which is a huge reason for his early success. So while the running game isn't churning out huge yards like it has in the past, the passing game is clicking exceptionally well at this point in the season. Maybe there's a reason for the disparity in passing plays to running plays on Saturday.
That pass protection has enabled Trojan wide receivers to put up some big games so far. On Saturday, with Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith both out of the lineup, Patrick Turner stepped up with a big game. However, what was most impressive was the fact that he was able to bounce back after having a ball carom off his hands, resulting in an interception.
He's still learning how to step into a role as the go-to receiver, something that Dwayne Jarrett and Mike Williams had more than enough trouble doing as well. Turner has made two pretty costly mistakes in the past two games, but his ability to bounce back with some clutch catches on the last few Trojan drives may have saved USC's season. Smith and Jarrett should be coming back soon, but having a third receiver with the confidence that Turner is gaining is invaluable.
And speaking of wide receivers, Steve Smith has become the Trojans' best. Dwayne Jarrett may still provide the best mismatch and could end up with better statistics, but on third and fourth down, nobody on the team is more valuable than Smith. He has caught absolutely everything this season. He puts himself in a position to be punished and he still hangs onto the ball. His touchdown catch that was called back was one of the best catches of his career.
I had a great final section of this column all ready to go, but the clock just ran out and I couldn't get it off.