By this point in time, there have been umteen million posts and opinions about how the first half of the season has gone, what's wrong with the offense, what's wrong with the defense and how the current coordinators are just not getting this and that done the way their predecessors did and how the previous guys would have done with this current team. Similarly, there have probably been just as many posts calling out those who dared to criticize the team, players and/or coaches and just about anything else. The saying goes something like, "look, this team's record is 6 wins and 0 losses, and that is all that anyone could possibly want. You guys really are a bunch of spoiled fans!" I don't know that I have read every single post, but it sure seems like I have taken in a great number of them. And despite all that has been said and written up to this point, I do think there are a few more points that have not been made and some ideas that are still worth sharing.
To begin with one must state the obvious. USC has played one of the nations toughest schedules up to this point and they have won every single game. Not every game has been pretty, and some of the wins have been unlike what many of the fans, especially the younger fans, have accustomed themselves to seeing. After SC got by Arkansas with relative ease, winning 50-14, the Trojans have failed to score 30 points in any subsequent game. On a positive not, SC has not been held under 20 points in seemingly forever, yet those overwhelming offensive explosions that we saw so often over the last several years have been nowhere to be found. To be exact, USC is averaging a mere 30 points per game through its first six games, and if one were to eliminate this year's anomally, the 50 points at Arkansas, the average is just 26 ppg. Imagine that, in the last five games, SC has averaged less than 4 touchdowns per game, after having scored almost twice that amount on a weekly basis last year.
So, when it comes to the offense, what is the problem? Or better yet, if the opposition is averaging only 15 points per game, is there any problem at all? Well, anyone who watches the games can see that this year's offense has hit some bumps in the road and they do struggle at times, often for long stretches at a time. However, to my way of thinking, this should not come as any surprise. Not only is every player in the current backfield a first time starter this season, USC has never managed to start the same backfield and the same group of receivers for two consecutive games. That's right, in each and every game, either somebody who runs the ball or catches the ball has been different than the guy the week before. When a young quarterback is trying to establish a rhythm and feel for the season and for his team, it is not at all helpful that he can't get into any really good groove with anything resembling a starting unit and stay there. One week it's Smith who gets the ball, then Jarrett and then Turner. Unfortunately, up till now, rarely do they all get the ball in the same game when they are all cranking on on cylinders. Thankfully, starting quarterback, John David Booty has remained healthy and through the first half of this season he has done reasonably well, connecting on 63.3% of his passes for 13 TD's and 4 interceptions. Even though Booty had arguably his weakest game of the season against ASU, overall, he has been just good enough to help lead the Trojans to a win in every single game.
The players in the current backfield have the unenviable job of replacing perhaps the greatest and most legendary backfield in the modern era, namely the SC backfield that included Leinart, Bush and Lendale White. (Of course, some might argue that backfield with Charlie White, Marcus Allen and Paul McDonald was not all that far behind). Making the task even more difficult is that the new kids are young and talented, but they are replacing guys who left as experienced and seasoned veterans. That is where an additional problem arises. I have yet to hear many compare the current group of players to their predecessors at similar stages of their careers. NO, what we tend to read is that we don't have the breakaway threat of a Reggie Bush, and the accuracy and savvy of a Matt Leinart. I guess we should mention, that in one player, a now healthy Chauncey Washington, SC may actually have a guy who can match LenDale White any which way one wants to make the comparison. The guy who put the Trojans on his back in the game winning drive against the Arizona State Sun Devils has already shown me that when healthy, he is about as fine a power back as we are likely to see, and he also has pretty good speed at that.
Make no mistake, the current guys in the backfield are a talented lot. The young runners, CJ Gable, Emmanuel Moody, Stafon Johnson, Stanley Havili and Allen Bradford are very talented in their own right. Havili looked like a star in the making till he broke his fibula. Moody is averaging a whopping 6.4 yards per carry, and CJ Gable has shown great ability in his own right, particularly when he runs the famous student body sweep to the wide side of the field. In fact, to my eye, Gable runs that toss pitch as well as any tailback I can recall at SC since Marcus. Now that SC has managed to lose Hancock, Powdrell and Havili at the fullback spot, we are getting a chance to see what highly touted Allen Bradford can really do. I have no doubt that as the seson progresses, if Bradford stays healthy, he will bring that element of the offense back to the game that has really been missing since Powdrell dominated in the Arkansas game. In fact, is there anyone who has any doubt that the entire offense has suffered greatly ever since Ryan went down? It looked like it was coming back to life when Havili came in and then, wham, he broke his leg. In Allen Bradford, SC has a fast, talented and strong football player who can run, catch and who is strong and tough enough to lay the wood as a blocker. In my opinion, Bradford's development will be a huge key to the offensive success in the second half of the season.
Lots has also been mentioned about the play calling. I admit that some of the calls have had me shaking my head, and I did not think the calls for part of the game against ASU were particularly awe inspiring. Perhaps, worst of all, there were times when it was not hard at all to guess what was coming. On the other hand, all too often, one forgets exactly what the coaches have to deal with. Offensive lines take time to gel. This line has three starters that are different than those from last years offense. That in itself can be a huge hurdle to overcome. Replacing the offensive backfield was obviously complicated by the inordinate number of injuries to the fullbacks. But most of all, the guys in the backfield are simply young, either in terms of age, experience or both. I personally feel that youth and inexperience has been the biggest problem and it is not used as an explanation as often as perhaps it should be. No matter how talented some of these kids are, they are still very new to starting roles on a college team and that is a huge issue. Booty is a 4th year junior, but he is also a first time starter. I am not surprised that he may be having some issues. Can anyone think of some first year starters at quarterback for a team like USC who simply cruised through his first year without hitting the wall once or twice? And when the receivers went down, all three starters to be sure, the guys behind them are talented but oh so inexperienced. In fact, with guys like Patterson, Hazelton and McCoy, I don't think it is their talent level that causes potential problems. I think there is really reason to wonder if they literally know what to do on every play that may be called. Thus, it just might not have been as easy to "open things up" in the first half of the season as many would have liked to see, yours truly included.
The best example of talent vs youth that comes to my mind is number 55, Keith Rivers. Keith came into the program and he was given that number, the one Seau and McGinnest wore at USC--#55. I honestly think Keith was as highly recruited as just about any of the guys on the team now and some services had him listed amongst the very best high school linebacker prospects in the entire country during his senior year. But to be truthful, I don't think he was incredible in his first two years at USC. Oh sure, he had some huge moments and it was obvious that the sky is the limit for him. However, he did not excel, at least not to my eye, game in and game out. He did not take his game to the next level and keep it there. Yet look at him now. Coach Carroll has said that Keith is playing the best defense of anyone on the team at this point and not many, if anyone at all, disagrees with that! So what gives? Was Rivers loafing in his first two years? Was he overrated? I think the answers to those questions is no,not at all. The truth is that he was only a true freshman and a true sopohomore. Some things just take time. And that is it in a nutshell folks, When a team starts a true freshman at tailback and a true freshman at fullback and a first year starter at quarterback in one game, some things are bound to get messed up. It is simply improbable for talented newcomers to be equal to or better than talented, experienced guys. Sure, there is the occasional exception, but that's what it is, the exception, not the rule. Another example that might help prove my point is the following. Last night, when changing stations, I happened to go to Fox Sports Northwest. And guess what game was on? It was the 2002 WSU-USC game. Remember that team folks? Guess who was on that defensive line for the Trojans! Well, the line had Omar Nazel, Shaun Cody, Mike Patterson and BKU, Big Keneche Udeze. And guess what. That Washington State offense went through that highly touted USC defense like a hot knife through butter. They gained 201 yards on the ground and 315 yards through the air, and Washington State was one of two teams to beat USC that season. The point is that the dline was young that year, and even with all that talent, they were had and in a big way by the Cougars (though admittedly, not by many others). When a spread offense is hot, and when a team is hitting on all cylinders, even talented kids can been taken to the cleaners. Yet, when reading the boards, one might get the idea that with the guys I just mentioned, everything was just perfect. Of course, that was an awesome defensive line, perhaps the best ever at USC. And yes, they usually did get the job done. But they took some time to develop and as youngsters, they were not as good as they were as veteran seniors. Most of the time, especially in college football, there is simply nothing like experience to compliment that great talent.
And how about this year's defense up to this point? Once again, there are those who are very upset. Overall, the defense is doing fairly well, allowing only 282.3 yards and 15 points per game. That is not unbelievably good, but it is not bad, either. One should remember that once again, USC has been racked by injuries. Josh Pinkard, arguably SC's best defensive back, if not their best overall defender, was lost for the season. Then Kevin Thomas was hurt, then he came back and now he is gone for the season with a broken foot. Will Harris was already out for the season and even Cary Harris has been less than 100% at times. The one guy that SC could not afford to lose, Sedric Ellis at nose guard, was also lost for a few games. After causing five turnovers against Arkansas, the SC defense has seemingly lost its mojo in that respect and the takeaways are way down compared to last year and prior years, In fact, the unthinkable has occurred in its last two games. USC has lost the battle of turnovers. Most SC fans know that in the world according to Pete Carroll, it's all about the ball. I can't help but think that during this bye week, the defense has heard about getting interceptions and causing and then recovering fumbles. In fact, my hunch is that the defense has heard that enough to make them want to get it done just to turn down that volume and frequency of that particular message if for no other reason if you get my drift.
What about the now infamous scheme or schemes that SC is employing on defense? Is USC really playing a 3-4? If not, is the hybrid 4-3 as some call it really a 3-4 in disguise? Whatever SC is doing, is it really the best for the team? I would love to be a fly on the wall when Pete and his new defensive coordinator, Nick Holt discuss that very topic. Some have said that the reason SC made the switch was to allow its best players to get onto the field. After all, SC is blessed with such a large group of talented linebackers--or at least they were till the injury bug hit. Once again, SC has been without Oscar Lua for an extended period. Luther Brown has suffered a major hamstring injury and nobody is sure when he will be back. Kaluka Maiava has missed major time due to a shoulder injury and the beat goes on. For a period of time in the ASU game, we got to see Kyle Moore get some extensive playing time along with Alex Morrow. One can't help but wonder if Moore is less than thrilled with his diminished role to this point. If so, just perhaps he is going to take his game to the next level and force the coaches to get him onto the field. That just might push Brian Cushing back to the linebacker position and Sartz, well, maybe he will play some safety and maybe he won't play as much. Remember, another of Pete's ideas is that it is all about competition and if Moore steps up, then so be it.
We are also well aware that the number of sacks is down from prior years. Is it the scheme? Is it the lack of talent? Is it that the new defensive coordinator has been reluctant to employ a more attacking.blitzing style of defense? And let's not forget something else. The other coaches have had 4 or 5 long years to get sick and tired of losing to SC, (except for Cal who actually beat them once since Tedford arrived). It is now known that mobile quarterbacks and the short passing game from a spread formation often gives SC heartaches. Maybe, just maybe SC has been caught a bit off guard and in the second half of this season we will see Carroll and Holt at their collective best, coming up with yet more new and innovative approaches to stifle the opposition.
The young kids on the defense like true freshman Tyler Mays, true sophomores Brian Cushing, Rey Maualuga, Kaluka Maiava, Cary Harris, and several other guys have now had 6 more games to use as building blocks. The toughest offenses of the year are ahead of the Trojans, not behind them. This bye week provides yet another week of practice to allow these kids and some more true freshmen who are seeing playing time such as Vincent Joseph and Shareece Wright to grow more and more with each session. These kids are really talented and all they lack is experience. On the defensive side of the ball, one gets the idea that SC has been oh so close to making that big play. They have forced fumbles, but have not recovered them. They have been in position to pic the quarterback only to drop the ball or have it go through their hands. Close counts in tiddlywinks and horseshoes, but man, how many times have the young defenders been oh so close to getting it done. Yet, despite the near misses, SC is still 6 and 0.
Next week is the beginning of the second half. Winning at Oregon State has often been a chore and a half for SC. Last time up there, it was the weirdest fog bowl I have ever seen and Dominique Byrd had to make one of the greatest catches I have ever witnessed to help turn things in SC's favor. Riley might have his team on the right track so we will be tested from the getgo. John David Booty might be a little low on self confidence to start the game, so hopefully the coaches will put him in the best possible position to succeed. I am cautiously optimistic that on offense, USC will be as healthy for the start of the second half of the season as it has been since the Arkansas game. Hopefully, John David will be able to hit his second and third receivers on their routes and things will open up. But most of all, USC will likely pose a huge double threat to their opponents. As Garry Paskwietz so astutely pointed out in his article, perhaps the emergence of Chauncey Washington in that game winning drive against ASU will be the spark that turns around this season much in the same way Justin Fargas provided that spark in the 2002 season. I guess only time will tell.
So, as the first half of the season ends and the second half begins, we know some things and will have to guess on others. We know that SC is undefeated. We know that the most challenging games are still ahead but most of them are at home or at our home away from home, aka, the Rose Bowl. Right now it is Cal, not USC that is getting tons of love from most everyone. Perhaps they deserve that and SC might not be playing as at high a level. However, I fully expect things to change and the kids are going to step it up, in some cases way up. Whether or not USC is truly the second or third best team in the country right now does not matter. They are ranked that way and somebody has to take it from the Trojans. With Pete and staff having this extra week to make those adjustments that some , if not most feel have been somewhat absent this season so far, I really like SC's chances to make the second half a complete success. And given the youth on this team and all the injuries, that will be some testament to the staff and to the players themselves.