Three Keys to Victory Revisited

SCPlaybook's Lyle Everett delves into what went right for USC in their win over No.21 Cal-Berkeley this past Saturday night and what areas remain for improvement over the next three games.

1) Contribute to the Bears' headache at QB – Jeff Tedford named Nate Longshore the starter on Saturday morning and Longshore responded by playing a decent game, albeit just for the first half, completing 11 of 15 passes for just 79 yards. Granted, the Bears put just three points on the board, but switching to Kevin Riley at halftime may have been counterproductive.

The reasoning behind the switch was the thought that Riley would be able to make some things happen with his feet, getting outside the pocket and throwing on the run. Unfortunately for Cal, USC's defense would have none of it.

Led by usual suspects Rey Maualuga, Brian Cushing and Taylor Mays, USC haven't allowed a touchdown in 10 quarters and with every passing week looks to be the very best defense in the nation. There is a reason Pete Carroll has called this the best unit he's coached. Longshore found himself under heavy fire in the first half. And when Riley entered, he could get nothing going for his offense.

Sacked three times and under pressure all second half, Riley looked completely out of sync in completing just four out of 16 passes and an interception. Jahvid Best ran the ball 13 times but could manage just 30 yards against the stingy group. Mays delivered nasty hits all night and earned Pac-10 Defense Player of the Week for his play.

For an offense that came into the Coliseum averaging over 36 points per game, Cal could only muster a second quarter field goal against the Trojans. For the season, USC has allowed 6.7 points per game. Not too shabby.

2) Spread the wealth at WR – Mark Sanchez completed 18 passes to seven different receivers on Saturday night. Patrick Turner made the catch of the night, sprawling out horizontally to haul in a 19-yard touchdown pass that gave the Trojans a 10-3 lead in the second quarter. Late in the fourth, Ronald Johnson scored on a bubble screen to the left hash, capping a 73-yard, 13-play drive that put the game on ice.

But in the eyes of many of the 88,000+ in attendance Saturday night, the game was much closer than it needed to be. According to Sanchez after the game, the plan was for him to be more efficient in managing the offense rather than living for the big play. He did a great job of taking what was given to him, especially with Cal's defense dropping into a deep zone for the majority of the game.

Clearly, the Bears wanted to avoid getting beat deep by SC's talented receivers. Taking advantage of this were the stable of USC running backs, mainly C.J. Gable (10 carries, 81 yards) and Stafon Johnson (14 carries, 62 yards). Joe McKnight thrilled the crowd with a couple of long break-offs, but put the ball on the ground on one of those big runs and gave the ball back to Cal with just a seven point lead.

At times, the Trojans looked lackluster on offense. To their credit, it appears the players are doing exactly what is being asked of them. They are executing the plays called for them. But when Cal's good-but-not-great defense stops them for another three and out, you have to wonder what the underlying problem is.

3) Convert 3rd Downs – The Trojans managed to convert just four 3rd downs on 11 opportunities. That kind of percentage does not equate into championship football. And while the Bears' defense has been able to force turnovers this year, they are very susceptible to giving up points.

So why couldn't SC put more than 17 on the scoreboard? Maryland hung 35 on Cal. Michigan State put up 31. Arizona scored 42 and Oregon 26. But USC could only manage 17 points at home. This is concerning, especially given the point at which we are at in the season.

A big part of the problem is the rate of conversion on third down. Sometimes it's the players who look off an underneath route to go long. Other times its play calling.

One thing is for sure, USC will need to score more than 17 points in their final three games headed into bowl season.


Linebacker Rey Maualuga had a team-high 10 tackles against Cal. (Paul Pinner Photo)


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