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A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

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U.S.C.’s Flaws Cut Title Hopes Down to Size

Let’s run down the issues, because they’re numerous, they’re vital and they’ve suddenly risen to the surface, thanks to U.S.C.’s 21-14 loss to Stanford on Saturday night. There’s the Trojans’ offensive line, which fell apart without Khaled Holmes as its anchor at center. Tied into the line play is Matt Barkley’s inability to handle the pass rush – and this reflects more so on U.S.C.’s front than the team’s Heisman contender under center. There’s the offense’s inefficiency on third down, which went overlooked against Hawaii and Syracuse but stood front and center against the Cardinal. There’s the defensive line, an issue today just as it was in August.

U.S.C. has issues – but each is rectifiable but one: the team’s overall lack of depth on both lines. You knew that the defensive line was a potential sticking-point over the summer; the Trojans entered the opener with a senior, two sophomores and a redshirt freshman in the starting lineup.

Bodies are at a premium. What would happen if Wes Horton suffers a major injury, as did Devon Kennard – torn pectoral muscle – over the summer? What if one of the big bodies inside, like sophomore George Oku, missed an extensive amount of time during conference play?

In comparison, optimism surrounded the Trojans’ offensive front. But we saw on Saturday night how one injury dealt a potentially fatal blow to U.S.C.’s title hopes. Will Cyrus Hobbi eventually be the answer in the middle? I have little doubt – Hobbi will eventually look back at Saturday night as the turning point in his career. Unfortunately, the redshirt freshman wasn’t ready for prime time.

The result was Barkley’s worst performance since a season-ending win over U.C.L.A. in 2010. The Cardinal sacked Barkley four times; they didn’t notch a single sack in last year’s 56-48 win. Barkley completed 20 of 41 attempts – completing less than 50 percent of his attempts the third time in his career – for 259 yards and a pair of interceptions.

He was held without a touchdown for the first time since a loss to Oregon State on Nov. 20, 2010 – and he missed a good portion of that game with an ankle injury. Did Stanford reveal Barkley’s true colors? Not quite. Stanford simply revealed Barkley to be like every other quarterback in football.

Subjected to every-down pressure from every angle, Barkley’s strengths – his ability to deliver in the pocket, his pro-style background – became his largest weakness. He couldn’t get outside the pocket and make the Cardinal pay for bringing pressure between the guards.

You take the good with the bad; you take Barkley’s ability to pick teams clean from inside a steady pocket, knowing that his value declines exponentially if a front seven crumbles that pocket from the inside out. All a future opponent needs to do is replicate Stanford’s blueprint – and good luck, because few teams in the country match what the Cardinal bring to the table along the front seven.

Stanford wasn’t the first team limit U.S.C.’s ability to convert on third down. The Trojans hit on 4 of 14 against Hawaii. A little better against Syracuse: 6 of 12. The Cardinal simply did it better than the Warriors and Orange, limiting the Trojans to 1 of 12 on third down – with that one conversion coming in the fourth quarter.

U.S.C.’s third-down offense is a concern that looms above the rest. Why? Because Barkley’s not an issue. Because the offensive line isn’t as large of an issue if Holmes and the rest of the starting five remain healthy – that’s a big if, but it’s worth mentioning. The defensive line is a concern, but nothing has changed: this was an issue in August, albeit one that most chose to overlook behind U.S.C.’s offensive flash.

The team’s impotence on third down might end up being a fatal flaw. Look ahead to Oregon, Arizona, Notre Dame and others: U.S.C. will lose games in the fourth quarter if it can’t convert – either because the offense won’t make up a touchdown deficit or it won’t be able to maintain possession when holding a lead. But this issue can be fixed on the practice field; the lines, however, remain an Achilles heel.

U.S.C. will survive, but it’s time to reimagine the Trojans’ standard for success. Can the Trojans still play for a national title? Yes, with some help: U.S.C. would need to beat Oregon twice while Florida State and the Big 12 leader loses a game – and even then, it’ll be a dogfight. U.S.C.’s title hopes aren’t dead, but they’re certainly on life support.

Here’s the truth: U.S.C. was always flawed. No team can win a national title with an offensive and defensive line teetering on a tightrope; the Trojans’ starting 22 could have run with anyone, but as we saw on Saturday, one injury brought a lingering weakness into the spotlight.

U.S.C. is still a great team, however – just not an elite team, and elite teams win national championships. By year’s end, the Trojans will have double-digit wins, a Pac-12 South title and a quarterback in Manhattan. The only difference is that contrary to expectations, the Trojans won’t end the year in Sun Life Stadium.

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Comments

  1. BobJ says:

    U.S.C. beat Oregon last year for the very reason you point out–the Duck defense put no pressure on Barkley all night. He was able to stay in the pocket and put the ball wherever he wanted to. It will be difficult for the Trojan OL to maintain that level of protection this year, and not just against Oregon.

    Also, it’s early, but both Arizonas are showing that they’re not rebuilding teams that are several years away from being a factor in the Pac-12 South. Either one could be ready now to make some trouble for U.S.C.

  2. MW says:

    I think USC’s inability to convert on 3rd down is more of a reflection of Lane Kiffin’s play calling than anything else.

    I also think that the Stanford – Oregon game isn’t going to be as easy for Oregon as everyone thinks. USC may end up playing Stanford twice this year instead of Oregon.

  3. Bill Condon says:

    One more factor: Stanford is a lot stronger than most folks outside the Pac-12 have realized. But they do now. Harbaugh and Luck are gone, but Harbaugh didn’t just build a team; he built a system. And he left that system in Shaw’s very capable hands. I’ll be surprised if Stanford is not a fixture at the top of the conference for a good long time.

    I wonder, Paul, what you think of UCLA’s chances in the south division. They’ve shown a lot of strength early, but it’s hard to tell whether they can sustain that level over the season. Beating Nebraska was great, but this is not the Nebraska of old. Still, UCLA would not have beaten NU last year or the year before, right?

  4. Lee says:

    You can’t win championships without dominate line play on both sides. As injuries occur throughout the year USC will fall apart. 9-3 on the way.

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