The Sometimes Special, Sometimes Not-So-Special Teams
Let me preface this applause/criticism by saying that prior to Kiffin’s arrival, USC placed absolutely zero emphasis on special team. Pete Carroll seldom, if ever, used scholarships for kickers and punters and I do not even think Carroll staffed a special teams coach. As a result, Kiffin is using walk-ons for kicker (Joe Houston) and punter (Jacob Harfman).
As we see with the Oregon Ducks week after week, special teams can be a difference maker. It can not only swing points on the scoreboard, but it can swing momentum, which sometimes is even more critical. Well, USC special teams had both positive and negative contributions last night.
By now, everyone in the world (yes, even in places like Namibia and Syria) knows about Joe Houston’s issues at kicker. Houston missed another two field goals last night, one from only 27 yards out and the other from 35 yards. Then, in the fourth quarter, in what seemed like a storybook moment, Houston kicked the eventual game-winner. From zero to hero in less than two hours. Well, sort of.
T.J. McDonald also joined the special teams party by blocking one punt and just missing another. The McDonald block gave USC some great momentum and field position that Barkley immediately gave right back to the Sun Devils by throwing a pick on the next play from scrimmage.
Later, offensive lineman Tyron Smith, lined up on defense, blocked an ASU extra point attempt with his face mask. The block led to a Torin Harris return for touchdown for two points. At the end of the run Harris flipped into the end zone, causing a collective groan from most USC fans. Discipline, discipline, discipline. C’mon, Torin.
Finally, the kickoff unit allowed a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to LeQuan Lewis. Lewis basically started his return up the middle and then bounced it outside. Several Trojans had an opportunity to stop him, including Shareece Wright, who whiffed down low. Lewis was then off to the races and nobody caught him.
As you can see, there was some good and some bad. It was nice to see special teams having an effect on the game. Now the coaches need to work on limiting the special teams mistakes and making sure that the special teams units perform consistently each week.
Running Back Issues
Earlier in the season, we were a run-first team. Now, it’s clear that we are a pass-first team that runs the ball to remain balanced. Part of that, to me, results from the emergence of Matt Barkley and Robert Woods. Another part of that is just the inconsistent play of our running backs. Their on-and-off play stems from various things, such as injuries, fumbling issues, and not enough carries. But regardless of the source of the problem, USC needs to figure it out. Marc Tyler had a great game last night, running 12 times for 119 yards. Yet despite the fact that he was running hard and gashing the ASU defense, he didn’t get the bulk of the carries; that honor was bestowed on freshman Dillon Baxter.
I understand Baxter’s appeal. He’s a guy in the same mold of Reggie Bush and Joe McKnight (for the record, I hope he’s Bush-like on the field, not off the field, and never McKnight-like). But Baxter is falling victim to the same habit that plagued each of his predecessors at various points during their careers: dancing through the hole. Baxter seemed very hesitant last night. He just wasn’t very explosive. And for a guy who ran like that to get 17 carries (only 52 yards) is kind of puzzling.
Obviously, there isn’t much the coaches can do about the injuries. Allen Bradford is a tough, grind-it-out runner who inevitably will get banged up a bit in the trenches. But when these guys are healthy, you have to give them carries on a consistent basis to keep their confidence up and their timing on point. I am not a huge fan of the running-back-by-committee approach, especially when you have more than two backs. I’m okay with a two-headed monster like Alabama’s Mark Ingraham and Trent Richardson, but three might be too much.
By the way, after eight games in which head coach Lane Kiffin injected a steady dose of the Wildcat formation, he did not call one single play from that formation last night. I thought the Wildcat gave us a nice look to throw at opposing defenses, and Tyler actually ran well out of that formation. I wonder what gave.
Defense Shows Improvement, Work Left to Do
Although Arizona State ended the game with 33 points on the scoreboard, that number is not an accurate measure of how the defense played. Seven of those points came from an Omar Bodden 66-yard interception return for a touchdown and another seven of those points came from a LeQuan Lewis 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Thus, if we subtract the 14 points that the defense did not actually surrender, they only gave up 17 points to a potent Arizona State offense (ranked 16th in the nation in passing yards per game and 36th in total points per game).
That being said, I am still not satisfied with the defense, despite an improved performances. While I applaud them for their effort and victory last night, I still see room for improvement in two areas. First, they need to get back to fundamental football and wrap up when making tackles. Players at each level of the defense–in the trenches, at linebacker, and in the secondary–missed tackles. And that is simply inexcusable. I saw Chris Galippo whiff on a tackle that led to key first down; Shareece Wright, not surprisingly, whiffed on multiple tackles, including one that enabled LeQuan Lewis to break free on his kick-return touchdown. I could go on for hours. The players leftover from the Pete Carroll era have bad habits that result from Carroll and his staff emphasizing big hits more than form tackles. If you are consistently causing turnovers with those big hits, then that’s one thing. But if you consistently try to lay guys out, but don’t cause turnovers and let the guy bounce off of you and continue on for another 10-15 yards, then that’s a problem. The coaching staff needs to fix it.
Second, was Monte Kiffin sleeping in the coaches box? If he wasn’t, he sure as hell wasn’t paying attention to the game on the field. If he was paying attention, he would have noticed that Arizona State ran two different plays about a dozen times each. The Sun Devils abused the halfback swing/sweep pass and the wide receiver quick hitch. The swing pass is the play where quarterback Steven Threet would sometimes fake the handoff to one back and then another back would run straight out to the sideline and catch a ball with momentum going forward. The hitch pass is where a receiver out wide would simply plant when the ball is snapped and catch the ball where he started, in essence getting a one-on-one chance against the defensive back. The Sun Devils repeatedly ran both plays and gained 5 or 6 yards each time. I expect(ed) Monte to make the proper adjustments on the fly, but if not at the very least at halftime.
Could the improved defensive play be somehow tied to senior linebacker Malcolm Smith’s return to the field? Remember, Smith is one of our stronger and more athletic linebackers and had been sidelined with a knee injury. He missed the games against Cal and against Oregon, and was limited in the game against Stanford. Prior to going down, Smith was third on the team in tackles.
Smith had a nice welcome back party last night against the Sun Devils. He recorded 7 tackles, 5 of them solo, and included 1 sack. Most importantly, however, Smith recorded a big interception and ran the pick back 74 yards for a touchdown. The play gave USC some points and momentum and gave the defense some much-needed confidence.
Fox Sports Prime Ticket Completely Botched the Telecast
Can we figure out a way to boycott Fox Sports Prime Ticket and their horrendous coverage of USC games? First, we missed the pregame show, opening kickoff, and few Arizona State plays–one of which included a halfback pass for over 50 yards–because FS Prime Ticket insisted on showing Southern California fans the last five minutes of an irrelevant, two-score Oklahoma versus Texas A&M game. By the time Prime Ticket began its telecast of the USC game, the Sun Devils had 2nd and 8 from the 16-yard line. If I hadn’t known any better, I would have thought that USC elected to have ASU start from inside the red zone so that USC’s offense could get the ball back sooner.
Second, I have never seen a station pan to the crowd for shots of unimportant screaming fans as much as Prime Ticket did last night. It’s one thing to get an aerial shot of the stadium to set the stage or show a couple rabid fans during a timeout, but Prime Ticket cut to the fans between virtually every single snap. I was so appalled that I actually re-watched the game and took a tally of what I have dubbed Prime Ticket’s “Fan Obsession.” About a quarter of the way through the fourth quarter, I had counted 35 times that the camera showed a close-up of the crowd; this does NOT include shots of the cheerleaders or aerial shots from the blimp above. To the production crew at FS Prime Ticket: focus on the action on the football field. We don’t care about the guy in the second row who probably can’t even name five guys on our starting defense. Your job is to bring us the game with enough bits of the atmosphere so we can feel our team’s advantage, not so we can count the number of blemishes on some girl’s face.