Five Observations from USC vs. Oregon State

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To give new readers a glimpse of my style and to give this new site an early push, I am re-publishing articles from my previous sports blog. Here is my post-game report from USC’s loss to Oregon State:

Entering Saturday night’s game, the USC Trojans and the Oregon State Beavers could not have been going in more opposite of directions. In its prior two games, the men of Troy swept the Arizona schools and gave themselves great momentum heading into Corvallis, Oregon, where it had not won since 2004. Meanwhile, the Beavers had lost its past two contests–a 17-14 affair at UCLA and an embarrassing 31-14 defeat on its home turf against the lowly Washington State Cougars. When you combine those factors with the fact that Beavers star wideout James Rodgers is done for the season, it seemed as though the stars were aligned for USC to end its recent history of forgettable performances in Corvallis. Unfortunately for the Trojans, star alignment matters only in astrology, not in football.

Here is what we learned after watching the Beavers beat the Trojans 36-7…

1.  Lane Kiffin Still Finding His Way

In previous posts, I have addressed Lane Kiffin’s emergence as a great play-caller. He has shown creativity, courage, and strong leadership during a tumultuous season at USC. Earlier this season, on numerous occasions, Kiffin mentioned the need for USC to establish an identity. He felt that it was important that the team create a brand of football, an approach so strong and unique that the team could rely upon it in every game. Last night, I saw a coach that went against the philosophies that he himself had set in previous performances. I saw a coach still tinkering with his own identity.

Kiffin decided to “go for it” on six different fourth-down situations. The Trojans converted a total of two of those attempts. While I generally advocate fourth-down attempts, the approach to these fourth-downs made me scratch my head. In several of those situations, the Trojans ran to the line of scrimmage in a hurry after they came up short on third-down and tried to run a play to catch the Beavers off guard or in the middle of a substitution. That strategy worked exactly zero times. The strategy itself is not bad if you are accustomed to an up-tempo style and have disciplined personnel (think Oregon Ducks). But USC has never been that type of team in past seasons, and it certainly has not been that type of team this season. And while the Trojans may work on that during practice here and there, I question whether the team should employ such a divergent approach in highly-crucial fourth-down situations.

Next, Kiffin continues to mismanage the running back corps. While he cannot really do anything to prevent in-game injuries like the one suffered by Marc Tyler last night, Kiffin basically puts each running back in his dog house at least once per game, and I highly doubt that this treatment helps build confidence for these young players. Look, there is no doubt that the USC running backs have talent; they were all four- and five-star recruits out of high school with incredible blends of athletic ability. But what separates great backs from mediocre backs, besides injuries, is opportunity, otherwise known as carries. Check out the number of carries per game that some of the other Pac-10 Conference running backs get compared to what USC running backs get:

Rush Attempts Per Game:

LaMichael James – 25.0

Jacquizz Rodgers – 21.7

Shane Vereen – 18.9

Chris Polk – 17.9

Stepfan Taylor – 17.8

Marc Tyler – 13.3

Allen Bradford – 8.2

The averages for Dillon Baxter, C.J. Gable, and Stanley Havili are so low that it is not even worth including on the list. So, how does Kiffin expect any of his running backs to establish a rhythm and perform at a high level each week? With so little reps and quality playing time, I just don’t see that happening for any running back regardless of what his name may be.

2.  Matt Barkley Needs to Improve His Judgment

Everyone is going to blast Barkley for the pick-six that he threw to Beavers cornerback Jordan Poyer to start the second quarter. Barkley had a receiver running an out route, which is an easy route for corners to jump if the quarterback stares down the receiver and throws a lazy ball. And that is exactly what happened last night. But there were other instances of poor judgment by Barkley that you cannot see in the box score.

On USC’s fourth drive of the game, Barkley was under pressure and eventually sacked for a loss of nine yards. During the play, while Barkley was being pulled down by the Oregon State defender, Barkley desperately tried to throw the ball away and ended up heaving the ball about five yards in front of him (the referee ruled that his knee had hit the ground before he had released the ball). While nothing disastrous came of this play (beyond the loss of yardage), Barkley’s decision to try to throw the ball away while being dragged to the ground is one that the coaches need to correct. It is a bad habit of quarterbacks who cannot see the big picture; that is, it is a short-sighted decision to “make a play.” Barkley did it last week and he did it again last night. In the best-case scenario, it saves a couple of yards. In the worst case, it leads to turnovers and points for the opposition. Ultimately, the bottom line is that winning quarterbacks eat the loss of yards and tuck the football.

3.  Jacquizz Rodgers Owns USC Defense

So far in his career, Rodgers has played USC three times. Each time, Rodgers dominated the USC defense. Here is his career line against the Trojans:

83 carries, 427 yards (5.14 yards/rush), 4 TDs

13 catches, 80 yards (6.15 yards/catch), 1 TD

That’s pretty darn impressive considering 1) USC’s athletic defense and 2) Rodgers’ size (if you buy the idea that small running backs can’t be successful). For whatever reason, the Trojans just can’t stop that guy (or his brother, if he plays). The Trojans seem to have more trouble with small, quick running backs than they do with big, bruising backs. But why?

The Trojans have always been a very quick defense that flies to the ball quicker than most teams in the country. Last night, the Trojans looked quicker than they have looked all season long. Although they were burned a couple times on the edges, they, for the most part, were able to stuff runs to the outside and had three or four players involved in those stops. It baffles me how Rodgers has so much success against the defense, regardless of who is trying to tackle him. Years ago Rodgers ran all over one of the best linebacking corps in the history of college football (Rey Maualuga, Brian Cushing, Clay Matthews). He has consistently run for big gains up the middle of the defense despite gap-pluggers like Jurrell Casey and Fili Moala.

Simply put, Rodgers is just a great running back who has USC’s number. It is uncertain whether Rodgers will enter the upcoming NFL Draft, but if he does, USC will be very, very happy to see him go.

4.  For USC, Final Two Games Will Be a Test of Character

The Trojans entered Saturday night’s game 7-3 and it looked as though they could win their remaining three games to finish the regular season 10-3, which would be quite an accomplishment for Kiffin and his staff given the circumstances. Instead, the Trojans return to Los Angeles battered (worst loss to Oregon State dating back to 1914), bruised (Barkley’s high-ankle sprain leaves him questionable for the next game), and perhaps unmotivated (double-digit win total is now out of reach like their postseason). But USC’s final two games are against the team’s two biggest rivals, Notre Dame and UCLA. While both the Fighting Irish and the Bruins have had their troubles this season, both teams would like nothing more than to kick the Trojans while they are down.

It will be very easy for USC to pack it in for the rest of the season. Barkley has had high ankle issues in the past, and from a big-picture perspective it might be best to sit him out and start the recovery process toward next season. Why risk a long-term injury for two seemingly meaningless games? Furthermore, your prized running back Marc Tyler is also banged up, and with Allen Bradford in his last season, it might be a reasonable move to let Tyler focus on next season and let Bradford get the bulk of the carries to up his draft stock and send him out on a high note.

Regardless of what personnel Kiffin decides to go with, one thing is clear:  Although the next two games carry no postseason implications, they mean a lot to the fans, the program, and USC tradition. How the coaches approach the final two games and how the players prepare and perform will go a long way in establishing that identity that Kiffin desires. Because of the sanctions, USC will not have an opportunity to be a champion, of anything, this season. But in the next two weeks, the Trojans will have the chance to play like champions and salvage what they can of this season.

5.  For Oregon State, Final Two Games Will Make or Break the Season

Before the season began, the Beavers were a trendy pick to contend for the Pac-10 title. From a scheduling standpoint, Oregon State set itself up well for BCS praise with out-of-conference tilts against TCU and Boise State to complement the grind of the Pac-10’s round-robin format. But after it lost two of its first three games and another three of four during a stretch from mid-October to mid-November, the Beavers found themselves on the wrong side of bowl bubble. While Saturday night’s victory over USC certainly helped, Oregon State must now win one of its two remaining games to become bowl eligible. Their two remaining opponents? Sixth-ranked Stanford on the road and #1 Oregon in the annual Civil War rivalry game. It’s pretty tough to imagine the Beavers winning either of those games, but with a bowl game berth on the line, you cannot count out coach Mike Riley and the scrappy Beaver bunch. If they do happen to lose both games, Oregon State fans have to wonder whether scheduling such a tough set of games was worth the price.

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