Observations from the Desert: What We Learned from USC vs. Arizona

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 analysis of the Trojans’ win over Arizona:

Lane Kiffin’s Emergence as a Great Play-Caller

Kiffin’s decision making and general game management has improved over the course of the season. First, Kiffin has shown the courage to dial up gutsy plays in big situations; this is not to be confused with recklessness. And second, Kiffin has learned how to develop smart game plans week after week.

USC fans were accustomed to the derring-do of “Big Balls” Pete. Carroll would routinely attempt fourth conversions in a variety of situations. While the bravado was loved by many, eventually it got to the point where smart football minds began to question the sanity of the man behind the calls. Under Kiffin, however, the approach to fourth downs has been tempered a bit. Last night against the Wildcats, Trojans fans saw a bit of the courage and creativity that Kiffin can bring to fourth down situations.

On USC’s third drive of the game, Kiffin went for it on fourth down twice. The first opportunity was a 4th and 1 outside of field goal range. Kiffin called a run up the middle for Tyler, who easily bulldozed his way to move the chains. The second opportunity was a 4th and 3 in field goal range. Kiffin sent his field goal unit onto the field, giving the Wildcats the notion that they would simply kick the field goal and take the points. However, as we know from previous games, the Trojans have a lot of options out of their field goal package. With backup quarterback Mitch Mustain serving as the placeholder, the Trojans are able to audible to a traditional offensive set and run a designed play. And that’s exactly what they did. Mustain took a shotgun snap, faked the handoff to kicker Joe Houston (hilarious), and delivered a short strike to the right side to tight end Jordan Cameron for the first down.

Kiffin’s lone “mistake” came near the end of the game in Arizona territory. The Trojans were leading 24-14 with just over two minutes remaining. With the ball at the Arizona 15 on a 4th and 2, Kiffin decided to go for the first down and the chance to run out the clock if they could convert it. Barkley faked a handoff to Tyler going left and bootlegged back to his right. Fullback Stanley Havili was wide open in the flat, but Barkley’s pass was batted down by Arizona’s Jake Fischer. After the play, a friend of mine texted me and blasted Kiffin’s decision. Certainly, the decision can be questioned. USC was up by ten points at that juncture and another three points would force Arizona to have to score two touchdowns instead of one touchdown and a field goal in order to tie/win the game. And while the play failed and Arizona then marched down the field and scored to make the game closer than it really should have been, I don’t think you can condemn Kiffin’s choice too harshly.

For one, kicker Joe Houston is a liability even from what would have been 32 yards. Remember, just last week against Arizona State, Houston missed 27 and 35-yard field goal attempts. Would you rather call on Houston in that situation or give Barkley the chance to drop a short pass to a sure-handed Havili? I’d probably take the latter more often than the former. Second, if Kiffin had sent Houston out to kick the field goal, and Houston had missed it, then what would the critics have said? “Kiffin should have known better than to trust Houston in that situation.” What I am saying is that everyone loves to criticize decision-makers after the fact. But when I examine the decision and block out my knowledge of the result, I don’t think it’s a terrible choice. Now I’m not saying I would go for it ten times out of ten. But I I generally favor an aggressive play-calling approach and I think the decision and the play call were justified. The execution simply didn’t happen, and you can’t blame Kiffin for that.

Finally, Kiffin makes great calls in all situations, not just the universally-noticed fourth down. In the fourth quarter, on a 3rd and 7, Barkley rolled to his right and gave a delayed handoff to Havili who countered back up the middle for a huge gain. It was such a subtle call and a play that will never make a highlight reel, but it was truly a great chess move by Kiffin. Pay attention to little things like that throughout SC games!

Marc Tyler is The Man

Last week I was confused as to why Marc Tyler did not get the bulk of the carries against Arizona State despite the fact that he gashed them whenever he touched the ball. I also said that I was not a fan of the running-back-by-committee system if it employed more than two backs. Well, it seems like Kiffin may have read my critique and adjusted his game plan accordingly last night versus Arizona. After carrying the ball just 12 times last week, Tyler carried the rock a whopping 31 times last night en route to 160 yards and 1 touchdown. The guy was unstoppable. He consistently made the first guy miss at the line of scrimmage and usually carried another one or two Wildcats on his back for the tough extra yards. While his speed is not breathtaking, his quickness is deceptive, and that allowed him to outrun defenders on the edges and make some guys miss.

If Kiffin still wants to keep opposing coaches guessing, I suppose he can keep telling everyone that USC has a running-back-by-committee. But look at how the rushers have performed in the past two weeks; Tyler has run extremely hard and produced nearly 6.5 yards per carry; Baxter has gotten opportunities, but still does not hit the hole like a running back should; and Allen Bradford has seen limited action because of nagging injuries and ball-security issues. If there is, in fact, some sort of committee, Tyler is without a doubt the head chairman. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Ronald Johnson is The Invisible Man

The senior wide receiver started the season off with a bang at Hawaii by finding the end zone three times. Immediately after that game, people hopped on the Ronald Johnson bandwagon and I even heard some faint Heisman Trophy whispers. But after watching last night’s game, Johnson’s lack of production has me wondering if he’s even the team’s fourth-best receiving option.

Over the past three weeks, Johnson has averaged an unremarkable three (3) catches and 36 yards per game. Last night against the Wildcats, Johnson caught two passes for 25 yards. He also dropped two passes that I would expect any starting wide receiver, and especially a top-two receiving option, to catch; the first was a ball that Barkley threw into the corner of the end zone in the second quarter that forced Johnson to lay out. Johnson had both hands on the ball but could not haul it in. While a hypothetical catch would have been nullified by a holding penalty, Johnson should have completed the play. Diving catches are tough, but being a number one or two option demands that you cash in the tough ones. The second ball that Johnson should have caught was a wide-open slant over the middle that would have resulted in a runaway touchdown. To Johnson’s credit, Barkley delivered the ball low (around Johnson’s knees/shins). But again, Johnson got two hands on the ball, and should have brought it in. I bet if you ask RoJo he would agree.

With as much attention as freshman Robert Woods is receiving these days, RoJo’s production should go up. While I acknowledge that coach Lane Kiffin wants to spread the ball around, it is inexcusable that Johnson has disappeared during the season’s home stretch.

Third Down Defensive Woes

Coming into the game against Arizona, I felt like USC had trouble stopping teams on third down. Looking at the numbers, however, did not reveal a terrible third-down defense prior to last night; USC opponents had completed 44.6% of third downs (54-121). Maybe I just think the defense wilts on third down because third-down conversions are backbreakers and they tend to stick in memory longer.

That being said, the SC defense had a forgettable night against Arizona on third downs. The Wildcats converted 11 of 16 on the night, including a 7-for-8 line at the half. Third downs not only extend drives, but they keep the defense on the field, keep the offense on the sideline, and keep the momentum with the opponent. I expect Monte and company to address their deficiencies in this area during the coming week.

On a side note, was it me or was the play-by-play announcer on the ABC broadcast terrible? I felt like we got the C-team. Not only was he late/wrong on multiple calls throughout the night, but it was evident that he wasn’t even paying attention to the game. During the third quarter, the Wildcats converted a big 3rd and 10 on a wide receiver screen pass to Juron Criner for 13 yards. At the end of the play, the commentator said, “Here is an example of Arizona doing what they did not do in the first half, and that’s convert on a third and long.” Um, check your stat sheet, big guy. As I said above, the Wildcats went 7-for-8 on third down in the first half, and several of those came on third and long. At the very least, a play-by-play guy should follow the game.

USC Pass Defense Continues to Struggle

I know I am starting to sound like a broken record here. After every Trojans game, I gripe about the poor play of the USC secondary. Well, surprise surprise, this week is no different.

Arizona quarterback Nick Foles shredded the USC secondary, which had more holes than a slice of Swiss cheese. Foles connected on 32 of 48 passes for an eye-popping 353 yards and 3 touchdowns. He did not throw a pick, either. Not only did the USC defense make Foles look like Joe Montana, but they made Arizona’s wide receivers look like twins of Jerry Rice. Coming into tonight, Arizona’s Terrence Miller had less than 50 receiving yards on the entire season; tonight, Williams recorded 116 receiving yards. Prior to tonight, Arizona senior Travis Cobb had never caught a touchdown pass in his career; tonight, Cobb caught 4 passes for 50 yards and his first touchdown. Arizona’s standout wide receiver, Criner, nursed a leg injury but still managed to record 6 catches for 98 yards.

The only thing that can change at this point is Monte Kiffin’s play-calling. The talent cannot be fixed; Shareece Wright is in his last season and will not get any better; Torin Harris is terrible, but lucky for him he is a freshman so it is “understandable.” Nickell Robey has been somewhat of a surprise and T.J. McDonald is emerging as a playmaker at the safety position. Kiffin needs to either put these guys in better positions to not get burned and make plays or dial up more pressure on opposing quarterbacks to limit the amount of time passers have to pick apart our defense. Fortunately, the Trojans do not face any dangerous passing attacks in the next three weeks.

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