Silver Lining in a Tough Loss: Stanford 37, USC 35

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 some post-game analysis I offered on October 9, 2010 after USC’s loss to Stanford:

USC and Stanford each suffered its first loss of the season last week. The Trojans looked outmatched against a Jake Locker-led UW team that rallied in the fourth quarter to down USC, yet again, with a field goal as time expired. The Cardinal jumped out to a 21-3 first quarter lead in its highly anticipated showdown against Oregon, but the Ducks responded by outscoring Stanford 49-10 over the next three quarters en route to a 52-31 thumping. Although its powerful offense played well, Stanford’s defense allowed 626 total yards to Oregon and left coach Jim Harbaugh scratching his head.

Stanford entered the game as 10-point favorite at home. I thought the line was pretty conservative because I didn’t think the USC defense would make a single stop. Stanford needed to win if it hoped to remain in the Pac-10 championship hunt and in the overall BCS picture. On the other hand, USC, despite what coaches and players said all week, probably did not expect to win the game; a solid overall performance in a close loss was more likely. And that’s exactly what happened as Stanford nailed a field goal as time expired to send the Trojans home with a 35-37 loss.

Here are five takeaways from tonight’s hard-fought game:

1. Matt Barkley’s Improvement

Last week, I criticized Barkley for his inability to make clutch routine plays. In that game, he failed to make simple throws in crucial situations. Tonight, however, was a different story. Barkley not only made the simple passes, but he made the tough ones, too. He showed great patience in the pocket, consistently made the right read, and maintained composure throughout the night. He showed that he could adjust the amount of velocity on his passes by zipping them into tight windows and floating ones over the defense, depending on what the situation warranted. Minus one ball late in the game in which he left Ronald Johnson exposed to a big hit by an oncoming safety, Barkley placed the football in the right spots for his receivers. The second-year quarterback ended the game 28-for-45 for 390 yards and 3 touchdowns. Most importantly, he did not throw an interception. Additionally, Barkley tied Allen Bradford for the team high in rushing tonight with 33 yards (although the team should not be proud of this).

2. Robert Woods’ Emergence

Before tonight, most USC fans thought of Woods as two things:  a highly-touted, athletic freshman wide receiver and the special teamer who ran a kickoff back for 97 yards and touchdown against Minnesota earlier this season. While Woods showed flashes of brilliance throughout USC’s first five games, he had not yet had his official “coming out” party. That all changed tonight.

The speedy game-changer had the performance of a lifetime. Woods caught 12 balls for a whopping 224 yards and 3 touchdowns. He also added 3 kick returns for 86 yards. Woods did everything that a team could expect from a go-to wide receiver; he caught tough passes over the middle in traffic; he made acrobatic catches in the air; he caught short passes in open space and made defenders miss en route to a huge yards-after-catch stat line; and he made catches on key downs/situations. He showed a lot of courage on a big stage tonight, and the USC coaching staff and USC fans should be ecstatic. The other wide receivers don’t seem to want to, or be able to, step up and make big plays when the offense needs them. Fortunately, Woods looks like he is of a different mold. If Woods can stay healthy and remain motivated, he will do big things before he leaves USC for the next level.

3. USC Defensive Backs Have Eyes in the Back of Their Heads

…that is the only explanation for why every member of the USC secondary plays with his back to the football. I mention this every week, regardless of whether we win or lose. It happens at least once per game, usually more:  the opposing quarterback throws a pass, medium to deep in range, and a USC defensive back flails his arms in the air while watching the wide receiver catch the ball in front of him. No attempt is made to locate or catch the ball.

As expected, this happened multiple times tonight. On two different occasions, play-by-play commentator Mike Patrick said, “The defender…never..saw…the ball.” Once it was safety Jawanza Starling and another time it was cornerback Torin Harris. Surprisingly, I don’t think Shareece Wright was guilty of any no-look defending today, although he did blow a couple tackles. I’m still waiting for the day that a USC defensive coordinator teaches the players in our secondary to play the ball, not the wide receiver. Until then, our secondary will not be able to reverse the following statistic:  through six weeks, USC, out of all the teams in the country, has given up the most pass completions of 15 or more yards.

4. USC Defense Cannot Keep Containment

While I am tempted to say that the USC defense cannot stop the run, period, that may be a slight exaggeration. They have shown the ability to stop the inside run at times. However, it is the outside run that gives them trouble. Why? Because USC defensive linemen and linebackers cannot keep containment. We saw it plenty of times throughout the first five games and some more tonight. Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor carried the ball 23 times for 104 yards and 1 touchdown, and most of his success came on the edges. His long run of 31 yards was the result of him bouncing the carry outside and picking up yards on the perimeter.

But perhaps most telling of USC’s inability to contain runs to the outside is the amount of yards that opposing quarterbacks pick up with their legs. Tonight, Luck ran 6 times for 40 yards (6.7 yards per carry) and had a long of 19 yards that came on an important 3rd and 9 in the second quarter. Last week, USC gave up 110 yards to Locker. Trust me, these quarterbacks are not putting their heads down and running through Jurrell Casey in the middle; they are swinging wide around our defensive ends and around our outside linebackers that consistently over-pursue, get pinched down inside by a tackle or tight end, or find themselves out of position for whatever reason. Our defensive woes against the run will stop only if Monte Kiffin gets this straightened out. And beware:  our inability to contain on the edges will absolutely kill us against Oregon.

5. USC Has Heart

Look, obviously the Trojans lost. And they lost, for the second week in a row, in heartbreaking fashion. But in every defeat you can, and must, takeaway some good and parlay that into next week. And I saw plenty of good stuff tonight. Beyond the numbers and statistics, I saw courage and I saw heart. I saw players fighting for redemption. That kind of character will go a long way in determining how this team finishes the season and how some of these players finish their careers.

Barkley had a terrible game last week against the Huskies. Statistically, it was his weakest game of the season in terms of completions, yards, and touchdowns. And he made some costly mistakes that probably prevented us from winning. But Barkley responded tonight by having the best game of his season thus far. He had a season-high in completions and yards, and played mistake-free football. He bounced back and made a loud statement about what kind of player he is. And you have to respect and love that as a USC fan.

Next, take tailback Allen Bradford. Last week, the bruiser ran up and down Washington’s defense and posted a career day with 223 yards and 2 touchdowns. This week? He was shut down by a much tougher Stanford defense. In fact, up until just over one minute left in the game, Bradford recorded 11 carries for only 20 yards. But how does he respond to three and one half quarters of getting knocked down and stuffed at the line? By carrying the ball twice, for 13 yards and 1 touchdown, in the red zone on USC’s final drive. He didn’t let the rest of the game and his performance affect him. Scouts will notice that.

Finally, senior fullback and captain Stanley Havili also redeemed himself tonight. During the fourth quarter, on a critical third down, Kiffin dialed up the most brilliant call of his young career by letting Marc Tyler throw a pass out of the wildcat formation. Tyler lobbed the football to a wide open Havili, but Havili, normally sure-handed, bobbled the ball and blew an opportunity to give the Trojans the lead. At that point, Havili could have ran to the sideline, took his helmet off, and mailed in the rest of the game. Instead, Kiffin sent him back onto the field, and on 4th and 2, Barkley went right back to Havili, who, this time, caught the ball, turned up field and converted the key first down. Only big time players overcome mistakes like Havili did.

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