Three Observations from Notre Dame vs. USC

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 Notre Dame-USC contest:

Saturday night’s loss to Notre Dame was an embarrassment for USC, down year or not. Upon further review, here’s what I observed in the loss…

1.  Lack of Focus

The team as a whole deserves blame for a general lack of focus in Saturday night’s debacle versus Notre Dame. I found three examples of a lack of focus and/or lack of execution.

First, the wide receivers dropped numerous passes that should have been caught. Obviously, the dropped pass that nobody will forget is Ronald Johnson’s drop of a Mitch Mustain deep ball on USC’s final drive that would have given the Trojans the lead, and maybe the victory. Johnson had beat his defender, Notre Dame safety Harrison Smith, who lost his footing in the muddy field, and had a clear path to the end zone. Mustain put the ball right on the numbers, but Johnson failed to haul it in. (Side note:  If you’re an NFL fan, you may have noticed that another wide receiver with the last name Johnson–Steve Johnson of the Bills–dropped a game-winning pass, too. It’s tough to say which was the more egregious drop, but I venture to say Steve Johnson’s simply because it would have literally ended the game right then.) Two weeks ago, I talked about how Ronald Johnson has pretty much disappeared in the second half of the season, and just to prove my point, check out the following stat:  In the first six games of the season, RoJo recorded over 50 yards receiving in each game. However, in the six games since then, he had only gone over 50 yards once, and he has not recorded a touchdown in the past four games. Mr. Johnson? Paging Mr. Johnson.

Unfortunately, RoJo wasn’t the only Trojan who dropped passes; Jordan Cameron, Stanley Havili, and Brandon Carswell whiffed on catches, too. In a game with so little offensive production, four (at least) drops did not help USC’s cause.

The second example of a lack of focus is team penalties. USC was penalized eight times for a loss of 47 yards, which amounts to almost one-fifth of the total yards they gained all game. The penalties also came at very inopportune times–a couple of them wiped away what would have been first downs and almost all of them put the team in long-yardage situations that the passing game could not convert.

Finally, USC did not cash in on multiple opportunities, a sign that the execution was just not there. The Trojans caused four turnovers, all of which occurred in Notre Dame territory. However, USC only scored 13 points off of those turnovers. It is rare to see a team lose a turnover battle so lopsidedly like Notre Dame did yet still win a game.

2.  A Shrunken Field

In trying to reason why the Trojans only managed 261 total yards of offense, I arrived at a conclusion that has two interrelated parts. First, it was clear that the coaches were not going to let Mustain throw the ball deep very often, or that Mustain did not have the ability to throw deep consistently, or both. Second, Notre Dame’s defensive line dominated USC’s offensive line, which prevented the run game from establishing itself. When you combine both of those factors, the field became significantly smaller, and as a result, Notre Dame’s defense was able to dictate the action.

Because it was Mustain’s first start in four years, it was understandable that the coaches would devise a a pretty conservative game plan–at least in the early stages of the game–to protect Mustain. But it might have been a bit too conservative, regardless of how little he has played in recent years. Mustain attempted 37 passes on the night and averaged only 4.8 yards per attempt; by comparison, Matt Barkley this season averages 7.39 yards per pass attempt–that’s quite a difference. And not only was Mustain looking short distance most of the night (with the exception of two deep balls), but the play-calling lacked variety. Over 90% of the time, if Mustain was asked to throw the ball, Kiffin elected to either 1) roll Mustain out to his right, 2) throw a quick wide receiver hitch to the outside, or 3) throw a wide receiver screen pass. It’s one thing to beat the opponent over the head with these plays if they are getting you 6, 9, and 15 yards a pop. But it’s a completely different story when the plays get you only 3 or 4 yards each time.

As for the battle in the trenches, USC’s offensive line was never able to get a consistent push to enable the running backs to run downfield. Ideally, the Trojans would have ran the ball to set up some nice play-action fakes for Mustain and get him some easy opportunities. Instead, the Trojans’ 30 rush attempts only gained 80 yards (2.7 yards per carry). As a result, the dozen run fakes that Mustain carried out did little good. Why would Notre Dame’s secondary bite on run fakes when the running backs couldn’t even get past the line of scrimmage most of the night? I was very surprised to see the offensive line manhandled like they were.

3.  Bright Spots:  Defense and Kicking

The silver lining in this loss was the performance of the USC defense, which is usually the butt of jokes when it comes time to write game recaps.

The defense surrendered only 296 total yards to a team that normally averages over 370 total yards. It did so mainly by shutting down the passing attack; quarterback Tommy Rees passed for only 149 yards and was limited to only 4.7 yards per attempt. USC was also able to stop Notre Dame on third down, something that the defense has failed to do with other opponents; the Fighting Irish converted only five of their fifteen third-down opportunities.

But the biggest reason why their performance is laudable is because they forced four turnovers. And while the offense was unable to capitalize on those turnovers, it was nice to see the defense make game-changing plays once again. The defense picked three Rees passes off, all in enemy territory. Furthermore, it was the manner in which the interceptions were made that is also impressive; both Devon Kennard and Chris Galippo made their interceptions after they had dropped back in zone coverage, which shows their versatility as linebackers. Marshall Jones picked his ball off by making a play on the ball and cutting in front of a receiver, not parking under an overthrown ball. In general, the Trojans were very active in the passing lanes and managed to deflected a lot of passes. This performance was a nice sign that the players may finally be adjusting to Monte Kiffin’s schemes.

And finally, every USC fan’s favorite punching bag, kicker Joe Houston, redeemed himself in a nice way on Saturday night. Houston was the team’s biggest source of offensive production, successfully kicking three field goals and an extra point. His first field goal was kicked from 45 yards away, which was his first successful kick from outside 40 yards all season long. Kudos to Joe Houston. At least for one week, he won’t be the most hated kicker in a college town–that honor goes to Boise State’s Kyle Brotzman, who had this forgettable sequence of events against Nevada.

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