USC Football: Players Who Need to Up Their Game

William Smith@@BSmith102688Correspondent IOctober 1, 2012

USC must regroup after an early-season loss at Stanford.
USC must regroup after an early-season loss at Stanford.Harry How/Getty Images

Scandal has been the theme of the USC football program in recent years.  However, the Trojans are finally bowl-eligible in 2012, and they started the season ranked No. 1 in both the AP poll and USA Today poll with aspirations of a national title and a roster loaded with future NFL talent.  

The Trojans put on an offensive show in their first two contests, beating Hawaii and Syracuse behind quarterback Matt Barkley's 10 touchdown passes.  The Trojans then hit the road to take on Stanford on Sept. 15, a team that many underestimated since the departure of Andrew Luck, and fell 21-14 to the Cardinal, hurting their chances to make it to the Discover BCS National Championship Game on Jan. 7, 2013.  

The Trojans rebounded nicely with a 27-9 win over California before a bye week.  USC's remaining schedule is difficult, with the likes of Arizona, Washington, Oregon and Notre Dame still to come.  If the Trojans are to have any shot at a national championship or BCS bowl game, three key players must step up.

Matt Barkley

Barkley appeared to be in the thick of the Heisman race after his stellar 10 touchdown tosses in the first two weeks of the season, but the Stanford defense shut him down as he was just 20-of-41 passing for 254 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions.  The running game only managed 70 yards on 27 carries, putting greater pressure on the senior quarterback. 

Barkley took ownership of his poor play against the Cardinal, showing that he is a leader willing to accept the challenges and pressures of high expectations.  He did not dazzle with his performance in a win over California on Sept. 22, going 22-of-34 for 192 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. Fortunately, the Trojans collectively ran the ball for 307 yards, taking some pressure off Barkley.

USC's future opponents may try to employ the game plan Stanford used in eliminating the run game and forcing Barkley into questionable decisions.  In three Trojans wins, they have rushed for 685 yards. If defenses limit the run game, Barkley must make better decisions and prove that he is capable of leading the team to victory with his arm.

Robert Woods

An All-American in 2011, Woods caught 111 passes for 1,292 yards and 15 touchdowns in 12 games and was a Biletnikoff Award finalist.  In four games in 2012, Woods has just 25 catches for 203 yards. While his four touchdowns are still impressive, it seems that sophomore Marqise Lee is Barkley's favorite target as he has put up big numbers with 40 catches for 457 yards and six touchdowns.  

According to's Pedro Moura, Woods' struggles can be attributed to Lee's emergence, defenses keying in on Woods, Woods' preseason ankle injury that caused him to miss reps with Barkley, and finally Lane Kiffin's conservative play-calling in the first four games of the season.

The junior receiver has plenty of talent, but he must start playing better if the Trojans want to avoid another setback.  If Barkley is able to get him involved early, he will prove his mettle late in close games when he is most needed.

Defensive unit

Many claimed that this defensive unit, combined with a great offense, would be the perfect recipe for a BCS National Championship for the Trojans in the 2012-2013 season.  The defense was not the reason the Trojans lost to Stanford, but allowing 28 points to an inferior Syracuse team on Sept. 8 did not exactly give fans the belief their defense matched up with the defenses of Alabama and LSU.

The unit has allowed 346.5 yards of total offense per game.  It's not a horrible number, but it also isn't elite.  USC's offense figures to score a lot of points, thus skewing the defensive numbers to some extent.

Most importantly, the unit will have to step up in close games and make stops or create turnovers.  The defense already has 16 sacks and eight interceptions through four games, but it must make key stands in close games to lift the Trojans to victory.  The offense will put up a lot of points, but for the defense to be truly elite, they have to prevent games in which they are trading points with their opponent.  

The Trojan defense has allowed only 13 first-half points this season, but in the third quarter alone, they have surrendered 36 points.  They must come out of the locker room with more intensity in the second half of games.