Utah played four quarters and scored 28 points.
USC played one-and-a-half quarters and scored 38.
It was nice of USC, but totally unnecessary, to spot Utah two-and-a-half quarters.
I kid, of course, but that is what it felt like watching the Trojans play the Utes Thursday night. USC was mistake ridden, slow and ineffectual for three quarters. They looked, at times, like they were completely capable of giving the game away.
And then something happened in the fourth quarter. The offense started firing on all cylinders when both Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal were out with injuries, and Lane Kiffin finally started calling passing plays. But I will get to both of those gorgeous long balls and Kiffin’s play-calling later.
Let’s just dive in and take a look at the 10 things we learned from the Trojans win versus Utah.
Matt Barkley, for all the derision he’s gotten in the press, is still the same quarterback he was when he entered his senior season as the leading candidate for this year’s Heisman Trophy.
How can this young man be expected to deliver Geno Smith-like numbers in a conference that, you know, actually plays defense? (I’m looking at you, insane, defense-less Big 12.)
Thursday night, when Barkley got some protection in the pocket, he was every bit the QB the public expected him to be, drilling the ball into his receivers’ and tight ends’ hands with frightening precision.
Barkley passed for 303 yards and three touchdowns, including an absolutely gorgeous 83-yard pass to Marqise Lee in the fourth quarter. He was 23-of-30, and when allowed to air it out, he was amazing.
It might do Barkley some good to review Carson Palmer’s senior season and/or give the former USC QB and 2002 Heisman winner a call. Their senior seasons are remarkably similar at the moment.
If Barkley comes on strong the rest of the season, he can wrap up the Heisman. No disrespect to Smith and West Virginia, but the Mountaineers are not the Trojans, and Smith is not Barkley.
Kiffin is not an offensive genius, and he is too dependent on his game plan. He is trying to force the run down the throats of the players and USC’s opponents.
Sure, it is the type of system USC runs under Kiffin, but it is not effective, nor is it the best use of Barkley’s talent. It does not utilize Lee, Robert Woods, Randall Telfer and Xavier Grimble to the best of their abilities.
You cannot always run the ball. You cannot script out a game and be unwilling to make adjustments.
Opponents have figured out how to beat USC in the trenches, and only the Trojans' level of talent prevents complete disaster.
Kiffin needs to mature and evolve in many ways, but in this instance, we’re talking about his play-calling—which is boring, dull, ineffectual and ridiculous.
Once the running game was dead for the night (due to injury) and Barkley was able to air it out, the offense came to life. It was the USC fans know and love. Barkley was the QB we know and love.
Sure, Redd battled it out and proved why he was worth snatching from Penn State. However, USC’s running game is still pedestrian, and its wideouts and tight ends are world class.
Figure it out, Lane.
USC is every bit as good as everyone thought they were in the preseason. The Trojans are also troubled and suffering from a lack of depth and, in my opinion, a certain lack of discipline. (Which may very well have something to do with their immature, temper-tantrum-ridden coach.)
The Trojans appear to lack focus. Look at the defense—they quietly built a case that won this game (more on that later). However, for most of the game, my phone was lit up with texts deriding the USC defense. I live-blogged the game and kept calling for the D-line to wake up.
When they needed to, they did. And isn’t that just so very USC of them? For years, the Trojans have only played up (or down) to the level of talent they’ve faced. This is an attitude that needs to stop.
The Trojans are very good. The only ones beating them are themselves.
They weren’t always firing on all cylinders, but when they did, it was a thing of beauty. The D-line got it done, holding the Utes scoreless through the third and most of the fourth quarter with an intensity that reminded me of the Mike Patterson-era USC defenses.
The Utes had to deal with multiple three-and-outs, Morgan Breslin brought the pressure, and Nickell Robey had a 38-yard pick-six.
The D-line held the Utes to just 111 yards in the third and fourth quarters. They may take a while to get going, but when they do, it is amazing.
Khaled Holmes was back for this game, so all was supposed to be right with the Trojans offense. Then the Utes took advantage of a screwy snap to get a defensive TD, and suddenly legions of Trojans fans went hmmmm.
It took until the fourth quarter for the offense to get its rhythm. After two early mistakes, Holmes had an amazing game. He held off Utah’s monster defensive lineman Star Lotulelei, which was no easy feat.
After undergoing knee surgery in the early half of September, USC kicker Andre Heidari has not been as solid as we expected. He was perfect in kicking it between the sticks against Cal, but against Utah it was a different story.
Heidari came into this game having missed just two kicks all season. He missed two tonight.
Heidari went 1-for-3 against the Utes, and those two misses were on his only 40-plus-yard attempts on the night. If Lane Kiffin plans to stick with a mostly ineffective running game, Heidari will need to straighten up, because he could supplement the game plan well.
When Barkley got protection in the pocket, he was amazing. When he didn’t, he looked like he has in the last few games—those games that got his detractors wagging their tongues about how he isn’t the golden boy anymore.
But without any protection from his offensive line, without the ability to deliver the ball to receivers, tailbacks and tight ends, how can he be an effective quarterback?
The O-line has a lot of work to do. Utah, which got hammered by ASU last week, forced two turnovers just over a minute apart to open the game with 14 points—that first one coming 47 seconds into the game after a bad snap from Holmes.
OK, fine, this is not news. However, Lee put on a show Thursday night, with 12 catches for 192 yards and one touchdown, including that 83 yard reception in the fourth, as well as an 18-yard catch in the first to set up a Redd TD that ignited the Trojan offense.
If he is not in Heisman discussions this week but three different West Virginia players are, there is something vastly wrong with the media.
USC is talented; this is true.
USC still only plays up to the level of talent on the opposing team; this is still true.
However, the Pac-12 is not an easy conference to get through. USC has to face Washington, Arizona and UCLA on the road. The Trojans have Colorado, Oregon, ASU and perennial foe Notre Dame at home.
Washington beat Stanford, who beat USC. And while you cannot apply the transitive property to football, it is difficult—even irresistible—to extrapolate that line of thinking.
Arizona is playing well under Rich Rodriguez and QB Matt Scott. ASU is playing well under Todd Graham and QB Taylor Kelly. UCLA...well, it seems we cannot laugh at them anymore. Oregon is, well, Oregon, and no gimme game by a long shot. Notre Dame is even looking good.
Colorado is woeful, but that's also the kind of game that is easily overlooked.
Based on the first three quarters of play, the Pac-12 is going to be hard for the Trojans to get through without at least one more loss.
Unless, of course, they get it together.
When USC passed the ball, the offense was on fire. Matt Barkley had his best game of the season and looked smart, composed and hungry.
Both Woods and Lee were amazing after the catch—with speed that was almost superhuman in its acceleration.
Tight end Randall Telfer had a fantastic touchdown catch, which prompted my remark to a friend about how much I loved USC's TE-focused offense. Telfer and Grimble are powerful athletes who are so much fun to watch.
It's pretty simple: When USC passed, the offense worked. When it didn't, the Trojans looked disastrous.
So, what's the deal, Kiffin? Why are you so focused on the run?