USC Football vs Minnesota Gophers: Waiting to Get the Running Game Going

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USC Football vs Minnesota Gophers: Waiting to Get the Running Game Going
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Matt Barkley, 34-for-45, a USC record.

What was the first thing that stood out in today’s game against the Golden Gophers?

It had to be the unbalanced offense. 

In the first half, Matt Barkley put the ball up 20 times, completing 18.  11 of those passes were caught by sophomore receiver Robert Woods—three for touchdowns.

But the USC running backs only got to touch the ball 10 times.  That’s a 2:1 ratio.

What did it indicate? That the offensive line is not up to speed yet. 

Before today, the offensive line has only worked with the USC second unit defense. 

With four new starters on the line, it is going to take time to get the get the Trojans’ running game going.  Corner blitzes and stunts really confused them.

For now, the USC offense will have to depend on Matt Barkley’s arm and his receivers, especially Robert Woods, to pick up most of the yardage.

That was exactly what they did and breezed through the first half with a 19-3 lead.

It was also obvious that the offense missed the all-around play of fullback Stanley Havili.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Robert Woods, USC record 17 receptions

During fall camp, Lane Kiffin switched tight end Rhett Ellison to fullback.  Ellison is a fine blocker and an excellent receiver, but he cannot run like Havili and the blocking schemes are much different for a fullback than a tight end.

It will take Ellison a while to adjust.  The running backs, too, need a lot of game action.  You can see that they are not used to exploding into the line or picking up the blitz.

And things did not improve in the second half.  In fact, the Trojan’s offense looked downright impotent as the Gophers stopped the Trojans twice on fourth down and short. 

That is a very ominous sign for USC since this is a relatively inexperienced Minnesota team under a first year coaching staff.  The Gophers were only 3-9 last year, including a 32-21 loss to USC.

The Trojans will see much tougher, much faster defenses on their schedule.

The fact that USC could not get a consistent running game going hurt the passing game, which depends on the play-action pass to slow down the rush.

The Gophers took advantage and kept Barkley under pressure the entire second half, blanking the Trojans, who were a 24-point favorite.

That should give you some idea just how dreadful this season could turn out. 

Barkley, who only missed two of 20 passes in the first half, was 16 for 25 in the second half.  Woods had only six receptions in the second half, most of them for short gains.

The problem was compounded by the fact that Lane Kiffin could not open up the playbook.  When you are dealing with an inexperienced line, you need to keep the schemes as simple as possible.

Kiffin may also need to change his personnel up front if they cannot get the job done.  He is waiting for Abe Makowitz to return from a foot injury.  Also true freshmen Cyrus Hobbi and Marcus Martin have a wealth of talent, but need to learn the schemes.

One problem that is a holdover from the Pete Carroll days remains.  After a near perfect first half, the Trojans lost their composure in the second half and were flagged on several drives for false stars and delay of game penalties—another ominous sign that Kiffin and his staff cannot get this under control. 

While the offense struggled, the defense had its problems as well.  Compared to last season, the defense is somewhat improved, but not in all areas.  The open field tackling is still somewhat shoddy.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images
T. J. McDonald lifted the defense

The defense does have more depth and Kiffin was hopeful that they would not show the late game fatigue that struck them in almost every game last season. 

The defense did give up a short-field touchdown in the third quarter after a turnover.  But in the fourth quarter, the secondary got picked apart by a true freshman, Max Shortell, a two-star recruit.

It looked like de’ ja vu, except for one play.

Victimized on a touchdown pass, which he overran, Torin Harris saved the game, intercepting a Shortell pass to DaJohn McKnight at the Gophers’ 42-yard line.

But their two-point victory over the spirited but inexperienced Gophers does not mask the fact that Kiffin’s offense has lost the explosiveness that it had last season and the defense still has some serious tackling and fatigue issues to solve.

I doubt if any of these problems will get worked out in time for Utah.  So hope for the best next week, but expect the worst.

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