USC Football 2011: 10 Questions To Answer vs. Utah Utes in Week 2
The USC Trojans surprised themselves and disappointed fans with a 19-17 win over the Minnesota Golden Gophers in the season opener at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The Trojans were a 24-point favorite, and some felt they would beat that spread.
This game raised questions that need to be addressed this week so they can be answered in the Utah Utes game on Sept. 10.
USC dominated Minnesota in the first half but failed to score any points in the second half while giving up a touchdown on a turnover and another to a true freshman QB on an 83-yard drive with a very soft pass defense.
Here are video highlights courtesy of T-Wire showing the positives that USC can build on.
While USC did not play a complete game, similar to most of last season, many of the issues are different. USC had a record-setting day and could only beat Minnesota by two points.
One thing is clear: The Trojans will not beat the Utes if many of these problems are not fixed.
The good news is that Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said the same thing after his team’s 27-10 win over FCS opponent Montana State (No. 5 in the FCS preseason poll).
The Utes jumped to a 24-0 lead in the second quarter aided by a blocked punt and interception, but Utah scored only a field goal in the second half.
Complicating the USC situation is the fact that over half of the scholarship players had never taken a college snap before this season, including 70 players on USC’s 112-man roster.
This is an important game for both USC and Utah. It is the first Pac-12 conference game, and a victory will put the winner in a good position to win the Pac-12 South. Both teams have some work to do, and the team that improves the most will win.
Let’s discuss the issues that must be addressed by the Trojans this week.
Will the Offensive Line Open Holes and Give Barkley More Time To Pass Downfield?
After the game Coach Lane Kiffin explained the horizontal passing scheme and limited rushing on the OL with four players who have never played their positions until this year and two guards who were not named starters until the day of the game. He said he was trying to protect QB Matt Barkley.
Barkley set a USC record for number of completions but averaged only 6.8 yards, and that included a 43-yard TD to Robert Woods. Barkley threw quick outs, slants and bubble screens and did so quickly and safely enough to avoid any sacks or interceptions.
Before the game Kiffin made it very clear that his major concern was the OL. This was the No. 1 issue coming out of spring practice, and it never got much better except for Graf settling in at right tackle.
The interior of the OL is going to be the weak link in the Trojan offense until they mesh with the outside guys.
The five OL played the entire game with no substitutions. This was also likely due to the inexperience of the other offensive linemen.
Here is the official depth chart released on Aug. 28. As you can see, there is a lot of uncertainty and inexperience on the OL.
According to OC Register’s Michael Lev tweet after the game, redshirt left guard Abe Markowitz said he will practice Tuesday and plans to play against Utah. He had been starting before hurting his foot.
Freshman Aundrey Walker could see action at right guard.
There were problems with penalties, missed assignments and a bad snap that resulted in a 35-yard turnover when the Trojans were driving for a possible score at the start of the second half.
That seemed to change the momentum of the game when the Gophers scored a TD, and the Trojan offense stalled and didn’t score a point in the second half.
The false starts and delay-of-game penalties can be fixed.
Another related concern is that USC may have used fewer shotguns because the snaps are still shaky. Holmes had problems with the snaps during fall practice, but this should get better with more experience.
It needs to get better soon, because everything starts with the center and exchange with the QB, and the center has to be quick to react to block.
The good news is that the OL never allowed a sack and didn’t have a single holding penalty. Of course, Barkley got rid of the ball so quickly that there wasn’t time for the Gophers to get to him.
Will More Receivers Get Involved in the Passing Game?
Robert Woods put on a prolific receiving show. Not only did he set the USC record for pass receptions with 17 and score three TDs in the first half, but some of his catches were spectacular, like the back-of-the-head catch in this photo.
Barkley also completed a school-record 34 passes for 304 yards with eight drops out of 45 passes.
Barkley told the Daily Trojan, “Robert is a special player. He just runs great routes. He’s a smart player who has mastered the playbook, knows defenses and knows how to get open.”
USC has many talented and inexperienced receivers. USC can’t win with one receiver, and freshman Marqise Lee (five catches) and TE Randall Telfer (two catches) shined at times. Redshirt senior Brandon Carswell (two catches) and redshirt junior Brice Butler (three catches) also contributed.
However, drops by both redshirt freshman Xavier Grimble and Telfer were drive-killers. One led to a high snap and turnover resulting in a Minnesota score. However, spreading the ball around will make the USC passing attack much more difficult to stop.
Will a Running Game Be Established?
As previously discussed, Morgan and McNeal combined for 103 yards on 24 carries.
Usually the Trojans have a balanced offense, but this represents only one-third of the offensive plays. The first series had nine pass plays on 13 total plays.
As reported by the OC Register, Kiffin said, “I don’t like to play this way. We had four guys in the offensive line playing in positions for the first time. I was trying to protect our quarterback. But it’s not USC. It’s not play-action and big plays down the field. It’s not the rhythm we want.”
The Trojans have good running backs. Surprisingly, sophomore Dillon Baxter had only one play. Senior Marc Tyler was suspended for the first game and may not be back for Utah. However, he adds some power that could be helpful.
That said, the issue is the OL, not the RBs.
Will Penalties Be Reduced, Especially at Key Times?
USC was penalized eight times for 75 yards with three personal fouls.
Six of these penalties happened in the second half, and four of them killed a USC drive that started with 8:03 left in the game and the Trojans leading 19-17.
These penalties can be fixed.
There are a lot of young players, and they can get excited, which caused the personal fouls. Except for the four penalties on the drive in the fourth quarter, USC did pretty well considering this was the first game. The defense was especially clean.
Keeping the penalties under 50 yards will help the Trojans.
Will Special Teams Get a Chance to Kick FGs?
USC was leading 19-10 in the third quarter on the Minnesota 20-yard line with 4th-and-1.
Instead of going for the chip-shot field goal and giving freshman Andre Heidari his first shot, the Trojans ran and got stuffed.
Even a miss is the same as getting stuffed. Sure, the objective was to get the first down and score a TD. However, the FG would have made the score 22-10, and it would have taken two TDs by the Gophers to win.
This team should not leave points on the table! The Trojans are fortunate to have a good FG kicker this year, so let’s use him.
Will the Trojans Continue to Go for Two Extra Points?
The hiring of John Baxter as special-teams coach has been an unqualified success. USC blocked yet another field goal Saturday, and its special teams have become a true asset.
But fans are having a hard time understanding the two-point attempts that he seems to favor.
“It’s a special-teams scenario,” Kiffin explained to the Daily Trojan when asked about the rationale for opting out of the more conventional extra-point attempt. “We were 50 percent last year. If you get a certain look where you have an advantage, it’s worth a look.”
If USC is a 50 percent two-point conversion club, how is this any better than just kicking the darn thing and not having to practice the shift and figure the odds?
If you miss the first two-point attempt, as the Trojans did Saturday, you end up chasing it the rest of the game.
Of course, there are other points of view.
There may come a time when the two-point conversion wins a game. Let’s hope it doesn't lose one for the Trojans first.
Will the Trojans Get a Positive Turnover Margin?
USC has an aggressive defense and very good special teams. Minnesota had an inexperienced QB and a team learning a new system, so more turnovers should have been forced.
This was a weakness last season, and it must improve for the Trojans to beat Utah. The Utes won their first game largely on three turnovers.
Will Pass Coverage Be Improved?
Aside from Minnesota’s last scoring drive, USC did not allow a touchdown without the benefit of a turnover.
The 302 yards Minnesota gained were the third-lowest total by a USC opponent in the last 22 games.
Yes, the Trojans missed some tackles and allowed some completions, but the USC defense was tough at the point of attack and frequently played on the other side of the line.
Senior linebacker Chris Galippo (six tackles, 2.5 tackles for losses), senior defensive tackle DaJohn Harris (six tackles, two TFLs) and redshirt freshman linebacker Hayes Pullard (eight tackles, 1.5 TFLs) were impressive.
The defensive front seven played well.
The problem is still the scheme to match up with all the potential receivers on the field. Anytime there is a late crossing route shallow or deep, the guy is always wide open. The Trojan defense seems to have a particularly hard time matching up with backs and TEs.
Minnesota is not a team that the Trojans should have been giving a five- to seven-yard cushion to in the secondary. The soft zone against a mediocre QB hurt USC again.
The Tampa-2 defense got burned in the fourth quarter with its soft coverage that allowed a true freshman to make an 83-yard touchdown drive.
Monte Kiffin called man-to-man coverage on the next series, and Torin Harris intercepted a jump ball scrum at the Minnesota 40. The key was that Harris saw the ball and played it and the man.
The Trojan secondary has good athletes and should be able to cover man-to-man more often. The soft coverage will not work against a better team and especially most Pac-12 teams.
Why Did USC Not Make the Right Halftime Adjustments and Win the Second Half?
Kiffin made few, if any, adjustments in the second half. Minnesota changed things up on the bubble screens, and those easy gainers were not as plentiful as before.
Kiffin didn't want to go into play-action because he wanted to keep Barkley healthy, but Minnesota is one of the worst teams at sacking the QB.
Minnesota's secondary has two players who moved over from the offensive side of the ball and a safety who missed almost two years due to significant leg injury. USC didn’t exploit that except for the Woods 43-yard TD.
Why not take a few shots with play-action and see what you could get?
One of Pete Carroll’s strengths was the adjustments made at halftime. This needs to become a strength for the Kiffin coaching staff also.
Will More Players Participate in the Game?
In 2010, USC was outscored in the fourth quarter. This problem was attributed to a lack of depth.
The Trojans’ lack of scholarship players (no more than 57 suited up for any game) was the reason. However, USC should have approximately 10 more scholarship players available for each game this season.
USC head coach Lane Kiffin said he would use more players this season due to greater depth and avoid a fourth quarter letdown. USC played just 43 players to Minnesota's 55 on Saturday, including only 20 on defense, where the rotations were promised to go much deeper.
Kiffin wanted to play three more freshmen on Saturday but didn't because the game was close. They include DT Christian Heyward, DE J.R. Tavai and MLB Lamar Dawson. True freshmen who did play included kicker Andre Heidari, WR Marqise Lee and LB Tre Madden (special teams).
The Trojans need to use more players so they get experience and keep everyone fresh for a complete game.
USC showed a weak OL, especially inside the tackles. Hopefully, that will be improved for the Utah game.
The play-calling has to be less conservative and second-half adjustments made.
The Trojans must play better pass defense.
USC has very good special teams, but the kicking game has to produce points.
More players have to contribute to get experience and keep the starters fresh. The offense must become more balanced to realize its full potential.
There is a lot of work to do this week. Hopefully, Lane Kiffin has solutions and the time to implement most of them.
Here are the weekly Utah game notes provided by USCTrojans.com.
One more question: The crowd was a disappointing 68,273. Where were the rest of the USC fans in the LA area? Utah is a good team, this is the first Pac-12 conference game and the Trojans need you at the Coliseum.