USC Football: Mistakes Keep Scores Low, Not Matt Barkley or Kiffin Play Calling

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USC Football: Mistakes Keep Scores Low, Not Matt Barkley or Kiffin Play Calling
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

USC has scored one offensive TD in the second half of its first two games this season. Rather than looking at the data to understand the root cause of this problem, it is easy for some media and fans to blame it on Coach Lane Kiffin’s play calling or Matt Barkley as the quarterback.

Barkley has been criticized for his fourth-quarter performances in 2010, and his stats in 2011 show the same trend. So Barkley must be choking at the end of games and can’t finish.

If that is not the reason for the Trojans’ poor offensive performance in the second half this season, then it must be the play calling of Lane Kiffin.

However, the data shows that neither is to blame.

An analysis of the plays for the Minnesota and Utah games, including passing, rushing, penalties and turnovers, shows that the root cause of the USC low scoring by the offense are mistakes and poor performance by mostly inexperienced players.

Guess what? This is no surprise.

Half of the USC scholarship players are redshirt or true freshmen. More than half the team had never taken a college snap before this season. Is there any other college team that has this situation?

Former USC coach Pete Carroll’s smaller recruiting classes of 17-18 players and the NCAA sanctions with its unprecedented “free agency” transfer policy against USC contributed to this unique situation.

Additionally, Kiffin had to redshirt many of the Trojans’ top 2010 recruiting class and will do the same for the 2011 class due to the 30 scholarship reductions that will impact USC the next three years.

So it will take a while for the Trojan players to gain the experience to minimize mistakes. It is unfortunate that the two people most responsible for leading USC out of this sanction mess are being blamed for the low scoring offense in the second half of the first two games.

Let’s discuss the actual plays data from both games to confirm this root cause of the problem.

Minnesota Game

Passing: Robert Woods had 11 receptions in the first half and six in the second. The other receivers had seven receptions in the first half and nine in the second half, but they also DROPPED seven passes in the second half. That stopped at least two or three drives for possible scores. There were five receivers who caught balls in the first half and seven in the second.

These stats show that Barkley was spreading the ball around in the second half, contrary to media reports. Kiffin adjusted the play calling in anticipation that Minnesota would focus on Woods, which they did. The problem was execution not play calling or a drop off in Barkley’s passing in the second half.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
USC RB D.J. Morgan rushed for 80 yards on 18 carries against Minnesota, but he had only 37 yards on 11 carries in the second half

Run: There were six runs of three yards or less in the first half and 12 in the second half. There were only four runs over three yards in the first half and five in the second half. This means there were seven more running plays (70 percent increase) in the second half. This shows that the play calling changed so that there was more running in the second half; however, only 29 percent were over three yards. The issue was poor execution, not play calling with lack of running plays in the second half, as some have claimed.

Offensive Penalties: There were zero offensive penalties in the first half and six in the second half (including two 15 yarders). This is a huge difference in terms of impact to the offense in the second half and had nothing to do with the play calling or Barkley’s performance.

Offensive Turnovers: USC had a bad snap in the second half that cost 35 yards (rushing) and allowed the Gophers to score from 30 yards. This had nothing to do with play calling or Barkley.

Most of the media and the fans blamed USC’s shockingly awful offensive second half against Minnesota on Kiffin for poor play calling. They said that he didn’t adjust to changes that Minnesota’s Jerry Kill made against the Trojans defensively.

However, the data clearly shows they were mistaken.

Harry How/Getty Images
USC Freshman TE Xavier Grimble had 6 receptions for 67 yards and 1 TD vs. Utah Utes

Utah Game

Passing:  Woods had four receptions in both the first and second halves. The other receivers had six receptions in both the first and second halves, but they also DROPPED two passes in the second half. Utah was playing two safeties 20 yards deep, double teaming Woods and daring Barkley to pass in the first half.

Perhaps USC could have passed more in the second half, so that could be a criticism of the play calling, but the media and fans felt that the play calling improved in this game. So it appears the Kiffin was incorrectly criticized for the play calling in the second half of the Minnesota game, and also incorrectly not criticized for ignoring some passing opportunities in the second half of the Utah game.

Run: There were 13 runs of three yards or less in the first half and seven in the second half. There were 10 runs over three yards in the first half and eight in the second half. This shows that the play calling changed so that there was less running in the second half because Utah adjusted their defense. The issue was poor execution (more than 50 percent of running plays were three yards or less), not play calling. Yet the media and everyone seems to think USC did much better running in this game compared to Minnesota.

USC had 152 yards for a 3.9 average compared to 102 yards (discounting the 35 yard bad snap) for a 3.8 average (4.1 without the two knees that Barkley took to run out the clock) in the Minnesota game. Average per carry was about the same in both games, but the problem is, the majority of running plays are three yards or less. This is an execution issue.

Harry How/Getty Images
USC RB Marc Tyler had 113 yards on 24 carries and 1 TD and 1 pass reception for 19 yards against Utah Utes

Offensive Penalties: There was one offensive penalty in the first half and four in the second half (at critical times). This impacted the offense in second half and had nothing to do with the play calling or Barkley’s performance.

Offensive Turnovers: USC had one interception and fumble in the red zone in the first half. The INT was a poor call, according to Kiffin, because it wasn’t practiced enough, so he didn’t feel it was Barkley’s fault. There was a fumble in the second half. Two of these turnovers led to Utah TDs and probably cost USC two TDs for a 28-point swing. These were not play calling (other than the one play) or Barkley performance issues.

Michael Lev of the OC Register provides data from the fourth quarter of the above two games to show that Barkley’s passing was not the problem.

Kiffin was asked after practice on Sept. 14 if it was frustrating that the offense has not had a breakout game this season. His response:

“It’s very frustrating because we’re committed to trying to play young guys, and when you do that, this happens a little bit, and we have so many inexperienced players, not necessarily by what year they are but inexperienced players playing for us on offense and the breakdowns happen. It’s very frustrating, but still, as a head coach, you call the plays to win the game, and so, we’ve gotten conservative in the fourth quarter. ‘Conservative’ doesn’t mean you can’t make first downs; ‘conservative’ just means you’re trying not to turn the ball over and not give the game away.”

Kiffin talked about improvement after practice on Sept. 15:

“This week’s theme has been ‘it’s all about us.’ It’s not about who we’re playing. We have to improve, and we did improve from Week 1 to Week 2. And that’s the key to being a really good team is to continue to improve as we go into week three.”

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
USC Coach Lane Kiffin is frustrated by the lack of offensive scoring in the second half just like everyone else

Football is a team sport. Each individual has to execute or the team falters. It is understandable that inexperienced players are making mistakes, but this will get better as the season progresses.

The plays from the first two games show that USC’s offense was stopped in the second half primarily because they shot themselves in the foot with penalties, turnovers, dropped passes and most running plays of three yards or less. This was not the fault of the quarterback.

The offensive play calling was adjusted in both games to respond to anticipated defensive changes by the other team.

This article examines data from 2011. However, Barkley’s fourth quarter stats decrease in 2010 could be analyzed as well. Suffice to say that the entire USC’s team had problems in the fourth quarter, especially later in the season.

Reason? USC suited up 10-20 fewer scholarship players than its opponents. The team wasn’t able to rotate players like its competition and paid the price. Furthermore, injuries to key players like Barkley, OT Tyron Smith, and WRs Ronald Johnson and Robert Woods affected the offensive performance.

Hopefully, this information will help some writers and readers to focus on the real issues affecting USC this season. However, there is a lot of good to build on, and these players are gaining valuable experience.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
USC QB Matt Barkley has 71 percent completions after two games in 2011, and that increases to 82 percent without drops

Come to think of it, let’s keep those articles blaming Matt Barkley coming.

Forget everything about the data. It is all Barkley's fault for the Trojans lack of scoring in the second half.

Hear that NFL scouts? He couldn't possibly be a potential NFL top 10 draftee for 2012. Get him off your list, so Barkley can return to USC for his senior season and a national championship.

After all, QB Andrew Luck returned to Stanford for his senior year.  USC will have a much better team in 2012 than Stanford has this year. 

The Trojans will have a legitimate shot at the NC after being unfairly prevented from playing in bowl games the past two years by the hypocritical and corrupt Paul Dee and NCAA.

Maybe then the naysayers will see that Barkley can finish games with an experienced supporting cast, and he might even end up with the Heisman Trophy just like Carson Palmer.

Just think how good that would feel and such a great story for all time!

P.S. Here is a terrific video showing how the Trojans play without mistakes (ignore the score) courtesy of

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