Even though the Trojans were improving, it was likely to happen sometime.
USC was inconsistent in their first two games scoring a total of seven points in both second halves against Minnesota Golden Gophers and the Utah Utes. A more complete game resulted in a 38-17 win over Syracuse Orange.
This game was supposed to be very close with the home team slightly favored. The winner is expected to be the Pac-12 South Division champ. ASU had not beaten the Trojans since 1999.
It was billed to be a match of two good passing teams, an inconsistent but decent Trojan rushing attack, with good defenses but penalty prone and turnover deprived teams.
However, the Trojans went into this game with weaknesses in pass defense, penalties, run blocking and turnover margin.
Just when it seemed like the Trojans would get back in the game in the first half, they self-destructed. Trailing 14-6 USC had the ball on the ASU 12 and Matt Barkley threw an interception to ASU LB Vontaze Burfict who was playing out of position. His long return set ASU up for another TD for a 21-6 lead.
Just when the Trojans got back in the game and took a 22-21 lead in the third quarter and had the momentum, they self destructed. A pass interference helped ASU score another TD to take a 28-22 lead. Then Marc Tyler fumbled at the ASU 25 after several good runs.
USC was driving for a go-ahead score early in the fourth quarter and Barkley fumbled at the ASU 18. A questionable personal foul call on T.J. McDonald (his third of the night) helped ASU go ahead 36-22. Then Barkley threw a pick-six interception as he was being tackled to make the final score 43-22.
USC outgained ASU 402 to 392 total yards with a 35:31 to 24:29 time of possession advantage, but four turnovers and other mistakes killed them.
The Trojan special teams played well with freshman kicker Andre Heidari’s 3-for-3 field goals and long kickoffs, punter Kyle Negrete averaging 47.5 yards per punt, Robert Woods’ 47-yard kickoff return and Nickell Robey’s 44-yard punt return; while containing ASU returns. Woods also had eight catches for 131 yards and Marqise Lee added four for 50 yards and one TD.
This game will test the Trojans’ motivation and it will be good to return home and regroup to play Arizona Wildcats on Saturday.
Here are the five things that we learned from the Trojans in this game.
*Week 4 AP Ranking
USC Safety T.J. McDonald tackles during Minnesota game
USC had 10 penalties for 87 yards and several of these helped ASU drives.
T.J. McDonald had three personal fouls. Two were for hitting too high. The first one was questionable and the second one appeared to be a bad call. His third one was for hitting a player out of bounds but the replay appeared to show the contact initiated in bounds.
It is not clear that the Pac-12 officiating is any better this year even with the changes made. The officiating crew for this game included some Pac-10 holdovers.
There were also several pass interference calls.
However, three false starts and a holding call against the offense don’t help sustain drives.
Prior to this game, USC was in the top 20 in penalties and this game won’t make that any better.
QB Matt Barkley and Coach Lane Kiffin
USC coach Lane Kiffin was very concerned about the play of so many inexperienced players in their first road game in a hostile environment and an important Pac-12 game.
So he appeared to be very conservative in his play calling in the first half and the Trojans managed to get only nine points on three field goals. Of course, Barkley’s interception didn’t help on one red zone opportunity.
The play calling was markedly better in the second half but the USC offense self destructed with turnovers and penalties.
The lesson here is that the Trojans do not do well when the game plan is conservative. The Notre Dame game last season already proved that.
However, the Trojans do have a serious problem with turnover margin so Kiffin’s reluctance to open up the playbook all the time is understandable.
Marc Tyler scores against ASU
USC managed only 40 yards rushing in the first half on 13 carries by Marc Tyler and true freshman Amir Carlisle who played in his first game.
Tyler ended up with 149 yards on 22 carries and one TD as the OL seemed to block better in the second half.
The Trojans were 0-for-6 on third downs in the first half and 1-for-9 in the game, and that isn’t going to get it done. Inconsistent blocking is not helping the Trojans to sustain drives, especially in the red zone.
True freshman Marcus Martin started at left guard for the second game in a row, but he is the third player to start there this year. Until the OL gels as a unit and plays consistently, the Trojans will continue to struggle offensively.
The USC defense allowed ASU to get a first down on the game’s first series by letting QB Brock Osweiler scramble for a five-yard run when they should have had him for a loss. On the next play, RB Cameron Marshall ran 70 yards for a touchdown while Jawanza Starling badly missed the tackle.
Marshall had 24 more carries for another 71 yards and two TDs, but he was mostly contained after the first run.
However, the Trojan defense could not stop the short passes by Brock Osweiler who was 25-of-32 for 223 yards and two TDs with no INTs. The combination of runs and short passes allowed ASU to sustain drives and take advantage of their scoring opportunities.
The USC defense also seemed to do poorly in sudden change situations after turnovers, and the ASU change of pace offense gave them trouble also.
The defensive line did not put the expected pressure on Osweiler.
USC had a number of poor tackles that allowed ASU to extend plays and keep drives alive. ASU converted 6-of-12 third downs compared to 1-of-9 for the Trojans.
The Trojan defense also did not get any turnovers and it is hard to win games without them.
QB Matt Barkley throws pick-six interception in fourth quarter against ASU
There is one good thing that could happen from this game.
QB Matt Barkley made some bad decisions today that probably cost USC the game. His three turnovers could have been avoided and given USC the opportunity to win.
Clearly he wanted to win this game badly, and made some very good plays. However, he was inconsistent missing some open receivers and tried too hard at times to make plays that weren’t there and it cost the Trojans.
His decision making appears to have improved this year, but it doesn’t seem ready for the NFL. Barkley was in the preseason NFL mock draft top 10; however this game will likely change that.
USC is going to have a very good team in 2012 with the opportunity for a BCS bowl and possibly a national championship, but not without an experienced QB.
If Barkley returns he would also have an opportunity for that Heisman Trophy that he covets, and a more experienced and improved offensive line to help him get it.
Many Trojan fans are numb after this game.
This time it was not the inexperience of the team that stopped them. The four turnovers were committed by junior captain Matt Barkley and senior Marc Tyler. Key personal fouls were committed by junior captain T.J. McDonald.
This was a bad game and it exposed all of the Trojan weaknesses. So it will be interesting to see how the team and coaches respond.
How does the team overcome the issues of depth and experience?
How does it become more disciplined?
How will the defensive scheme be adjusted to address what other teams seem to see when they play us?
Why did the defense tackle poorly?
This was a huge loss for USC, but the Trojans need to continue to play each game one at a time, and improve in all these areas.
USC can win the next two games against Arizona and Cal and be 5-1. The offensive line needs to get better to get at least to the 9-3 mark that many USC fans expected.
This still can be a very good team.