USC Football: 10 Mistakes USC Can't Afford to Make Again
With the start of the 2011 college football season looming on the horizon, USC Trojan fans are beginning to feel the flush of optimism for this year's version of the men of Troy.
And why not?
Though there are serious reasons to be concerned, specifically due to questions surrounding the offensive line, there are also many reasons to suspect that 2011 will be far better than last year's disappointing campaign.
Now, it can't be overstated how critical a capable performance by the O-line is to the overall success of the team, and if this unit struggles, it will be a long year for the cardinal and gold.
Having stated this, there were many reasons USC stumbled to the 8-5 record, and the play of the 2010 offensive line certainly wasn't the primary reason for last year's disappointing result.
No, there were plenty of other culprits to point the finger to for the Trojans' demise a year ago, and this slideshow will attempt to identify those deficiencies.
So without further delay, let's get started on the 10 mistakes USC can't afford to repeat in 2011...
No. 10: USC Must Establish a Consistent Running Game
Last year, the Trojans finished 25th in the nation in rushing.
Now, that's not bad, and if USC can match that production in 2011, then they should be just fine in the upcoming year.
But that is the problem.
Can they match 2010's rushing efforts with an offensive line that will undergo an almost complete makeover from last year's squad?
Even last year, there was much conjecture regarding who should have been the featured running back.
Though Marc Tyler, who returns for his senior year, rushed for almost 1,000 yards, there was a lot of grumbling that Allen Bradford should have had more touches.
And perhaps they were right.
Bradford averaged almost 7.5 yards per carry.
Of course, it is never quite as simple as who has the most ypc, but that may be part of the problem.
A consistent featured back or an established running back rotation must be offered by Kiffin sooner rather than later.
While much of the Trojans' rushing success will depend on the efficiency of the worrisome O-line, the sooner a specific running back or a consistent rotation is identified, the more it will help the Trojans in 2011.
No. 9: Matt Barkley Must Make More Plays at Crunch Time
Before I receive a bunch of angry comments, I love Matt Barkley as the Trojan quarterback.
From the moment he stepped onto the field for USC as a true freshman, he has been a marvelous talent and Trojan fans, to a person, are extraordinarily grateful Barkley chose to play for the cardinal and gold.
However, there have been games that Barkley just didn't finish for the Trojans that could have been won if he had.
Missed passes, ill-advised sacks and unfortunate interceptions have cost the Trojans games on a few occasions both in 2009 and 2010.
One game that comes to mind is USC's first loss of last season to Washington, when Barkley overthrew a wide-open receiver on a screen pass late in the game that would have sealed the victory. Jake Locker then went down the field and set up Eric Folk for his game-winning field goal.
Now, I understand that a quarterback probably gets too much praise when a team wins and too much blame when they don't.
But when a team with USC's talent loses nine games over the last two years, some of the focus has to go on a marvelous quarterback who has the talent to change USC's fortunes late in games.
And we need this from him in 2011.
No. 8: The Trojans Can't Afford Another Season of Uninspired Linebacker Play
The one thing Trojan fans could always count on in recent years was a cadre of stud linebackers.
Matthews, Cushing, Rivers, etc., you know the names and the Trojans' opponents felt their wrath.
But not in 2010.
For the most part, Michael Morgan, Malcolm Smith, Devon Kennard and Chris Galippo, the Trojans' regular linebacker rotation, were missing in action.
Some of this can be attributed to being in the first year of Monte Kiffin's defensive scheme and some of it, quite frankly, was due to a lack of talent.
Now the Trojans enter into the second year of the elder coach Kiffin's system without Morgan and Smith, who have graduated and the possibility that Kennard will be employed in a hybrid position.
Though some Trojan fans might smirk and claim this is a good thing, it remains to be seen how this unit shapes up for 2011.
One thing is for certain...the Trojans can't afford a repeat in 2011 of the dismal performance of the 2010 linebacker unit.
No. 7: The Trojans Must Not Repeat 2010's Porous Pass Defense
In a theme that will be repeated throughout this slideshow, the second year into the "Kiffin regime" and its system should be much better than the first.
And when it comes to pass defense, it had better be much better than 2010.
You see, only six teams were worse than USC in this department. Six.
Chew on that for while.
Yet, there is hope for this beleaguered unit.
In fact, going in, the Trojans seem to be pretty well set at two of the four defensive backfield positions.
Free safety TJ McDonald may be one of the best at his position in the nation, and diminutive corner Nickell Robey started as a true freshman and did well, especially toward the end of the season.
Both of them will be very good in 2011.
Which means the Trojans only have to find two other starters that can hold their own.
The good news is that USC returns a bevy of talented players both at the other corner and strong safety positions.
And the defensive line should be excellent this year and with D-line penetration, opposing quarterbacks should have much more trouble picking the Trojans' secondary apart.
Lane Kiffin had better hope so.
Because a repeat of 2010's performance by this unit would be disastrous.
No. 6: USC Can't Afford to Let Poor Field-Goal Kicking Affect Game Strategy
Its not nice to bang on someone who can't defend themselves, so let's just say that last years Trojan field goal kicker, Joe Houston, was ummm..."horizontally challenged" when it came to putting up "threes" for USC.
Throughout the year, this affected Lane Kiffin's strategy as he called the offense for the Trojans.
When a coach has an unreliable field goal kicker, it permeates the entire spirit of the team, which knows that most likely all drives will need to end in touchdowns in order to score.
And so it was in 2010 when Kiffin would go for it on fourth down when a field goal should have been the logical course of action.
Those days should now be a thing of the past as the Trojans welcome kicker Andre Heidari into the fold.
An early arrival in spring, Heidari came to the Trojans as the No. 2 rated prep kicker in the nation.
And he has lived up to that billing.
Though he missed two out of three in the Trojan spring game, Heidari was seen throughout camp booming 50+ yard field goals and regularly launching unreturnable kickoffs.
So take heart, Trojan fans, it appears you finally found a stud place kicker.
And that is very good because lacking one is a mistake the Trojans can't afford to repeat.
No. 5: The Trojans Cannot Afford Not to Finish Games
In 2010, as we all know, USC finished 8-5.
To be certain, this was not the hoped-for record, either by Lane Kiffin or Trojan fans.
And Kiffin, to his credit, has vowed that there will be no repeat of the 2010 Trojan futility in 2011.
But USC's record could have been much better if they had only finished games the way Trojans have been accustomed to in recent years.
With three losses coming by a combined total of seven points, a 2010 record of 11-2 was certainly viable.
The good news is that if the Trojans can shore up various areas described in this slideshow, they will be naturally positioned not to play so many close games in the first place.
However, if USC does find itself in a position that requires late-game heroics, they better find a way to get it done.
Because losing close games is another mistake the Trojans can't make in the upcoming season.
No. 4: The Trojans Must Tackle Better
By virtue of necessity due to injuries and roster depletion, at least in Lane Kiffin's mind, the Trojans were not allowed to tackle in practices during the 2010 season.
Concerned that injuries would further reduce his already depressed cadre of available bodies, Kiffin's decision to not practice tackling would come back to haunt him last season.
Throughout 2010, the Trojans' lack of fine-tuning in bringing down their opponents resulted in huge gains for the opposition.
Between the poor fundamentals in tackling and confusion in implementing Monte Kiffin's system in its first year, the Trojans wound up with the 83rd-ranked defense in 2010.
The good news is that Kiffin learned from his mistake last year and tackling once again became a focus of the recent spring camp.
Casting caution to the wind, Kiffin ordered his Trojans to get after it, and the happy sounds of shoulder pads meeting flesh wafted through the warm Southern California breeze.
And the benefits were readily apparent.
Now the Trojans appear well situated to make those tackles that were so elusive last year.
And that is a good thing because if you can't tackle, you won't win.
Or so I have been told.
No. 3: USC Must Find a Way to Defend the Spread
The bane of USC's defense over the last couple of seasons has been its inability to defend against the spread offense.
Motion offenses, employing quick players with a mobile quarterback, such as the one Chip Kelly's Oregon Ducks run, have had their way with the Trojans.
Any hope of returning to college football's top of the heap will depend on Monte Kiffin and the USC defense's ability to contain the spread.
So is it a dearth of quality players or a lack of strategic prowess that has contributed to the Trojans' inability to defend it?
Perhaps it is a combination of both but to be certain, Lane Kiffin will have to find a way combat this type of offense because Kelly and other offensive mavens aren't going away anytime soon.
It has been suggested that the Trojans themselves might be well positioned to employ a modified version of the spread themselves and if they do, it can serve two purposes.
One, it will provide a new wrinkle to USC's offense to get more playmakers, which they have in abundance, on the field.
The other thing that would benefit the Trojans is that their defense will get to practice against it.
Whether USC does decide to add some kind of version of the spread remains to be seen.
But what is certain is that USC can't afford to be as bad against the spread as they have been the last couple of years if they hope to be good in 2011.
No. 2: USC Must Defend Their House
Once upon a time, there was a college football team that was simply unbeatable at home.
And this team's home was a grand old dame of a stadium, one that had seen it all, from Olympic Games (twice) to Super Bowls (twice more).
Included among these historic events was a tidy little 36-game home winning streak USC rattled off in the Pete Carroll era.
Trojan fans know this stadium as the Los Angeles Coliseum.
But in 2010, USC's opponents knew it as no big deal.
Last year, the Trojans managed a paltry 3-3 record at the Coliseum and by any standards, not just those of an exalted program as USC, this is unacceptable.
A return to the top of college football's mountain must start with USC defending their house.
The Trojans must not repeat the home record of 2010 if they want to be successful in 2011.
No 1: The Trojans Must Not Lose More Than Three Games in 2011
So by what yardstick will Trojans measure success in 2011?
Of course, most USC fans will say they want to win all of the games the Trojans play this year.
But is it realistic?
The Trojans play 12 games in 2011 and, of those, seven are at home.
And this isn't the toughest of schedules either.
In fact, only one game, when USC travels to Oregon on Nov. 19, could be labeled as a game where the Trojans will be a significant underdog.
Which leaves 11 games that the men of Troy can realistically win.
Of those 11 games, road trips to Arizona State and Notre Dame, along with home tilts with Washington, Stanford and Utah, appear to be the most in doubt.
But the Trojans had better find a way to win at least nine of those for 2011 to be considered, at least in this writer's estimation, a success.
Because they can't afford to repeat last year's 8-5 debacle for damn sure.
By all accounts, the 2010 season was a disappointment for the Trojans.
Vowing not to have a repeat of the lost season last year, Lane Kiffin is focused on correcting the mistakes that marked last year's disappointing campaign.
In order to keep his promise, Kiffin will have to utilize all of the tools at his disposal, focusing on the Trojans strengths and minimizing the weaknesses.
And to be certain, there are weaknesses in this year's version of the men of Troy.
A depleted and reshuffled offensive line promises to be an ongoing concern for Kiffin and the Trojans.
Should this unit fail to rise to the occasion, the "domino effect" could be debilitating.
A porous O-line would would stagnate the offense forcing hurried and inaccurate passes from Matt Barkley, a dearth of production from the running game and increased pressure on the defense, which would then become overworked.
In fact, many say, and I agree, that as the offensive line goes, so goes the Trojans' 2011 season.
If that component goes well in 2011, Kiffin can focus on the rest of what has been highlighted in this slide show.
And if Kiffin can fix most of that, this season has a chance to be special for USC.
And that is something the Trojans can afford to have happen again.
And again, and again, and again.