Saturday, September 25, 2010

Washington State Game Impressions: 5 Ws and an H

Round Up:

USC routed the Cougars of Washington State 50-16.

Quarterback Matt Barkley was hit and miss with three touchdowns and two interceptions. He completed 64% of his passes for 290 yards.

WSU quarterback Jeff Tuel also had a 64% completion rating for 221 yards, but threw just one touchdown to three interceptions.

Fullback Stanley Havili electrified on the ground for 80 yards, including a 59 yard touchdown run on USC's first play of the game. Allen Bradford's 84 yards led all running backs, but he also lost a fumble. Marc Tyler added a touchdown and 30 yards while Dillon Baxter had 76 yards on 15 carries.

The Cougar rushing attack was headed by Tuel, who managed just 26 yards. Logwone Mitz added 24 yards.

Havili also topped the receivers, catching 5 passes for 107 yards and a touchdown. Ronald Johnson, Robert Woods and Brice Butler each caught touchdown passes as well.

Washington State's Jared Karstetter had a team high 89 yards through the air and two touchdowns.

WHEN was the game decided:

Early in the third quarter, Barkley found Woods in the end zone for a seven yard touchdown. The score capped a four play, 93 yard drive to start the half. The Trojans would go on to score 14 more unanswered points to put the game away.

WHO stood out:

Is there a more effective or sparingly-used weapon on the USC offense than Stanley Havili? He is a man among boys and his participation could be the difference between winning and losing in many a game this season.

The defense, particularly the secondary, continues to show improvement week to week. The tackling is better, the pass coverage is better, the overall awareness is better. Also a very positive sign was the pocket containment. Tuel, a QB who is comfortable taking off and running, was held in check on the ground.

True freshman Nickell Robey is starting to show why the coaches chose him as the starter. His pick six was an example of his improved recognition and his second interception was just icing on the cake of a strong performance. He did give up an early touchdown but even then he was in position and his coverage was not bad.

Another true freshman, Robert Woods, seems determined to shed his freshman label as quickly as possible. His play resembles that of a veteran.

The whole team deserves recognition for once again improving in the penalty department. Five flags for 39 yards is significantly more acceptable for this team.

WHERE do we need to improve:

Matt Barkley lacks consistency. That's a big problem. In the first half he looked scared in the pocket. He made bad decisions and bad throws. His two interceptions were costly and kept the Cougars much closer than they should have been. The good news is that he came back in the second half and appeared more comfortable, made better throws and performed strongly. But one half off, one half on will not cut it against teams like Oregon or Stanford and such play could spell disaster against beatable teams like Washington and Oregon State.

Turnovers need to stop. Barkley's interceptions were unacceptable. Bradford's fumbling problem could cost him the starting job, which is a shame considering how well he's been running.

WHAT did we learn:

The true freshman are coming into their own. Robey and Woods were pivotal to the win and Dillon Baxter looks poised for at least a productive season.

Havili will be a key to any USC success this season.

WHY was this game important:

The Trojans are now 4-0 to start the season for the first time since 2007. The team could have easily collapsed under the weight of the NCAA sanctions, breaking in a new coaching staff and inexperience. Instead they have improved in every game and continue to fight through adversity.

Things that made you go HUH:

The mystery of the kickers and the number ten is still unexplained. Is it possible Kiffin is just playing with everyone for fun?

Next week:

The Trojans take on Jake Locker and the Washington Huskies at the Coliseum. Steve Sarkisian's squad is 1-2 and will be coming off a bye week when they come to Los Angeles.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Minnesota Game Impressions: 5 Ws and an H

Round Up:

USC defeated the Minnesota Golden Gophers 32-21 in their second road game of the season.

The Trojan ground game led the way as senior Allen Bradford pounded the ball for 131 yards and a touchdown. Junior Marc Tyler also punched in a score on the ground.

Minnesota's running game was held to 83 total yards, a team-high 40 coming from freshman Donnell Kirkwood. The Gopher's lone rushing touchdown was scored by junior DeLeon Eskridge.

USC and Minnesota saw similar numbers from their quarterbacks. Both Matt Barkley and Adam Weber threw two touchdowns and two interceptions. Weber completed just 51% of his passes for 224 yards. Barkley was more efficient with a 65% completion rating but had less yards, 192.

Ronald Johnson once again led all Trojan receivers with 63 yards and a touchdown. The Gophers' MarQueis Gray had 98 yards receiving and one touchdown.

Freshman Robert Woods logged his first touchdown as a Trojan when he returned a kick 97 yards.

On defense, USC's Jawanza Starling and Chris Galippo and Minnesota's Kyle Theret and James Manuel each came away with an interception.

WHEN was the game decided:

It is tempting to single out Woods' electrifying kick return as the deciding moment of the game. But it was the following USC drive, when Bradford took over leading an 88 yard drive that took nearly five minutes off the clock.

Bradford rushed for 43 yards on the drive which ended with a 21 yard touchdown pass from Barkley to David Ausberry.

WHO stood out:

The aforementioned Bradford was the star of the game, forcing the coaching staff to turn to him in the second half after making the most of his few first half carries. He may not have won back the starting job from Marc Tyler, but he certainly made the case for a bigger role in the offense.

Woods also had his coming out party as a return man. His kick return gave the Trojans a much needed spark and clearly helped demoralize the increasingly confident Gophers.

The defensive line finally looked like the dominant unit the coaches and media observers said they could be. The Minnesota coaches stubbornly tried to pound the ball (more on that later), but the line consistently stuffed the run all day and prevented the Gopher offense from getting into rhythm.

The secondary continued to show much needed improvement. Week to week players like Nickell Robey and Jawanza Starling have seemed noticeably more comfortable in coverage.

Chris Galippo, the much maligned senior linebacker who lost his starting job to sophomore Devon Kennard, was a force to be reckoned with in the second half. He looked about as good as he has ever looked at USC.

WHERE do we need to improve:

Penalties are still a problem. To be fair, seven for 71 yards is a vast improvement from previous performances. But penalties remain a costly problem, killing too many drives and extending too many of the opponent's drives.

The defense is much improved already. However, they still have a long way to go. The pass coverage is too porous, especially on routes coming across the middle. Also, the pass rush is not as effective as it could and should be.

Matt Barkley overthrows/under throws receivers far too often and seems to lack proper touch on his mid range passes. After protecting the ball in the first two games, he threw two interceptions on two ill-advised and inaccurate throws. Consistency is the name of the game and Barkley lacks that right now.

WHAT did we learn:

A) The defense can tackle properly. Something appeared to click in the USC defenders this week and all of the sudden they started wrapping up. Amazing.

B) The running back competition is not decided yet. The seniors Allen Bradford and CJ Gable are not content to let the younger guys have all the glory just yet.

WHY will this game be remembered:

Allen Bradford put himself back on the map. Robert Woods established himself as a special teams threat.

Things that made you go HUH:

As wonderful as it was to see the defense once again step up their play, I have a bone to pick with the Minnesota coaching staff. In football you often have to balance playing your style and exploiting the opposing team's weakness. In regards to that balance, there is a fine line between patiently maintaining your game plan and stubbornly (and detrimentally) sticking to a plan that isn't working. I believed the Minnesota coaches crossed that line and more. Instead of putting the game in the capable hands of their senior quarterback against a suspect Trojan secondary, they forced the run. For USC it was a godsend. With the Gophers insisting on running up the middle over and over against a defensive line that was not giving any ground, the Trojans were able to shut down the Minnesota offense and give the USC offense time to pull away. But I can only imagine how this game would have looked had Minnesota truly tested the secondary.

Kickers Joe Houston and Jacob Harfman were both assigned the number ten for the game. Kiffin said that it was a strategic change that he doesn't want to give away...I have no idea what that means.

Next Week:

The Trojans travel to Pullman to face the Washington State Cougars. WSU is 1-2, their only win coming against Montana State. This week they lost to Southern Methodist 35-21.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Rule #5: The Truth Will Set You Free

Yesterday, Reggie Bush became the first Heisman winner in the award's 75 year history to forfeit the honor and return his trophy.

Regardless of motive, Bush should be applauded for this move. He was by no means the first or only Heisman winner who failed to follow NCAA rules with regards to eligibility. Yet he chose to fall on his sword, admit he made "mistakes," and now pledges to help other college athletes avoid falling into the same trap he did.

In his statement, Bush all but admitted that he took illegal benefits during his time at USC:

"For the rest of my days, I will continue to strive to demonstrate through my actions and words that I was deserving of the confidence placed in me by the Heisman Trophy Trust. I would like to begin this effort by turning a negative situation into a positive one by working with the Trustees to establish an educational program which will assist student-athletes and their families avoid some of the mistakes that I made. I am determined to view this event as an opportunity to help others and to advance the values and mission of the Heisman Trophy Trust."

Here's the problem, implying guilt and sort-of-kind-of expressing remorse don't cut it. If you are going to give back an award of that magnitude, basically telling the whole world "I did wrong," what's stopping you from coming out and actually telling the whole world "I did wrong"?

Look at the baseball players who got caught using performance enhancers. Roger Clemens denied everything and became a hated figure. Andy Petite stood right up and admitted to using them and all was forgiven.

That's not to say Bush would be forgiven by USC fans or college football fans in general. But at least he'd be looked at as someone who took full responsibility for his actions.

When he apologized- oops, my mistake, when he spoke "contritely" to Pat Haden in August, I called it a first step. This is another step in the right direction, but I'm still waiting for the day Reggie Bush comes clean and gives a real apology to all the people he hurt through his actions.

To be completely honest, I'm not holding my breath.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Virginia Game Impressions: 5 Ws and an H

Round Up:

The Trojans opened the 2010 home campaign by defeating the Virginia Cavaliers 17-14 in a defensive battle punctuated by penalties and mistakes.

USC quarterback Matt Barkley had 202 yards and two touchdowns passing. His Cavalier counterpart Marc Verica threw for 190 yards, one touchdown and one interception.

True freshman wide out Robert Woods caught three passes for 64 yards and senior Ronald Johnson caught five for 58 yards. But it was Jordon Cameron and Brandon Carswell who came down with touchdown catches.

On the ground the Trojans were led by Marc Tyler with 67 yards while true freshman Dillon Baxter had 49 yards on nine carries in his debut. Virginia's Perry Jones ran for 77 yards; Keith Payne added 57 yards and a touchdown.

WHEN was the game decided:

Matt Barkley evaded pressure and sneaked a pass through the Virginia secondary to Brandon Carswell for a touchdown with one second left in the first half.

The defenses buckled down and despite a late (late) score for Virginia, USC controlled the game in the second half keeping the Cavaliers from seriously challenging for the game after halftime.

WHO stood out:

The refs. It was raining yellow flags at the Coliseum. Virginia had nine for 101 yards. USC was hit with 13 for 140 yards. To put that in perspective, USC had more penalty yards than they did rushing yards. Together there were 22 flags for 241 total yards. Putting that into perspective, neither team surpassed that number in rushing or passing.

There are two issues here. The first will be addressed a little further down. The second is how the dismal display of inconsistency from the refs affected the flow of the game for both teams. Big play after big play was called back for holding penalties that could have been called on every play. Personal fouls were assessed on one tackle then not assessed on another tackle of the same type. And I have yet to hear an explanation for the call of "targeting" which took the wind out of the sails of a USC defense that was seemingly finding its groove.

The defense. Not that they looked particularly great, but with a performance so significantly better than the drubbing they received at the hands of Hawaii, the defense deserves recognition. In the secondary, Nickell Robey specifically looked more prepared to play at the college level and Shareece Wright seemed much more like the senior he is. TJ McDonald also came away with an important interception in the end zone. The defensive line looked porous at times, but they came up big in short yardage situations.

Dillon Baxter. On a night when the running game never really got going, Dillon Baxter nevertheless showcased his skill and the reason the coaches are so keen on the true freshman running back.

Stanley Havilli. Nothing new, the guy is money.

WHERE do we need to improve:

Penalties. Penalties. Penalties. Blame the refs all you want for being inconsistent and irritatingly involved in the game, but the penalties that were deserved weren't just inconvenient; they were devastating. If even a third of the penalties were wiped out, the questions about offensive troubles would be non-existent and a decent performance by the defense would have been judged even better.

Offense. Most of the articles about USC after the game said that this game proved that the defense is not as bad as suspected and the offense not as good. I disagree. This offense is far better than they showed against the Cavaliers and they will have to play with the crispness and poise that they displayed at Hawaii if the team is going to be successful. The difference between the Hawaii and Virginia games was not all about facing a stronger defense (which Virginia has). It was the penalties and the dropped passes and the overthrown balls.

Where Barkley looked like a fifth year senior against Hawaii, he looked like a freshman against Virginia. Gone was the accuracy and touch. Where Ronald Johnson looked like an all-world receiver against the Warriors, he looked unreliable against the Cavaliers. The Virginia defense presented more of a challenge certainly, but they did not make Barkley incapable of hitting a receiver accurately or his receivers from holding onto open catches.

The defense. As improved as they looked, they still looked vulnerable in some of the same places. Often it was Virginia miscues (dropped or missed passes) that stalled drives. The corners and safeties are still not playing the ball. And most importantly, the defense as a whole still looked slower that the offense they faced.

WHAT did we learn:

Dillon Baxter, who had 11 touches, will be a featured member of the offense.

WHY this game will be remembered:

It was Lane Kiffin's first home game as head coach.

It was the first time Reggie Bush's number five jersey was not featured among the other Heisman winners in front of the peristyle.

Things that made you go HUH:

I said it before but..."targeting"?

The student section seemed more crowded than at any point last season...but much less loud.

Next week:

The Trojans travel to Minneapolis for a 12:30 p.m. game against the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Minnesota is 1-1 and lost to South Dakota on Saturday.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Saturday Wrap Up: Struggles at the Top

The opening weekend of the college football season is usually characterized by one or two big match ups between ranked teams and a slew of blow outs from the rest of the top teams playing cupcakes.

This year we got entertaining marquee games (TCU (5) beat Oregon State (24) 30-21 and LSU (21) took out UNC in a nail biter (18) 30-24). We got plenty of routs (Alabama (1) drubbed San Jose State 48-3, Nebraska (8) manhandled Western Kentucky 48-10, and Oregon (11) devastated New Mexico 72-0). But we also saw quite a few top ten squads struggle against inferior opponents.

It started with Florida, the fourth ranked team in the country, managing only 212 total yards against a Miami (OH) team that ranked 108th nationally in total defense last year. Now let's put those 212 yards in true perspective: 187 of them came in the final 13 minutes, 72 of those were gained on one Jeff Demps' scoring run, and through three quarters the Gators had amassed all of 48 yards. Repeat. 48 yards total.

Tim Tebow's replacement John Brantley couldn't live up to the "Messiah" and an offense that returns only one starter from 2009 looked not just ineffective, but unprepared and confused.

Fortunately for the fans at the Swamp, the Florida defense bailed out the offense with four interceptions while the special teams netted a touchdown. A series of Miami (OH) mistakes also helped the game end in Florida's favor, 34-12.

Then No. 5 Texas took on Rice at home. While the Longhorns largely controlled the game, Garrett Gilbert, Colt McCoy's replacement, had an underwhelming performance, completing 14 of 23 passes for 172 yards. In the end, Texas beat a Rice team, which won all of two games last season, just 34-17

But the day was not yet done for the top ten scares.

No. 7 Oklahoma faced Utah State in Norman. The same Utah State team that finished seventh in the WAC last year. The same Utah State team that is facing a season without two of their best players, running back Robert Turbin (ACL) and receiver Stanley Morrison (broken foot).

Despite that that Sooners gave up 340 yards passing to Utah State quarterback Diondre Borel while Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones, successor to Sam Bradford, completed just 47% of his passes and threw two interceptions. Oklahoma needed a sideline interception by Jemell Flemming in the final five minutes to prevent the Aggies from tying the game which ended 31-24.

What do all of these teams and games have in common? All three are breaking in brand new quarterbacks who are replacing some of the top names in college football over the past three years - Tim Tebow, Colt McCoy and Sam Bradford.

Which begs the question: How much of these teams' rankings are based on the reputation of their former signal callers?

I'm willing to bet two of these three teams do not end the season in the top ten.

Quick Hits:

  • In the first of two FCS upsets, 1AA Jacksonville State upset Ole Miss in a double OT thriller. Quarterback Coty Blanchard completed a 30 yard touchdown pass on fourth and 15 in the final overtime before a shovel pass on two point conversion sealed the win 49-48. Later, North Dakota State stunned Kansas and new coach Turner Gill with a 6-3 victory.
  • Cancer-survivor Mark Herzlich returned to the field at linebacker for Boston College. The 2008 ACC defense player of the year missed the 2009 season when he was diagnosed with Ewing's Sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. He had five tackles in BC's opener against Weber State.
  • The Pac-10 was 6-4 on opening weekend. Six teams played on the road. Only Oregon State played a ranked team, losing to No. 6 TCU at the new Cowboys Stadium.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Hawaii Game Impressions: 5 Ws and an H


USC beat Hawaii 49-36 in a game that showcased both offenses and left both defenses exposed.

Trojan quarterback Matt Barkley threw for 257 yards and five touchdowns, tying a school record. Wide receiver Ronald Johnson caught three touchdown passes, also tying a school record, and returned a punt 89 yards for a touchdown, while running back Mark Tyler amassed 154 yards on the ground and scored a touchdown.

Hawaii quarterback Bryant Moniz passed for 269 yards and one touchdown, but left the game with an apparent concussion late in the third quarter. Shane Austin, the Warrior's third string quarterback, finished the game with 141 yards through the air and two touchdowns, both long bombs behind the secondary.

The Warriors had two potential touchdowns affected instant replay. The first was called down at the one yard line and upheld. The second was ruled a touchdown by the officials on the field, but overturned in the booth.

WHEN was the game decided:

Ronald Johnson's punt return for a touchdown.

While Hawaii hung around, just within striking distance until the very end, RoJo's return put USC back into a comfortable lead. All threats by Hawaii after this point were quickly and easily quelled by the hot Trojan offense.

WHO stood out:

Matt Barkley looked good. Really good. The numbers say a lot, but even they don't tell the whole story. He was confident. His throws were, for the most part, crisp and he hit his targets accurately. Unlike last year, when he forced throws into dangerous places fairly often, there were practically no near interceptions or blatant throws into double or triple coverage.

Barkley's favorite target on the night, Ronald Johnson, was a man among boys. From the ease with which he tore apart the Warrior secondary to the gutsy (some might say ill-advised) way he fielded a punt in traffic and took it to the house with ease, he shined in every possible way. He is very clearly the go-to receiver this season and will be a force to be reckoned with...if he can stay healthy.

Speaking of staying healthy, Marc Tyler showed exactly why the coaches elected to give him the start over senior Allen Bradford. Running with power, speed, and instinct, Tyler cut through the Hawaii offense like butter. The best way to describe number 26 between the tackles: slippery.

Lost in all the praise of the skill players was the performance of the offensive line. Barkley had plenty of protection for most of the night and they opened up plenty of holes for the running backs.

WHERE do we need to improve:

Defense. Defense. Defense.

And did I mention defense?

Specifically, the secondary got torched. In fact, they got torched, then fire department came and put out the blaze and then they got torched again.

Hawaii had touchdown passes down the middle for 30, 56 and 65 yards. And that's just the ones they completed. On a handful of other occasions Warrior receivers beat the coverage deep and only failed to score because of bad throws or an inability to make the catch.

On top of that, receivers were open going across the middle all night and there was a general lack of good coverage. Freshman corner back Nikell Robey seemed particularly unable to keep up with the quick Hawaii offense, but even veteran Shareece Wright didn't do enough to slow the aerial attack.

Needless penalties also plagued the defense as the inexperienced players failed to make plays for the ball and instead gifted Hawaii pass interference and other calls at important moments.

WHAT did we learn:

Very little that we can be sure of.

The offense clearly has a ton of potential. The play-makers like Barkley, Johnson and Tyler showcased what makes each of them special, but it will remain to be seen how they will perform against a quality defense.

The defense clearly has a ton of question marks. But lucky for them (and us fans), they won't be facing a spread offense like Hawaii's every week. Improvement is a must no matter what. However, this one dismal performance is not necessarily indicative of what we might see from the defense on a regular basis.

WHY this game will be remembered:

It was the first game of the Kiffin era. More importantly it was a reprieve from a difficult off-season and fans finally got some sense of what this team might do or not do this season.

Things that made you go HUH:

Two point conversions - Did Kiffin and company just decide to have some fun and take chances on the conversions? Were they testing out different strategies? Were they getting extra reps in for red zone plays? Was it all part of a giant Kiffin conspiracy to be a jerk? Did Hawaii head coach Greg McMackin ask, "what's your deal?"

Kiffin never smiles - Most coaches look pleased after a touchdown. Pete Carroll often looked jubilant. Lane Kiffin looked downright angry.

USC faces the Virginia Cavaliers at the LA Memorial Coliseum on September 11th.

Friday, August 13, 2010

To tackle or not to tackle - that is the question

Whether 'tis nobler in the body to suffer
The strains and bruises of full-contact practice,
Or to take caution against a sea of troubles
And, by no contact, end them. To hit, to tackle
No more...

Yes, that's right. I just pulled out the Shakespeare.

All because Sheriff- I mean, Coach Lane Kiffin has once again laid down the law after defensive tackle Nick Perry suffered a high ankle sprain during a goal line drill Wednesday.

No more tackling.

Which begs the question that I'm sure Shakespeare himself would have posed had be lived in this day and age:

To tackle or not the tackle?

Pete Carroll was a big proponent of full-contact drills. To be sure, there are plenty of good reasons to support going all out all of the time. It builds toughness and instills the idea of intensity at all times.

It definitely served the Carroll era teams well...To a point.

What those teams, especially in the later years, gained in intensity, they often lost in devastating injuries.

In years past the team was able to overcome those injuries. But those teams did not have to deal with scholarship limits and such major depth problems.

Which is why, even if it goes against my natural philosophy, this appears to be another genius football move by Kiffin.

And who doesn't love the classic Kiffin snark in this quote:

"We do one drill live and this happens," Kiffin said. "We can't afford to do it. We won't do any live tackling in live drills besides preseason games 2 and 3. We won't do it in practice ever again until about four years from now."