Matt Barkley (7), Ronald Johnson (83), and Robert Woods (13), had plenty to smile about during the season, as they had a number of highlights. As for the defense, not so many smiles on that side of the ball. Photo by Jeff Lewis
Potential 10-win season evaporates, but USC mostly passes the grade while battling sanctions, injuries, uneven play and transfers.
By Michael Brown,
Sentinel sports writer
After finishing his first-year as USC’s head coach, Lane Kiffin, in a recent interview said, “We’d recruit for 25 hours if there were that many hours in a day,” obviously referring to a lack of depth and the usual talent the Trojans usually stockpile.
That comment, along with several others during the season, was repeatedly made by Kiffin and defensive coordinator Ed Orgeron. Defeating cross town rival UCLA a little more than a week ago helped the Trojans finish 8-5 overall and 5-4 in the Pac-10.
At most schools, that record would be cause for celebration, but at USC, it’s a cause for concern.
Kiffin and his staff know that, and that’s why hours after beating the Bruins, assistants hit the recruiting trail to secure commitments and compete for five star players.
Trojans coaches face a bigger task than usual. In addition to competing against the likes of Alabama, Florida and Ohio State for players, they also have to contend with NCAA imposed sanctions, part of which is the loss of 10 scholarships each of the next three seasons.
Kiffin said the staff hopes to bolster the team’s depth next season by having nine to 10 players enrolled for spring practice. He even joked that he would like “45” players to enroll early.
That joke wasn’t so funny during the season as USC regularly suited up 42 to 50 players. Most schools dress upwards of 80 to 90 players.
Perhaps if USC had a more robust roster, late losses to Washington, Notre Dame and Stanford would have been avoided. Talking excessively about “what ifs” is meaningless; instead, I’ll assess and grade every facet of the Trojans this past season, and provide my outlook.
Scoring 31 points and compiling 431 yards average per contest would yield an A+ for most programs, but once again, this is USC. The Trojans aren’t graded on the same scale as say, Arizona.
Quarterback Matt Barkley entered training camp 20 pounds lighter and looked poised for a breakout season.
Barkley began the year on fire, throwing for 20 touchdowns and four interceptions through seven games. However, like his freshman season, Barkley struggled down the stretch. He missed the Notre Dame loss, but in the other five games, he threw more interceptions (8) than touchdowns (6).
Barkley has thrown for 41 touchdowns and 26 interceptions during his two years. He still has problems with accuracy at times. Barkley must improve if the Trojans expect to compete for the conference title next year.
Surprisingly, the offensive line performed admirably this year, despite lacking numbers. Tyron Smith made first-team Pac-10, and helped anchor a good unit.
The running backs were productive this year, although none of them succeeded in establishing himself as “the guy.” Instead, Kiffin opted for a committee approach.
Marc Tyler started the season by barreling over Hawaii defenders for 154 yards, and Allen Bradford finished by running past UCLA for more than 200 yards. Dillon Baxter and fullback Stanley Havili also contributed.
Starting wide receivers, Robert Woods (Gardena Serra H.S.) and Ronald Johnson, created many highlights.
However, for all of the Trojans’ firepower, they struggled at times. The back-to-back losses to Oregon State and Notre Dame, and the second half of the Oregon game are all examples. Converting third downs and scoring touchdowns in the red zone hampered USC.
The only thing saving this grade from being an F was the play of defensive tackle Jurrell Casey (Long Beach Poly H.S.) and safety T.J. McDonald.
When the Trojans’ defense surrendered 36 points and nearly 600 yards of offense to Hawaii, I chalked it up to jitters and youth. But, the Hawaii game proved to be telling, as USC failed to wrap-up on tackles, force turnovers and adapt to Monte Kiffin’s Tampa-2 defense.
The Arizona win was the only game where the Trojans defense put together a complete effort against a quality opponent.
They failed to consistently generate pressure on the quarterback due to several reasons. USC defensive front players such as Nick Perry and Wes Horton battled injuries throughout the year. Malik Jackson transferred to Tennessee and Christian Tupou was lost for the year with an injury.
The linebackers were atrocious and the secondary showed promise sporadically, but ultimately, didn’t make plays when it mattered. Nickell Robey, a true freshman starting at corner, finished with four interceptions and showed a lot of upside.
Special teams: C
For years, former head coach Pete Carroll refused to sign kickers to scholarships and that decision came back to bite Kiffin.
The inconsistent kicking of Joe Houston probably cost the Trojans the Washington game. And they regularly lost the battle of field position due to erratic performances by Jacob Harfman.
Fortunately, Kiffin is trying to rectify the spotty kicking. He’s already offered scholarships to two kickers.
The bright spot of the special teams was the play of Woods and Johnson as game-changing kick and punt returners.
Entering the year, I picked USC to win the Pac-10. Despite the sanctions and transfers, I thought that there was enough talent on the roster to win 11 games.
My expectations were tamped down early although the Trojans started 4-0. USC feasted on cupcakes early, but any non-biased observer noticed the team’s blemishes.
Missed tackles, penalties and conservative play calling all became hallmarks of the Trojans’ season.
With that said, Kiffin and his staff are to be commended for the job they did despite the circumstances they faced. After back-to-back heartbreaking last second losses to Washington and Stanford, most teams, if they had been barred from postseason play due to sanctions, would have folded. But that wasn’t the case with Kiffin’s group. USC may have been ineffective at times this year, but they didn’t quit.
My only criticism of Kiffin was his decision to sit Bradford during ladder parts of the season. I know Kiffin insist that tailbacks take care of the ball, but Bradford and Tyler should have been carrying the ball 20 times apiece ala Wisconsin’s tailbacks.
There wasn’t any need to force feed Baxter. This year’s team didn’t have the margin of error to play without its best players on the field.
Monte Kiffin’s defensive scheme was maligned by fans and the media, but I’ll give them a pass this year. Aside from Casey and a healthy Perry, the front seven doesn’t feature any impact players. Devon Kennard should be moved from linebacker back to his natural position at end.
Overall, the outlook is good for USC football. It could be great dependent upon how the appeals process goes this January. National signing day in February could also be a coup for USC.
Last Friday, Gardena Serra wide receiver, George Farmer, verbally committed to the Trojans. Securing five star local players such as Farmer, Crenshaw’s De’Anthony Thomas and Taft’s Antwaun Woods is important if Kiffin wants to return the school back to national prominence.