After An Eleven Year Build Up, Part 2 Of Texas vs USC Finally Arrived And Lived Up To Its Much Anticipated Billing.
USC finally got its revenge Saturday night, breaking hearts of burnt and orange fans the same way cardinal and gold ones were shattered on January 4, 2006.
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A lot of blood pressures spiked on Saturday night, including yours truly.
What. A. Game. After years of waiting and waiting, the SC faithful finally got their rematch and it didn’t disappoint. The instant classic appeared as if it would follow the same narrative as the 2006 Rose Bowl when Sam Ehlinger threw a dart to Armanti Foreman for the go-ahead touchdown with 45 seconds left. The multitude of cameras caught every single emotion coursing through the Coliseum, none of which were positive.
However, the night would end with the vibe of the 2017 Rose Bowl. Once again, Sam Darnold affirmed his status as the iciest quarterback in college football, leading a 52 yard drive to position Chase McGrath for the game-tying field goal as time expired. Eventually, the men of Troy put the Longhorns away 27-24 in 2OT. On a night where so much went wrong, but the most important thing went right, there is a lot to discuss. You may now proceed to exhale.
1. A New Legend Is Born
If there was one key concern heading into the season, it would’ve been at the kicker position. After winning the 2017 Rose Bowl in emphatic walk-off fashion against Penn State, SC fans were confident that they had a balanced and lethal offense, one which would be at an advantage at every position across the board. Then, the summer came and rumors started to trickle out that Matt Boermeester was no longer enrolled at USC.
When the reports were confirmed that he had been expelled due to a Title IX investigation, Trojan Nation was confused. When no starting kicker was announced until days before the first game, Trojan Nation became worried. When reports leaked that they were “missing most of their field goals during practice”, Trojan Nation went into full-on panic mode. And when Connor McGrath hooked his first career field goal attempt, it appeared as if all the doubts were for a reason.
Not. So. Fast.
With his game-tying 31 yard attempt and game-winning 43 yarder, McGrath instantly became the next fabled kicker in USC history. Perhaps now, Clay Helton will be more comfortable sending out the field goal unit. Two things are for certain. From here on out, he will probably never play in another game where he has to be that clutch twice. Oh and PSA, he has ice in his veins.
2. Efficiency Struggles
What a difference a week makes. After dominating the line of scrimmage and converting 10/12 third downs against Stanford, SC’s youth on the offensive line finally showed against a ferocious Texas front four. The electric duo of Ronald Jones and Stephen Carr struggled to a combined 74 yards on 26 carries.
The inability to get consistent pushes off the line led to a stagnant run game and a one dimensional offense, which in turn led to predictability. Having to play with 3rd and 7 or 8 instead of 3rd and 3.3 like they averaged last week led to them only converting 33% of their 3rd downs. Even worse, they failed to convert 4th down three times, including a 4th and inches at the goal line. That simply can’t happen. Not to mention, they were penalized another eight times for 49 yards.
While that is 41 less yards than last week, that is still way too many penalties; many were drive killers, including two consecutive false starts inside the Texas 25 at the end of the game. Receivers were dropping balls left and right. Darnold threw two more interceptions. It was a sloppy, undisciplined game and that almost cost them. To win ball games, you need to convert at least 70% of your third downs and you can’t have senseless penalties or concentration lapses that result in dropped balls or turnovers. Bottom line, if they really want to play in the CFP, these issues must be addressed and cleaned up ASAP.
3. The Great Wall of Trojan
One thing the Trojans did very well, and perhaps the only reason they won, was because of the dominance of the run defense. For as much as the USC offensive line struggled, so did Texas’s.
The men of Troy only allowed a total of 68 rushing yards throughout the game or just a 17 yard average per quarter. Perhaps more impressive was the fact that they did this without multiple starters such as John Houston Jr., Marlon Tuipulotu, Porter Gustin and Rasheem Green. Even with reserves in, they consistently drove the Texas linemen backwards and got penetration early and often. Future NFL picks like Uchenna Nwosu and Cameron Smith bottled up the UT backs and made key open field tackles that prevented access to the second level.
The advantage of forcing an offense to become one dimensional is a key concept that can often get lost among all the fireworks and celebrations of football. Given they could potentially see players like Myles Gaskin or Royce Freeman later on this year, the ability to cause offensive coordinators to scrap their entire game plan could potentially be an extremely valuable boon for a defense that has consistently bent, but never broken.
4. Injury Bug(s)
It seems like every year USC has to deal with a litany of injuries. Going into the game against Texas, SC was already missing two starters. John Houston Jr. and Marlon Tuipulotu were both ruled out with a neck stinger and MCL sprain, respectively. Then on Wednesday, word leaked that Porter Gustin had a small surgery to insert two screws into his big toe and was doubtful for the game.
After the bloodbath at the Coliseum, things don’t look any rosier. Gustin had to sit out the second half with a boot on while also dealing with bicep and shoulder injuries. Chuma Edoga and Rasheem Green both had to sit out the second half due to wrist and ankle sprains, respectively. Cameron Smith dislocated his finger. After the game, Coach Helton revealed Uchenna Nwosu sprained his elbow and Ajene Harris suffered a knee sprain.
In case you’re counting, that’s eight starters dealing with injuries right now. While Smith, Houston, Nwosu and Harris are expected to play vs Cal, SC will still need all hands on deck against a surprisingly undefeated Golden Bears team. With no bye until after regular season play concludes, the Trojans are going to have to try and blow more teams out as the battered front seven will need all the rest they can get with nine more daunting games until the off week.
5. Survive and Advance
From the beginning of the season, I said that if SC could manage to escape the first three weeks unscathed, they would have a great shot to run the table and make it to the PAC 12 Championship and CFP. Mission accomplished. Now comes the hard part. Each game didn’t require much to get the players excited. Western Michigan was the season opener.
Stanford had dominated the Trojans recently and USC wanted nothing more than to exercise the demons of the team who ruined their season 10 years ago. Speaking of ruining seasons, Texas broke cardinal and gold hearts 11 years ago and on Saturday, it was the fans in burnt orange who went back to Austin in disbelief. Now the grind truly begins.
Week by week, game by game, the men of Troy will simply need to come in and take care of business. Whether it’s a primetime game or a PAC 12 doormat, Helton will need to find a way to summon the intensity that his team has had the first three games. While ESPN’s FPI only gives them a 2.5% chance to win out and a 37.3% chance to win the conference, they should be favored in every remaining game and should win out at least til the conference title game. Potential trap games lurk, but the Trojans have conquered the hardest part of their schedule.
Take care of business and you can bet on this team having a good chance to make the CFP. On to Week 4 and on to victory. Fight On!
Bonus: Key To A Week 4 Victory vs. Cal
With such a beleaguered defense that has consistently made the stops when asked, it’s time they get rewarded. USC will need to dominate time of possession to make sure the defense doesn’t play more snaps than it needs to. Clock management will serve the dual purpose of allowing for the re-establishment of the run game while also serving to keep the front seven as fresh as possible.
Chewing clock and keeping the ball away from the Cal offense will be key and should be feasible with two elite tailbacks in the backfield. If the Trojans can control the ball for 40 minutes or more, expect an easy victory that allows the defensive starters to get a much needed respite before the Friday visit to Pullman.