A missed-opportunity - that's the best way to describe yesterday's frustrating loss. While the USC team that came into C-Link yesterday wasn't the National Championship contender they were hyped to be entering the season, they were still a very talented team, and a victory would have left the Huskies at 4-2, something only the most optimistic of fans would have projected at the start of the year. That the team came out flat and found themselves in a big hole going into halftime, down 24-7 after a demoralizing blocked punt for a TD, was disappointing; that they came back in the 2nd half and showed they had the resolve to fight back and the ability to win the game was encouraging; that they continued to make critical mistakes to torpedo their chances was highly frustrating.
So after a day's reflection, how did the team look, and what can we take away from this game as we head into the 2nd half of the season?
QB: Another mixed-bag game for Keith Price - some very good, some very bad. Sark started this game much like he did vs. Stanford & Oregon, giving Keith safe throws laterally, but USC was too fast and too good to get beat on these plays. It wasn't until the 2nd half that Sark got comfortable enough with the pass-protection - or desperate enough - that he had Price start attacking the Trojans downfield. For a few series, it looked like the Price of last year and the offense suddenly seemed potent again. But once again, Price was too careless with the football as he was picked twice and lost two fumbles, with both fumbles being back-breakers as the Huskies appeared ready to make a game of it. On the first pick he threw it right to Dion Bailey; from the stands it looked like a terrible decision and pass, but apparently from the TV angles Price simply couldn't see Bailey. The 2nd pick was just one of those things - ASJ was in the way of the intended pass to Bruns and tried to make a play on it but tipped it high in the air. The first of Price's fumbles was more costly, but also more understandable. It reminded me of Marques Tuiasosopo, and how with him you had to take the occasional turnovers along with his brilliant creativity. Price has been using that pump-fake for a few games now, and in this instance he used it in the wrong spot - he was too hemmed-in and the stakes were too high to be that loose with the football. On the 2nd fumble he just got greedy - he had gained first-down yardage and should have slid rather than taking a hit and risking injury and a turnover.
Price was both a big reason why the Huskies had a chance to mount the big comeback, and also one of the biggest reasons they failed to convert on the opportunities they had. Hopefully he builds on the drives in the 2nd half where the downfield passing game was clicking and he was hitting ASJ on seam routes. But he missed some open throws, and the turnovers were killers. Grade: C
RB: Bishop Sankey didn't run as hard as he did vs. Oregon, but he didn't have a lot of holes either. Against a team with the speed that USC has on defense, the draws out of the shotgun can be tough for a guy like Sankey that doesn't have explosive speed. I would have liked to see more I-formation run plays where he could get more momentum going into the line of scrimmage. I like what I'm seeing out of Kendyl Taylor - he runs hard, has good speed and obviously is a receiving threat. Amosa made a nice grab and continues to show he can be a reliable safety-valve option. Given what was available in terms of running room, I thought this was a decent effort even if the statistics weren't that good. Grade: B-
WR/TE: While Austin Seferian-Jenkins was clearly still a bit hobbled from his ankle injury, he also showed why he's such a huge weapon. A big target with soft hands that can get upfield on seam routes is a great option to have in your offense, and hopefully Sark continues to exploit it. DiAndre Campbell had by far his best game, showing why the coaches continue to put him in the starting lineup. On the other side, Kasen Williams was bottled up most of the night by Nickell Robey, and one of the few times he got open downfield, he and Price couldn't connect. Jaydon Mickens still looks like a true freshman out there learning that his speed advantage in High School isn't the case at the college level. Grade: B-
OL: This continues to be the weak link of the offense. Pass protection is bad, and it would have looked worse if USC hadn't lost contain and allowed Price to move up in the pocket and scramble for nice gains. As it was, they still got beat far too often and Price took some big hits. Micah Hatchie has potential, but the RS-So is a big step down from the graduated Senio Kelemete. Unlike the last two weeks, they also were unable to consistently open up running lanes, and Sark was unable to rely on the running game to take some pressure off of Price. Grade: D-
DL: A mix of good and bad; at times they were able to get some pressure on Barkley, especially with Shirley in the game at his RUSH end position. And Shelton continues to improve and become a positive. But the base line was not able to get enough rush, and as a group they were getting pushed back enough to open big holes for Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal. It wasn't quite as bad as the stats suggest, as some of that yardage came on 3rd and long plays were Justin Wilcox had his pass defense unit in the field featuring a three-man line of DE's. But this group continues to have a tough time shutting down running games unless Wilcox sells out with his personnel and schemes. A perfect example of the good and bad was that big run by Redd - the defense filled all the gaps, but nobody could disengage from being blocked and actually get their hands on him, and he made a great play reversing field and turning what should have been a loss into a 57-yard gain. Grade: C-
LB: Another mix of good and bad; Travis Feeney continues to show a lot of potential, making plays all over the field. But this group was also part of the reason that the Trojans were able to run for over 200 yards at 5 yards per pop. Wilcox seems to be settling on a group of John Timu flanked by Feeney & Shaq Thompson, with a little bit of Thomas Tutogi rotated in. With the speed on the field among these three, I'd like to see more blitzing in the 2nd half of the season. Grade: C
Secondary: Another terrific game from Desmond Trufant as he was a big reason Marquise Lee was held in check. His play to knock that pass away in the end zone was a marvel of speed, recognition and recovery as he covered a ton of ground, made a big leap and managed to make enough of a play on the ball to avoid the P.I. call. Peters had a big interception, and while he wasn't as effective one on one with Robert Woods, he did well enough. The safeties allowed TE Xavier Grimble to make a couple big plays against them, but in general I thought they were solid. Kiffin was conservative with his play-calling, but this group was a big reason why the Trojan passing game was held mostly in check. The success of this group should give Wilcox more confidence moving forward to focus on shutting down opponent running games. Grade: A
Special Teams: A definite mixed-bag; the kickoff return team continues to do well, and you can sense that a TD return is coming soon. Bruns had a terrific return that was one spin move away from going all the way. Kickoff and punt coverage remains solid. And don't forget the Huskies getting their hands on a 3rd Q Trojan FG attempt. But that blocked punt in the 2nd Q was a huge play; take that away and the comeback is that much more manageable. The missed FG was also tough, but I'll cut a bit of slack given it was a 45-yarder. There was a lot of good here, but a couple bad plays that really hurt. Grade: C-
Coaching: Again, a mixed-bag; it's troubling that this team came out flat in the 1st half, and it's frustrating that they kept shooting themselves in the foot as they seemed on the verge of getting right back into the game. On the plus side, they didn't fold at halftime and came out in the 2nd half and showed enough flashes to believe they could have, and perhaps should have won. It's tiring to hear, but it remains true - this is still a pretty young team, and their confidence and killer instinct is still tenuous.
I thought Sark called a pretty good ballgame - I liked the run/pass option plays he gave Price, with Mickens or Taylor running laterally at the snap and Price reading his keys to decide whether to hand-off to Sankey out of the shotgun, throw the quick lateral, or take a shot downfield. But I do miss the fly sweeps, I want to see more of the TE chipping the DE's to help on pass-pro, and I'd like to see more I-formation running.
Wilcox clearly was more concerned about the Trojan pass game, and went with a quicker lineup. He also typically went to a 3-man rush on long-yardage situations, willing to concede the run. That strategy mostly worked, as the Trojans got good yardage on the ground but not enough for first downs. Still, the run defense is vulnerable. It seems unlikely with the opponents left on the schedule (with the possible exception of Utah) that he'll be able to stack the box and use his jumbo packages as he did against Stanford. We really need the front 7 to continue to get stronger, shed blocks and not make tackles 5, 6 and 7 yards downfield against the run. On the whole, I think it's a good showing by the defense to only 17 points, even if Kiffin was being overly conservative.
Ultimately though, this was a winnable game and one that really would have given this team confidence and momentum going into a 2nd half that could prove more challenging than initially thought. This is one that will really sting for Sark. Grade: C