Heading into their bye week, the Trojans find themselves at a crossroads, coming off a less-than-impressive start to the year. After comfortably winning against UNLV in the season opener, the Trojans dropped their next two games on the road. Struggling to conjure any sort of offense, USC lost to Stanford 17-3, before blowing an 11-point lead and allowing Texas to score 34 unanswered to put the team at 1-2.
USC picked up a hard fought win at the Coliseum the next week against a then-undefeated Washington State team, and barely eked out a victory against Arizona last Saturday after committing 18 penalties to find themselves where they are now: 3-2 and unranked.
It’s hard to pin down exactly what this team is; USC’s strengths and weaknesses seem to change with every game. This bye week presents the team with the opportunity to figure out its identity and doing so will require the Trojans to see what’s worked for them and what hasn’t.
The Trojan offense started the year with a rash of inconsistent performances. After a dominant performance against UNLV that saw the team post nearly 500 yards of total offense, the unit sputtered against Stanford and Texas. The offensive line’s poor play played a big part in those losses, as it struggled to find consistency in both pass protection and run blocking. The group allowed seven sacks between the two games, and its sub-par performances in the ground game were evidenced by average yards per carry of 3.1 and minus-0.3 respectively. Freshman quarterback JT Daniels had a tough time finding a rhythm during that stretch, throwing no touchdown passes but three interceptions.
The offense seems to have found its stride since, putting up big numbers against Washington State and Arizona. The offensive line turned in much better performances, helping the other parts of the offense step up as well. The ground game has looked impressive, with the three headed monster of running backs senior Aca’Cedric Ware, sophomore Stephen Carr and redshirt sophomore Vavae Malepeai rushing for 168, 157 and 86 yards, respectively, over the past two weeks, along with five touchdowns between them.
The passing game has taken off as well, with Daniels having played his two best games of the season to the tune of 438 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions while completing 66 percent of his passes. Freshman receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown has been the most dominant force at receiver for the Trojans, with 25 receptions for 396 yards on the year to go with two touchdowns. Receivers junior Michael Pittman and redshirt sophomore Tyler Vaughns have stepped up lately as well, with a combined 34 catches on the season.
The trajectory of USC’s defense has seemingly been the opposite. The unit was expected to be the strength of the team coming into the season, and it looked to be that way after they largely contained UNLV and held a potent Stanford offense to only 17 points in a losing effort. However, it’s been a completely different story since. The Trojans have given up 37, 36 and 20 points in their last three games, and find themselves ranked 69th in the nation in total defense, giving up an average of 381 yards per game. The team has had trouble generating any pass rush, with only nine sacks on the year, and five of those coming in the opener against UNLV.
The play of the secondary has been up and down, with a revolving door at left cornerback where three different players have been rotating, and inconsistent play from veterans like redshirt senior cornerback Ajene Harris and senior safety Marvell Tell. Freshman safety Talanoa Hufanga has been a bright spot on the unit, with impressive play since being forced to step into a starting role against Washington State. Senior linebacker Cameron Smith has been a force in the middle with 47 tackles so far, along with three passes deflected.
USC will leave its bye week in a precarious position. With the remainder of the season coming, the Trojans still have a strong chance of winning the Pac-12 South and play in the conference championship. Their contest against Colorado off the bye could either kill their hopes of reaching the Pac-12 title game, or could place them in good position to do just that. It’ll take consistency from the offensive line, the emergence of a pass rush and discipline on both sides of the ball for USC to be truly formidable.