by Garry Paskwietz
Helton, we have a problem
The Trojans lost to the Stanford Cardinal 27-10 but USC fans aren’t talking about the final score today. They aren’t talking about how Christian McCaffrey racked up 260 total yards, or how a quarterback in only his second start was able to complete 9 of 15 passes while leading his team to victory.
Instead, the focus of Trojans right now is on the USC offense, on a seeming lack of identity, a lack of rhythm, a lack of crispness and fundamental play that had been the foundation of the USC program for so many years.
This game on Saturday at the Farm was a clear example of the issues that have been present for the last five games under Helton ever since he was named full-time head coach last year with a promise that his Trojans would return to a physical run game identity. Instead, we are seeing an offense that doesn’t seem to be committed in any single direction.
The Trojans actually showed promising signs at the start of the game when they came out with Max Browne under center and with two tight ends. Four straight run plays to Justin Davis netted a pair of first downs. but then a false start helped stop the drive. The next drive featured three more false start penalties and the Trojans had to settle for a field goal. Nothing else really got going offensively in the first half and USC trailed going into the locker room 17-3.
It was the opening drive of the second half that really showcased how things could work for this Trojan offense. Again, it revolved around running the football, first with Justin Davis and then Ronald Jones, with a pass to the tight end mixed in. The result was an impressive 9-play, 75-yard drive that gave hope to USC fans that maybe the coaches had gone in at halftime and figured something out. But on the next series, it was three straight pass plays, three and out, and a punt. From there it was the Stanford coaches who executed a perfectly timed trick play, a reverse to Rector, that went for a score to make it 27-10 and the game was effectively put out of reach.
This isn’t a case of Helton looking at the stat sheet and saying we need to be better on third-down conversions, or how we need to be more disciplined if the other team is trying to throw off our snap count. While those things are true, the problems go beyond that. And they are limited primarily to the offense, with Helton and Tee Martin as returning coaches on the staff who should know these players well, while new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast and new special teams coordinator John Baxter have already seen positive improvements for their units.
Yes, it’s time for some self-scouting on offense to figure out what is going on.
* What is the identity of the offense? Do you want to run the ball as the foundation of what you’re doing? Helton talked about the third quarter play calling as an example of Martin “wanting to keep things balanced”. Balance is good but Stanford ran the ball 47 times and threw it 15 times and came away with the win.
* Where do you stand on the QB spot? This is a tough one. I don’t think the issues lie with Max Browne but I also wish Max was being a little more aggressive out there. I thought it was a good idea to stick with him in this game, but then he got pulled at what seemed to be a random time after he had just thrown his best ball of the game, one that JuJu Smith-Schuster probably should have caught with two hands for a touchdown. And then Darnold showed his potential with a strong pass to Burnett. This is definitely a situation that will bear watching.
* Getting JuJu the ball. I understand the thought of wanting to spread the ball around to more of the receivers without focusing so heavy on one player but that one player (JuJu) is also as good as anybody on the roster so it’s important to keep him involved too. It seems like the pendulum has swung too far away from him and we haven’t been able to get it back.
* O-line struggles. We talked coming into the year about how this was the most experience and depth on the line that the Trojans have seen in years, and there was a hand-picked veteran OL coach to whip them into shape. The thought was “if we can’t make this o-line work, we’ve got real problems”. So far, it isn’t working. Whether it’s the plays, the overall scheme, the blocking assignments, there are a lot of things to consider because there’s a lot going on. In this game it was the false starts, with the USC players saying the Stanford line was calling out similar cadences and it threw them off.
There are other issues to look at, such as the thought of not huddling, and of having the QB coach in the press box alongside the OC rather than on the sideline looking his QB in the eye, and hopefully they will all be addressed.
Helton had talked before the game about how USC aspires to play like Stanford but, as Darrell Rideaux said in the podcast today, we want to see the Trojans be the best they can be and we will take our chances with that. Right now, that just isn’t the case, especially on the offensive side of the ball.