As September comes to an end, and the first third of the season is complete, give your three biggest takeaways of what you’ve seen so far from the Trojans.
* The team is 1-3. There’s no way to sugarcoat that because, as Justin Davis said in the post-game last week, USC isn’t supposed to be 1-3. I understand the fact that the early part of the schedule was daunting but at some point you also understand that this is Trojans football and you either find a way to get it done or you don’t. The next part of the schedule offers 4 of 5 games at home in the Coliseum and a chance to change the dynamic of the season by going out and getting some wins, simple as that.
* Issues across the board. One of the more frustrating parts of the season so far has been that there isn’t one single area to point to that needs work. At times it has been the offensive line that needs to be more consistent, the play calling on offense has lacked rhythm, the defensive front has been unable to get pressure, there have been busted assignments in the secondary, coaching decisions, etc.
* Sam Darnold. Even with all of the above being true, one big thing I’m taking away right now is the optimism to think where things are going with Sam Darnold at quarterback. Not only did Sam show the physical skills to perform well, and the mental toughness to move past adversity such as three fumbles in a row by the offense, but he also brought that intangible energy that seemed to impact the entire offense. That ability to raise the game of your teammates could be just what this team needs to get over the hump and start winning some games.
* This sure isn’t Trojan football. From the lack of physicality on both sides of the ball, to the absence of discipline showing up in the form of costly penalties and missed assignments, this year’s USC team is deficient in a number of areas that the trademark Trojans teams of the past never were. The big question now is, how does this all get fixed? It’s obviously up to the coaching staff, and it needs to happen soon. Otherwise, this already bleak season will continue to spiral out of control.
* No offensive identity. Of all of the negatives associated with this team, perhaps non is more perplexing than the fact that it’s four games into the season, and the Trojans still have not found their offensive identity. With Sam Darnold commanding the offense last Friday, the passing attack did seem to resemble more of what we were expecting heading into the season. The running game, too, was productive as well – especially when Justin Davis was rushing the ball. So why, exactly, did Davis not record a single carry in the fourth quarter? Questions like this seem to come with every loss, with both Clay Helton and Tee Martin standing on the receiving end.
* There is still plenty of talent on this team. While the way that the Trojans folded in the final quarter was certainly disheartening, there were still some positives to take away from last Friday’s game – primarily the performance of Darnold. I was also encouraged by the fact that JuJu Smith-Schuster was finally incorporated into the offense more, not to mention that Adoree’ Jackson was utilized on that side of the ball as well. USC still has talent, and if all of these weapons are utilized correctly, it stands to reason that the Trojans can still win plenty of games this season – particularly with who is left on the schedule. Whether or not that actually happens, however, remains to be seen.
* The schedule has turned to be as difficult as predicted by all, and there is no getting around that. I figured that the Trojans would have it tough with nationally ranked teams Alabama and Stanford. I thought the Trojans would defeat Utah in a close one and it turned out to be the other way around. I wrote that a worst case scenario would be 1-3 but honestly thought that 2-2 would be the outcome given that three of the first 4 games were on the road against nationally ranked teams. The lack of offensive scoring power was sobering, but because of it, redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold got his opportunity at Utah, and he lived up to all the hype, which should be a very positive sign for the balance of the season.
* The lack of dominance by the offensive line certainly has been disappointing. It was an inconsistent group last season, and it has continued again it this season. Many thought that first-year coach Neil Callaway would be the remedy and that may be true in time. I did, however, think the O-line played better against a rugged Utah defense last weekend by not allowing a sack of Sam Darnold. Perhaps if the Trojans trusted their running game for an entire game, the offensive line would be more aggressive and consistent, although all the false starts certainly restrain the line from being more dominant. Defensively, the lack of a pass rush has lived up to the fears dating back to spring ball.
* The lack of team discipline has been disappointing on both sides of the ball. Drive killing penalties, player ejections, secondary breakdowns, and it all seemed to start by the untraditional way the team onto the field against Alabama to start the game. The players have to take responsibility for much of it, but there has been no doubt to me that some of it has also been inexperienced and questionable coaching decisions such as the definition of a “balanced offense,” punting decisions, time management decisions (timeouts), and the obvious learning on the job by a first-year head coach and offensive coordinator. Much of it can be corrected, but will it be improved before the Trojans incur more conference losses that eliminate them from Pac-12 title game contention.