It isn’t often that a USC football team rushes for five yards in a game. But it’s even less often that a USC football team has to prepare for a game without having any of its starting linemen available for more than a full week of practices.
Both things were true for this 2020 USC team leading up to and throughout its Sunday night game against Washington State.
USC did not have enough eligible scholarship offensive linemen to play against Colorado one week ago. The only reason the game against Washington State could even take place was because it was moved from Friday to Sunday. Still, USC did not have starting left guard Andrew Vorhees, nor his likely top two backups — Justin Dedich and Liam Douglass — available due to covid protocols. To make matters far more challenging, contact tracing eliminated all the other starters from practicing for the entire week.
USC wound up starting true freshman Courtland Ford at left guard. He was the only eventual starter who practiced at all during the week, according to offensive coordinator Graham Harrell.
“To be honest, we didn’t practice with the offensive line,” Harrell said, adding that Ford — and eventually fellow true freshman Casey Collier — were limited to individual work in what Harrell called “the playpen” while the rest of the offense went through practice. “It was an interesting week of practice. Because we didn’t have our offensive line, we weren’t really able to do team periods, so the team periods just became like 7-on-7, almost walkthroughs.”
Quarantine ended for the rest of the starting linemen on Saturday, the day before the game. USC was able to provide food and equipment for those players, but that’s clearly a far cry from participating in practice where you can build at least a little bit of chemistry with a player getting his first significant experience.
“The rest of those guys came out of a hotel on Saturday afternoon and showed up and played on Sunday,” Harrell said. “I think that’s a credit to them that they were able to still play at the level they played at.”
But there was another significant wrench waiting for the offensive line during the game, as starting right guard Liam Jimmons subluxed his elbow in the first half and was replaced by true freshman Jonah Monheim.
Head coach Clay Helton has talked about how the coaches did a good job in mixing backups in with starters and getting second and third team players significant reps during fall camp. But it’s difficult to imagine that offensive line coach Tim Drevno spent a significant time working with a lineup of those two true freshmen in at the guard spots on the first team.
Despite all of those challenges, USC scored touchdowns on its first five possessions of the game and raced out to a 35-0 lead, effectively ending the game. But USC gained just 66 yards of offense in the second half and did not have a drive go more than 20 yards over those final 30 minutes.
Thinking back to before the game, it would have been downright impossible to imagine a scenario where USC faced those issues with the offensive line during the week, then coasted to a 25-point win while playing a lot of backups on both sides of the ball, and the aftermath was legitimate concern about the offense. But that’s what five yards rushing will get you, no matter the circumstances surrounding it.
And on Tuesday, that stat was met by fairly different reactions from Helton and Harrell.
Helton has talked all season about rushing for somewhere between 165 and 175 yards per game being the goal for a team that has an elite passing attack to accompany it. While quarterback Kedon Slovis didn’t pile up huge passing numbers, he did complete 17 straight passes to end the first half and went into the locker room having become just the fourth USC quarterback to throw for five touchdowns in one half of football. USC’s passing attack had dominated Washington State’s man coverage, just as everybody knew it would (though nobody knew the Cougars would actually test that). But the 170 rushing yards were nowhere to be found. And even though a win is a win, Helton wasn’t going to downplay that rushing total.
He was asked Tuesday if hitting that rushing total is still important even though the Trojans have won the past two games handily despite rushing for fewer than 100 yards combined.
“I think so, I really do,” Helton said. “It is a priority for us. It’s something that we work towards.”
Helton stopped there to make a point that this offense will absolutely take advantage of any defense that looks to challenge the USC wide receivers with one-on-one coverage outside. He said Washington State actually stayed in those looks a bit more than he initially thought in the second half, but it was also clear that the Cougars dropped into zone coverage more often to give some extra help to their defensive backs. But beyond the looks Washington State was giving, the flow of the game seemed to dictate that USC get some real work on the running game. Keeping Slovis from getting hit, running the clock and setting the mentality for the upcoming rivalry game against UCLA all felt like great reasons individually to get the running backs involved.
But after taking a 38-6 lead with 11:53 left in the third quarter, USC passed on 10 of its next 12 plays and Slovis was drilled for sacks on two of them. The second sack — on the 12th play of that string — knocked Slovis from the game.
“I think it’s the mark of a good offense, being able to run the ball when needed,” Helton said. “Not to say that we’re going to force the run. We’re going to take what the defense gives us. But we can do better in that game. We all know it. As coaches, as players, we can do better than we did against Washington State in the second half. We’ll get to work on it this week and hopefully it is better than it was last week.”
Helton said he can’t be sure yet exactly how many or which offensive linemen could return this week and be available for UCLA, but he did say that if testing continues to be negative, they are scheduled to get more players back.
While Ford and Monheim performed admirably in their first extended appearances and are clearly two important pieces for the future of the offensive line, getting veterans back who missed the Washington State game could be critical when facing a UCLA defense that has 18 sacks this season and has lived in the backfield of opponents.
It’ll be important for all 11 offensive players to be on the same page on Saturday, something Helton said was missing against Washington State, as the USC head coach said everybody involved “took turns” making errors that capsized running plays.
“Everybody thinks about the offensive line, the blockers. But it’s also the wide receivers out on the perimeter being able to block. It’s the quarterback when we have RPOs tagged, making the right decision. It’s the runners making yards after contact and making safeties miss. And we just all took turns,” Helton said. “I couldn’t point out just one thing. I went through each and every play and every play, somebody else took a turn and it was really just one person. It wasn’t an entire group and it was at different positions. I feel like in the second half, we all needed to do better, across the board. And I expressed that to our football team. I know that’s going to be a point of emphasis for Graham this week, like it always is, with our running game and being able to lean on that when we need it. But that’s kind of what took place in the second half. They all took turns at each position.”
In his media appearance on Tuesday, Harrell pointed to the offensive success early in the game and sidestepped any talk of concern regarding USC’s rushing total.
“I think when the quarterback goes 17-of-17 to end the half and throws five touchdowns, you’re doing some things well,” Harrell said. “So that’s our level of concern.”
But it sounded as if Harrell privately was not completely pleased with the offensive performance.
Before Harrell spoke to the media, Helton said he felt Harrell was right on with his take on what happened against Washington State.
“I thought defensively, we kept our emotions up. And I told the team this yesterday. I thought that consistency of passion and energy, I thought stayed up,” Helton said. “I thought offensively, there was a little lull in the second half from an energy level. It’s natural, but it can’t happen, especially in this game coming up because you look at UCLA.”
Harrell said overcoming that lull has been something the offense has focused on and will continue to focus on. He said he wasn’t sure what was causing it, though sometimes getting out to big leads can result in letting your foot off the gas a bit.
UCLA has been one of the best teams recently at turning potential blowout losses into close games late, so if USC finds another lull on offense, the Bruins will be more than happy to take advantage.
“I think that’s just something you have to continually preach and it’s part of having a great culture,” Harrell said of continuing to produce on offense no matter the situation. “Even when you’re up, be excited to play and we talk about that all the time and it’s something that, like I said, we’re working on.”