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September 24, 2009It was a shocking afternoon this past Saturday with the third-ranked Trojans getting beat in their conference opener to a former doormat program, Washington, which had recently ended the nation's longest losing streak at 15 games. The Washington program clearly has a renewed sense of belief under first-year coach Steve Sarkisian, but no one outside of the Husky locker room believed they could knock off the Trojans. This unfortunately has become a pattern at USC, which has been chronicled a lot in the media this last week.
The Trojans have to find a way to avoid "let down games" that have cost them shots at National Championships the last 3 years. The bigger concern this year is that the Trojans have to get better and in a hurry. The fans are looking at this as another let down, but USC will need to improve quickly to win games against some very challenging games ahead.
The Pac-10 teams are our best friends until we play them. This is why I update on the other Pac-10 teams games against non-conference opponents.
The Trojans have given up control of their own destiny in the third week of the season. The one loss they had last year to Oregon State was too much to overcome because of the perception of the Pac-10 being a weaker conference. This is why it is crucial for the conference to have success early in the non-conference schedule because the undefeated bowl record last year was too little, too late.
It was a very respectable outing for the conference last weekend aside from the Trojans' debacle. UCLA has beaten two quality programs out of the conference, including Tennessee on the road. Oregon had a huge win against Utah, ending the nation's longest winning streak, Cal beat Minnesota on the road with Jahvid Best rushing for five touchdowns (we will be seeing him soon), Washington State beat SMU, ASU beat Louisiana Monroe, and Stanford beat San Jose State. Oregon State came up short against a tough Cincinnati team and Arizona lost to Iowa. Of course, none of this matters much if USC does not take care of its own business.
The game started out looking like an all-Trojan afternoon with the offensive line opening up gaping holes for Joe McKnight to run through, and Aaron Corp looked good connecting on a couple of short passes. The Trojans marched right down the field and it looked as though they would score 50!
Washington defensive coordinator Nick Holt recognized early in the game that that he needed to move eight men into the box and force Corp to beat them. What I did not expect was a complete lack of efficiency from the offense as the game wore on. I have been talking about turnover margin and third down conversions in my previous updates. The Trojans finished 0-10 on third down and minus-3 in turnover margin. Folks, as you know, this will not win you many football games. USC did rush for 250 yards, but the Trojans fumbled the ball four times and lost two of them. Corp threw and interception and had another two of them dropped.
Furthermore, all of these turnovers were in the red zone and should have produced points. I was very disappointed to see the fumbles resurface after having two of them in the opener verses San Jose State game. I believe that you will see more of Allen Bradford this week, and look for C.J. Gable to get some carries this week as well. Knowing Pete Carroll's attitude about turnovers, fumbles and interceptions will not be tolerated.
The challenge you have on the road is that it can get very loud and hostile, and Washington is among the loudest places in the country. We could clearly see and feel the momentum shift during the game, and the longer the Huskies stayed in the game, the more confident they became and the louder the fans got. I did not see Corp thrive in that environment, and his confidence diminished as the game wore on.
This was much different from all of the scrimmaging he had done while at USC. He has been known for making good decisions and not forcing the football. In this game, he did not take what the defense was giving him, and instead of checking off to a back or going to a second or third read, he was locking on receivers and forcing balls into traffic. He was fortunate to only have one pass intercepted. I do not know why USC did not utilize more play-action passes and movement by the quarterback. Perhaps it was because Corp was not 100 percent with his leg.
Clearly, the Huskies were looking for the run, and with play action and some boots and rolls, it is likely that Corp could have been more comfortable. USC only threw for 110 yards, the lowest output in the Carroll era. Washington is one week removed from Idaho throwing for 349 yards against them. The team has to start stretching the defense. Their opponents will continue to stack eight in the box and force the quarterback position to beat them.
I am not sure who that player will be. It is very apparent that they miss Ronald Johnson but they need to have Brice Butler, Travon Patterson, De'Von Flournoy or Brandon Carswell step up. Coach Carroll and his staff have recruited the best, and it is time to have one of these guys emerge quickly.
I have been also been hearing about Corp not knowing that he was going to play until right before the game. I am sorry, but this does not work for me.
You prepare as if you are going to be the guy every day and you get yourself ready to go. Sure, you want your coach to get behind you and believe in you, but you have to believe in yourself. I am sure Coach Carroll could have handled this differently, but he has always thrived on competition and the players know this. I know a little about this and was told I was starting against Cal before getting on the bus to go to the Coliseum. Get ready to play and get it done.
This was a team loss but there is no excuse for some of the decisions Corp made and he needs to improve. I hope that he has another shot for redemption at some point because this game was a tough one to swallow. The play that surprised me was the under-thrown ball to Anthony McCoy in the second half because McCoy was open, and Corp had a good pocket to step and fire only to have the ball nose dive on him and land about seven yards short.
In addition to the turnovers and the non-existent third down conversions, the Trojans were also penalized eight times for 75 yards, often creating first or second-and-long situations with a very conservative game plan being called. This does not create a high probability for success, especially in that environment on the road. The play at the end of the half hurt as well and was very uncharacteristic of Coach Carroll's teams. The Trojans got stuffed for a loss on a running play on third down, and they were forced to kick. They could not stop the clock by spiking the ball because it was fourth down. The logical thing to do is throw a pass, but the coaches had faith that the running game would get the first down. The Trojans also needed a touchdown on their last drive of the game but settled for a field goal to tie the game 13-13. You could feel the momentum stay with the Huskies after USC tied the game.
The Trojans needed to put Locker into a situation of needing a touchdown to win on their last possession.
The defense played well enough in the game to win. The Trojans held U-Dub to 56 yards rushing. Jurrell Casey continues to be a monster in the middle, and he made some huge plays on the run and against the pass. Nick Perry also came up big with pressure on Locker and a sack on the last drive. Look to see more of him as the season progresses. Much credit needs to be given to Washington quarterback Jake Locker. He has improved his pocket passing and accuracy, and he played error-free football. On the last drive, Locker stepped up and made the big plays when needed converting a third-and-15 with a clutch pass and scrambled to convert another third down. As I have said in the past, the best pass defense is a great pass rush, and we did not get enough pressure on Locker on the last drive.
I am not sure if there was a lack of confidence with Taylor Mays being out of the game, but they needed to bring some heat and force Locker to hurry his throws and get him out of his rhythm. Mays' speed and ability to diagnose was certainly missed.
The kicking game continues to leave a lot to be desired but nobody was expecting the Trojans to be punting so much. The kicking game has not been as big a factor historically because of the offensive efficiency in past years.
The Trojans at this point in the season need to be aware of field position and not putting themselves in a hole, which they were a majority of the time against Ohio State and Washington. The conservative nature of the offense and inability to stretch defenses has created a lot of third down situations. The 23 percent success ratio for third downs for the season is not getting it done. Remember, this is the most important statistic after turnover margin for measuring success.
Be on the lookout for Mitch Mustain to do some punting Saturday. The coaches were also expecting deeper kicks on kickoffs as well and so far are not getting the results they want. I still believe that the special teams will get better under Brian Schneider but need to improve quickly.
This game was certainly not a Trojan afternoon, and they did not finish. Coach Carroll has prided himself on being a second-half team and finishing games. During his tenure, he has consistently made adjustments, and the Trojans have consistently come out and gotten it done in the second half. There have been a couple of exceptions in the last few years but overall the Trojans "always compete" and come up big at the end of games.
This one was not to be, and the Trojans need to start rising up and playing like Trojans do. There does not need to be excess celebrating for a good hit at the end of the game. That is your job- to hit, block, and tackle. It is time to pick it up, and the leaders on the team need to step up. Play with class, heart and desire and as a team... as Trojans.
Fight On & Beat the Cougars!
Shane Foley played quarterback for the Trojans from 1986-1990. He is a Vice President and Wealth Management Consultant for Wells Fargo in Newport Beach. He serves on the executive board for Pete Carroll's A Better LA, The Blind Children's Learning Center in Orange County and is involved in several other charities. He can be reached at Shane.Foley@wellsfargo.com.