Here’s the third post in our new ‘film study’ series started last week.
Every other day from now until Aug. 23, we’ll be putting up a set of pertinent-to-this-year notes from each game, going of course in chronological order from the Minnesota season opener to the UCLA season finale. At the end, on Aug. 25, we’ll have one last post with our overall takeaways from the re-watching. By then, it’ll be the week of this year’s opener.
We did USC’s 19-17 win over Minnesota on Wednesday and the Trojans' 23-14 win over Utah on Friday. Here, now, are our five notes — four big things and a bunch of little ones — from USC's 38-17 win over Syracuse on Sept. 17, 2011.
Matt Barkley picked through the opposing secondary with ease in this game.
It starts the first drive, using Robert Woods the perfect amount while still mixing in other receivers, as Lane Kiffin and the Trojans started to effectively use Woods as a decoy for the first time. Spreading the ball out, Barkley completed a combined 10 passes to Brandon Carswell and Rhett Ellison -- neither player had more than three receptions in any game the rest of the year.
In total, Barkley threw seven near-touchdown passes against the Orange and five actual touchdown passes, with one to Marqise Lee getting called back because of a facemask and one to Woods being ruled out of bounds.
But Kiffin did try to get Barkley his sixth on the final drive, when he called an ill-advised pass play on first-and-goal at the five-yard line and got the quarterback sacked for a loss of 10.
Robey and Pullard
So Syracuse started out the game moving the ball with ease on the USC defense, needing nine plays to get from its own 23-yard line to the Trojans' five. Then two of USC's top three tacklers thus far stepped up and made plays.
First, Hayes Pullard snuffed out a screen pass to Syracuse running back Antwon Bailey and stopped it for a loss. Then, on third and five, Nickell Robey pounced on an out-route and holds the Orange to a one-yard gain.
Syracuse didn't score again until the second half.
Through three games, it's been clear that the Trojans' top three tacklers are T.J. McDonald, Pullard and Robey, not necessarily in that order, with Dion Bailey probably the fourth. Bailey made a nice fumble-forcing tackle on Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib in the fourth quarter.
McNeal's first chance
It's easy to overstate how good a running back looks in late-game garbage carries, but Curtis McNeal was absolutely dominant in the fourth quarter of this game.
His first carry went for 16 yards when it should have gone for five yards, as he took a counter to the right side and twisted and turned his way past the Syracuse linebackers into the secondary and refused to go down. Then D.J. Morgan replaced him and fumbled immediately.
On the next series, McNeal proceeded to run for nine yards, then 15 and then 43 -- the last of which has been the most impressive running play for the Trojans to date. He didn't go down with the first hit on any of the three and would've scored on the third if he had better downfield blocking from the backup receivers and linemen.
What the Trojans will miss
Remember those screen passes that worked so well with Woods and/or Lee last year?
Going back and looking at them, there's one constant to every single successful one: Carswell is in as a wide blocker. The then-senior receiver was simply dominant in that role, and, through three games, Ellison hasn't messed up yet either.
With both players now fighting to make NFL squads, who on the current roster will be able to complete those sort of tasks? It would be great if Soma Vainuku could be counted on as a fullback, but someone who could really help would be tight end Junior Pomee, now a redshirt freshman.
Pomee's athletic enough to be a serious pass-catching threat when he's in, but he's also big enough to be a legitimate blocker.
Final notes: Left guard Marcus Martin made his collegiate debut and did alright, slightly better than the other two candidates that USC auditioned at the spot earlier in the year. But he wasn't dominant . . . The only kick that Andre Heidari missed while healthy last season was in this game, when he hooked a 46-yard attempt short and to the left at the end of the first half . . . McNeal also fumbled in this game, on a kickoff return in the third quarter, but it was apparently forgiven by the coaching staff because it was recovered by Xavier Grimble . . . So this is why we thought Torin Harris was less than stellar in the short time he was on the field in the 2011 season: He had a few notable mess-ups in this game, including when he bit badly on a double-pass trick pay and left a Syracuse receiver wide open in the end zone for a 28-yard touchdown.
Arizona State comes Tuesday.