This season has been a series of new experiences for this USC football team.
No matter what happens Saturday, the Trojans will finish their worst season in nine years. They already lost to one rival, Notre Dame, for the first time since 2001. A loss to their crosstown rival would make 2010 seem like a return to the Paul Hackett years, a bog of mediocrity.
People expected the program to suffer under NCAA sanctions -- that’s kind of the point -- but a 7-6 season, with three straight losses at the end, would be worse than most fans had feared.
Just a couple of weeks ago, after a win at No. 18 Arizona, things appeared to be building toward a strong finish that would carry over to 2011.
“I was 100 percent confident that we were going to be 10-3 at the end of the season and we’d hit the road and sign a great recruiting class,” coach Lane Kiffin said.
Then the Trojans went to one of their least-favorite places, Oregon State, and got snowballed in a 29-point loss. The following week, they lost an emotionally wrenching game to the Fighting Irish. Now, this coaching staff is worried that those losses will carry over and that a sloppy finish to this season could spill into the players’ psyches going into next year.
The only way to stop that talk is to beat UCLA. That seemed a lot more likely two weeks ago.
Playmaking. The Trojans went into this season with one of the better receivers in the Pac-10, Ronald Johnson, but the emergence of freshman Robert Woods early on gave them one of the scariest double threats on the West Coast. The tandem has combined for nearly 1,400 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns. They also give teams fits on special teams. Johnson is averaging 15.6 yards per punt return with a touchdown and Woods picks up nearly 26 yards per kick return and had a 97-yard touchdown return.
Run stuffing. Teams can pick up yards on the ground against the USC defense, but they usually have to take it outside. A strong defensive line makes running between the tackles difficult. Tackle Jurrell Casey is one of the best in the nation, adept at taking on double teams and shedding blocks. Teams like Oregon, which spread the field and find open pockets, tend to move the ball better against USC than teams like Stanford, which rely on power running.
Hawking the ball. USC’s defense has forced 23 turnovers this year, third in the conference to BCS-bound Oregon and Stanford. It’s also an area of the team that has been improving week by week. The defense forced Notre Dame’s freshman quarterback, Tommy Rees, to turn the ball over four times, three times on interceptions. The Trojans’ plus-3 turnover margin ranks fourth in the conference, just behind Oregon State.
The secondary. Shareece Wright is the team’s best cover man, but even he has been susceptible to big plays at times. The other cornerback, Nickell Robey (5 feet 8) is too small to match up with premier wide receivers. The safeties are inexperienced and now the best one, T.J. McDonald, is questionable because of a separated shoulder. Add it all up and you have the No. 112 pass defense in the nation. Lucky for the Trojans, UCLA has the No. 116 passing offense.
Finishing. “We've probably set a record for the worst two-minute defense, not just this year, but in the history of college football,” Kiffin said. Three times this year, teams have beaten the Trojans on last-minute drives in which USC barely offered any resistance. But it goes deeper than that. The ends of first halves have also been problematic, especially in that Notre Dame game, when the Irish scored 13 ponts in the final 2:39. The offense has gone through long cold stretches to let mediocre teams hang around, leaving a susceptible defense on the spot.
Consistent blocking. This offensive line has plenty of talent and it has generally protected USC quarterbacks. But cohesion appears to be an issue in the running game, especially when injuries crop up. It’s been a while since USC had this little depth on its offensive line and it has cost them games. With right tackle Tyron Smith out against Notre Dame, the Trojans managed just 80 yards on 30 carries (2.67 yards per carry), essentially torpedoing a conservative game plan.