Colorado Game Notes
On the surface looking through the tinted Cardinal and Gold glasses of a USC homer, this looked like an impressive win over a solid 5-0 Colorado squad. I'm here to tell you DON'T BE FOOLED! Colorado is a paper tiger, they beat a bunch of horrible football teams and we were a few lucky catches removed from losing that game.
As good as our defense looked during most of the game, our offense is still in pretty sad shape. It reminded me of watching an old WAC conference team, like Fresno State in the 1990's sneak up on beat some top 15 team. They would look horrible for 90% of the game, but would get lucky on a couple of big pass plays and pull out the win, but only because the other team played horribly. That's how USC looked beating Colorado without a running game. It makes me sad, USC has always prided itself on physical linemen and a great run game. Every year under Helton, we move further and further away from that. I find myself rooting against USC, so that we can move on from Helton and this football purgatory. I’m not satisfied beating second rate PAC-12 opponent and getting blown out anytime we play a top 10 team. It comes down to offensive linemen, we are failing to identify and recruit the best, and we are failing to develop the ones we do get once they get to USC. Our last 5 Star offensive line was Zach Banner (6 or 7 years ago). Most of the guys we bring in now are marginal 3 or stretch 4 star recruits, same guys everyone else in the PAC-12 is chasing. Our recruiting seems lazy to me, great Championship level coaches recruit differently than your average staff would. I don't know how many of you remember what Pete Carroll's USC recruiting football camps looked like, but they were special. He had evaluating recruits down to a science, and he got all the top guys to show up and compete. Pat Ruehl, the offensive line coach under Carroll, had formula for what made a good college offensive linemen and wouldn't recruit kids who fell outside of those specs, even if everyone else did. My point is you have to have a system in place to be successful in recruiting linemen. Any school can recruit athletes, but only great programs can recruit great offensive linemen. Great Offensive linemen separate the perennial contenders like Alabama and Ohio State from the likes of West Virginia and Texas Tech. Our problem is that our current staff still acts and recruits like they did at whatever small school they came from. We are followers, recruiting the same guys in the same way as the rest of PAC-12, so those are the types of players we end up getting. Regular middle of the road PAC-12 type linemen. We look like a middling PAC-12 school because we attract and recruit common talent in-between the tackles. Every great coach knows that championships are built from the (inside) linemen out. So is it really a surprise that we are an average team? Have you seen the USC recruit camps lately? They are a joke.
This showed on Saturday as USC was totally stuffed running the ball against Colorado even in the most run positive situations. Didn't matter if Colorado had 5 in the box, someone would come in unblocked. To have 0 yard rushing against a team like Colorado really says something about the true state of USC football. When you watch teams with solid rushing attacks their offensive linemen all look like they are connected at the hip in some sort of beautiful dance. When watching USC's offensive line we are lucky to have them all going the same direction. Our 3 interior linemen Toa Lobendahn, Chris Brown, and Andrew Vorhees couldn't get movement on Colorado's 2 interior Defensive linemen. At best it was a stalemate, at worst Colorado was reestablishing the line of scrimmage in our backfield. Taking on our interior 3 with 2 defensive linemen freed up a linebacker. That linebacker was the one making 80% of the stops in the run game. To Colorado's credit their line-backing core did an excellent job tackling. Our offensive tackles didn't help the run game either, Austin Jackson probably had the worst performance of the week missing multiple blocks, making multiple mental errors, and flat out stepping the wrong way on several occasions. These are experienced linemen, guys who have a season and a half of play under their belts, they should be fine tuning and perfecting the offense at this point, not struggling with which direction to step. SC’s failure in the run game falls mostly on the linemen and their coach, that's just the way it goes. That being said, our running backs aren't exactly making guys miss, sometimes a running back needs to make something from nothing. We aren't doing that either.
JT Daniels is extremely talented. No one is arguing that. I'm impressed with his range of throws, his ability to regroup and move on after a bad decisions, but he has a long way left to go. The first play of the game, Colorado's outside linebacker clearly showed he was dropping into coverage to double the slot receiver, before the ball was even snapped. Instead of checking out of the play, or simply picking another target, JT threw right at the double coverage and was picked off. Either JT isn't seeing the audible or isn't being taught how to use it effectively. In that situation when #20 from Colorado walked out of the box to drop in to coverage, we should have checked to a run at the bubble he created when he dropped to coverage. The second interception was a poor throw off his back foot into triple coverage. The 1st Quarter was a disaster. Things improved in the 2nd quarter, JT successfully targeted St. Brown and Pittman to break open a 21-7 lead. Pass protection improved, but JT is still throwing off his back foot. Even on those long completions, he under threw everyone one of them, just like he has all season. All those plays could have been broken up, if not for some stellar body control and adjustment by our WR’s. If the ball was thrown properly, those WR’s would have been hit in stride. It just feels like anytime something good break open on the offensive side of the ball it’s because of a big catch or throw, our offense never feels consistent or planned out. Once teams take away those big chance plays, our offense stalls, like it did in the second half. We just can’t create long sustained drives, which is why we’ll continue to get blown out by good teams. Good team can put together long drives!
Defense was without Cam Smith, but throughout the year the stick that stirs the drink on Defense is Porter Gustin. Every good team has to have 3 things: a good QB, a receiver that can stretch the field, and a QB killer (and Gustin is our QB killer). Every time Gustin is on the field our defense is 100% better. When he's out injured or suspended our defense turns into Swiss cheese. Just look back over our season, the halves where Gustin didn’t play were some of our worst defensively. No Gustin equals no pass rush, and our secondary gets exposed. It’s no secret our weakest link on defense is the secondary. They are undersized, passive, and not physical. The only thing they do well is run. A good pass rush can mask a weak secondary. When we get pressure on the opponents QB’s it protects our secondary. We get hurt on defense when opposing QB's have time to make intermediate and long throws. This scenario was never more apparent than in the Colorado game. Gustin came out pressing Montez early and often, recording a sack on the 3rd play and numerous other pressures over the course of the game. Colorado's offense already favors a short passing game, but this pressure took away any opportunity they would have to stretch the field. This allowed us to play our DB's closer to the line of scrimmage and prevent any significant gain in their short passing game.
Palaie Gaoteote who is filling in for Cam Smith, is a stud. Looked almost unblockable all game. When Cam Smith gets back they need to keep both of these guys on the field. Colorado tried to run the ball using power and counter concepts. (where the playside linemen block their guys down, and the weakside linemen pull and kick out the end and linebacker). Our defensive ends did a great job of stuffing Colorado's pulling guards and tackles. Colorado's run game looked as bad as ours did. We were more physical upfront on defense then Colorado, Colorado's interior linemen couldn't move Marlon Tuipulotu or Jay Tufele. Rector spent most of the game playing in a 3 or 4i technique (further inside then normal), so they were using him in more of a run stopping capacity. He did well in this role, his speed in backside pursuit help shut down Colorado's run game. That will change with Gustin's injury, as Rector is that only other player who can rush the passer at all. Overall, I have been pessimistic about USC's defense this year, but (knock on wood) I think we are actually improving. We showed some great team speed to the ball, great tackling and ball hawking by Ajene Harris and the rest of our secondary in the short passing game. I think we may have turned a corner defensively, hopefully that improvement starts to carryover to our offense. I do have major concerns about our ability to pressure the QB without Gustin in the lineup.