Huber's Game Notes
The Utah game concerns me every year, they are always such a bad match up for USC (especially a Helton coached teams). It’s a hard game to get up for, no matter how good Utah is, because they are Utah. Most casual football fans probably still associate them with the old WAC conference. Utah, even if they come into the game as the favorite, never have anything to lose. Utah is a team made up of quality skill players, many of them with huge chips on their shoulder because either they couldn’t qualify for or weren’t recruited by USC. When they play USC, they’re playing with something to prove. Playing USC is the biggest stage most of these Utah players will get, barring a major bowl bid. Utah’s front 7 is underrated, but from personal experience, I can tell you they are a group of tough men. Because of its ties to the Mormon Church and the state of Utah, the football program tends to attract a lot of big Mormon linemen, linebackers, tight ends and fullbacks. Highly recruited front 7 players from all over the U.S as well as Tonga and Samoa choose Utah, out of respect for their faith and a desire to represent the University. Many of these guys are recruited out of high school, signed, and then go on a 2 year mission for the church. They re-enroll at Utah as 20-22 year old freshmen. By the time they are Juniors and Seniors they are 25-26 years old. So when you are playing Utah you are playing a group of physically mature tough men, mixed with a few talented skill players. I remember my first experience with Utah. In 2001, Pete Carroll’s first year, we limped into the Las Vegas Bowl versus Utah at 6-5. When both team met up for a pre-game function it was a serious contrast in cultures. I would say that probably 60% of Utah’s team at the time were over 24 and most of them had wives and multiple kids in tow. For us the Las Vegas Bowl represented the end of a disappointing season, we were just kids looking to have fun on the Vegas Strip and put the season behind us. We weren’t overlooking Utah but were weren’t exactly laser focused. Not surprisingly, Utah gave us a beating on that Christmas day in 2001. They were bigger, stronger, and better coached up front then we were. Although they didn’t have the athletes we did, they were able to use a strong power run and play action game to beat us up, control the clock and take the victory. Watching the game on Saturday was like déjà vu.
This game was hard to watch from start to finish. It was like watching a bad movie with a predictable plot line. I have been trying to find the silver lining each week and highlight the things we are doing well, but there wasn’t one this week. When the season started, it was clear that USC was going to struggle on the offensive line, we were inconsistent running the football, but at least our pass protection/game and defense appeared serviceable. There was a lot of room for improvement, and the hope was that our roster of young stars would come into their own and continue to improve. Clearly that has not happened. While our defense has improved overall, our offense has become more predictable and our passing game has disappeared. The last few games versus Colorado and Arizona our offense has been deceptively bad. If you go back over those games and watch closely you’ll see most of our points came by way of terrific athletic plays by our receivers and running backs. They did this despite poor blocking, missed assignments and under thrown balls. To be consistently successful at this level your offense needs to control the ball and string together long drives. This is as important to a team’s success as scoring points is. Without the ability to control the football, you may still score points, but you’ll also leave your defense on the field 70% percent of the game, like we do. No matter how good a defense is, and ours is average, if you put them on the field that much they’ll burn out in the 3rd and 4th Quarter. Sound familiar? Coming into the Utah game, this pattern really scared me.
Utah came into the game with a great plan. They knew USC would abandon the run quickly, so they only played 6 or 7 defenders in the box. The linebackers who were in the box played deep off the ball. They would drop quickly into coverage (usually without taking a read step to respect the run) to take away the quick throws that have been JT’s safety valve all year. With the backers in coverage, you have 7 guys defending 4-5 receiver. Making it almost impossible to throw consistantly unless you are Payton Manning. Our early success on offense, was a fluck, as it’s been all year long. We had a few disastrous plays, then JT predictable underthrew Pittman who made a great play on the ball and scored (On a side note, I love Pittman, he reminds me of Keenan Allen from the Chargers, and he’ll be a star in the NFL). On the Defensive line, Utah used a basic stunt package, twisting their DE and DT, and occasionally blitzing the MLB. They did a great job of executing their stunts and made our OL look like a bunch of Pop Warner kids. Slanting and stunting the defensive line is common, if done well it will enhance your ability to rush the passer and frustrate offensive linemen. Resulting in Defenders coming unblocked up the middle and off the edge. From the first snap we were completely unable to adjust to their stunt and blitz package. I lost count of how many QB hits, pressures, tackles for loss, and sacks we gave up. It was easier to count the plays were we blocked correctly. During the course of the game we had between 10 and 15 plays that we blocked correctly, embarrassing. We do legitimately have a talent problem on the offensive line, but their lack of basic football IQ, technique and adjustment is unforgivable. We are getting worse upfront, not better. Past the midpoint in the season and our offense lineman are still exhibiting techniques that would be unacceptable for most high school coaches. With a technically well coached group of offensive linemen will show you will see, low pad level, square shoulders (stay big), engaged and feet moving until the whistle blows, head up and scanning, and a wide base. When linemen do this they are able to stay on their feet, hold their ground, adjust to pick up a stunting DL or Blitzer, and they stay wide so big gaps don’t open up in the protections. Our linemen consistently do these things poorly. Pick any random play during the game and I guarantee you will see:
#1-A linemen standing around not blocking a soul.
#2-A linemen with his head down not seeing the Blitzer running through his gap.
#3-A lineman with his shoulders turned who us unable to adjust to pick up a new threat
#4-A linemen with a narrow base who ends up with his face in the dirt.
I could go on and on, I was just so disappointed in our play up front. We are so skilled at the RB and WR position and we will never have a cohesive offense until we improve upfront. The effect of this poor line play made the outcome of the game clear to me from the first series. JT was taking serious hits from the first whistle. They weren’t typical hits either, these were hit from linebackers coming up the middle untouched full speed. The worse kind for a QB. He took a huge shot on his 1st quarter touchdown pass to Pittman. He took several more throughout the first half. There is no excuse for this, he was taking so many of these shots early on I knew he wouldn’t finish the game. Basic pass protection rules prioritize inside threats for offensive linemen, at every level, so this was unacceptable. The worst part is that it was going on all game and we never made a coaching adjustment to correct it and ended up losing JT for a few weeks.. The best way to combat a stunting/blitzing defense is to run right at it. Unfortunately we couldn’t do that either. Utah was pushing us off the ball and resetting the line of scrimmage in our backfield. On a majority of our run plays first contact with the RB was made in the backfield. When this happens week in and week out, it can dishearten even the most talented RB. To me Steven Carr looks like a running back who is frustrated and lacking confidence. Can you blame him? With our run game nonexistent and with Utah taking away the pass, our performance on the day was predictable. When JT finally took the shot that knocked him out of the game, Fink came in and did a great job. Why did Fink spark our offense? Fink is a speedster and was able to outrun the pressure and make some plays, he still wasn’t getting any blocking. With our offensive line playing so bad, he may be the better option going forward. I’m not saying he’s the better QB, just the right QB to put behind this line.
The Defensive personal did well; our offense and coaches let them down. My main concern coming into the game was our ability to get pressure on Utah’s QB. Early in the game this wasn’t a problem, Rector did a fine job of rushing the passer and recorded a few sacks early on. The drop off from Guston to Rector was less than I expected. The problems came with the DL’s replacing Rector on the interior. They really struggled. The last few weeks Rector has really been a force in the middle against the run, his combination of power and speed in pursuit really helped shut down the opposing teams run game. With Rector the edge, our defense was using a host of other DL’s to replace his production in the interior. They were successful early on, but started to struggle as they got into the 3rd and 4th Quarters. I thought our defense held up pretty well, but eventually the offense going 0-10 on third down conversions caught up with them. A sports medicine study I read said Defenders use between 50% and 70% percent more energy than their offensive counterparts do on any given play. This makes time of possession on offense such an important predictor of team and defensive success. If you leave your defense on the field long enough against a solid opponent eventually they will wear them down. Combine this with Helton’s poor track record of in-game defensive adjustments and you have a worn out defense that is being outcoached. We failed to give our defense adequate rest and our staff failed to adjust to the power sweep and play action that killed us in the 2nd and 3rd Quarters. Which is ultimately why Utah hung 41 points on us.
I was wrong when I said that we did absolutely nothing right against Utah. Our special team were on point. We kicked and covered well, our punting was solid considering the amount of time we punted. In the 3rd and 4th Quarter our special teams kept us in the game. A recovered muffed punt return and blocked kick gave us a few great field position opportunities on offense. Special team was the only factor preventing this game from turning into a Notre Dame 2017 style blowout. I would consider our special teams coach the only salvageable piece of the staff.