USC-Arizona Game Notes
Coming into this game both Arizona and USC were looking to separate themselves from their early season woes. Both teams have underperformed thus far in 2018. USC has struggled to find any consistency on offense, showing flashes of brilliance that quickly flicker out. Arizona touted itself as a contender in the PAC-12 South, behind pre-season Heisman candidate Khalil Tate. Arizona has failed to impress struggling early in the season behind a now injured Tate, only righting the ship after beating Southern Utah and Oregon State the last 2 weeks. With a difficult road ahead in the PAC-12 this feels like a must win game for Clay Helton. For Trojan fans a win over Arizona alone will not due, fans are craving progress, something/anything to make them feel optimistic about the future (i.e great offensive line play, consistency on offense, improved secondary play, pressure on the opposing QB). The most disheartening development this season for me, hasn’t been the loses, but the way USC has lost and the lack of improvement week to week. This looks like a team that needs a new head coach, and I doubt I’m the only one that feels this way.
Arizona came out in a more balanced front than USC has seen the last couple weeks. They weren’t overloading for run or pass, and it seemed to agree with the offense early, as JT Daniels looked more comfortable going through his reads in the passing games. USC had changed its OL rotation this week and it paid off with some good chemistry upfront in the first quarter. They were able to give JT Daniels some more time to throw. Velus Jones looked to be emerging as a real threat and an alternative target to Amon-Ra St. Brown, who appeared to be hobbled in this game. Looked to me like his was a step slow and turning down some contact during the game. J.T Daniels is still struggling with underthrowing the deep ball. This has been an issue all year. I think its equal parts poor anticipation and fear of stepping into his throws (due to being shell shocked by four games of bad pass protection).
As the game wore on the offensive line really started struggling with Arizona DL/DE P.J. Johnson. He consistently squeezed the pocket on JT Daniels, when rushing from defensive end, beating Chuma Edoga, Austin Jackson, and Jalen Mckenzie multiple times during the game. It’s depressing to see USC’s offensive line in this state, they made an overweight, semi-quick, former JUCO defensive tackle look like an All American. P.J. Johnson was de-cleating pulling guards and centers on power and counter plays. USC was forced to run away from him, which worked well, until Arizona figured out what they were doing and started stunting their linebackers the opposite way based off that tendency, which shut down USC’s ability to run later in the game.
Early in the game USC’s OC was doing a better job of using motion and pick routes to open up the short to intermediate routes for JT Daniels. For some reason USC went away from this later in the game and it showed as JT couldn’t find an open receiver down field for most of the second half. The lack of open receivers forced JT Daniels to scramble a lot during the second half. I was impressed with his pocket presence, and use of emergency outlets, when he did scramble. It was upsetting to see the offense looks so haphazard.
USC’s offensive line did look better this week. This was probably their best performance. The biggest difference this week was that they were actually covering up the opposing defenders. There were far fewer missed assignments and free runners coming into the backfield. This had been a huge problem in previous weeks, resulting in stalled drives and tackles for loss. USC still has a long way to go, they couldn’t run the ball when Arizona knew it was coming. USC was not be any means dominating the line of scrimmage. At best, it was a stalemate, but at least USC’s linemen were in the right place this week, which is an improvement over the previous weeks. The good news is that with Studs like Stephen Carr in the backfield sometimes covering up the opposing defense is enough, and it was against Arizona.
I was also impressed with the play of Chris Brown, he’s the one guy who has really improved. He was opening up holes all night and aggressively took on P.J. Johnson. Toa Lobendahn was hot and cold, he’s effective when he’s pulling on defensive ends and linebackers, but he doesn’t give you movement against NG/DT at the point of attack. He reminds me of the type of linemen Oregon would have under Chip Kelly, quick and great on the move, but you can’t line him up over a big DT and expect movement.
Andrew Vorhees is still really struggling and hasn’t shown me much improvement, he’s our weakest link. Austin Jackson and Chuma Edoga have improved over last week, but were still on roller skates much of the second half in pass protection, and neither of them were able to block P.J. Johnson effectively. Don’t get me wrong, P.J. Johnson is a solid college football player, but he wouldn’t even crack the rotation at Notre Dame, and that should be concerning. Even though USC showed improvement upfront, they still struggled to execute quality combo blocks, had a ton of penalties and bad snaps (five in two games), and couldn’t run the ball during crunch time (which speaks to a lack of physical power).
It’s no secret that I’ve been critical of running back Aca’Cedric Ware since week 1. Any skill player who sits on the bench for 4 years, has been sitting for a reason. He has had his moments, but by in large he has proven me right. Since UNLV he’s been just average running the ball, given up numerous sacks in pass protection, dropped passes, and drawn penalties. I was still happy to see him have success versus Arizona. Ware’s North/South running style was his key to success this week. He was able to hit the hole before Arizona’s backers could read to flow. His running style took advantage of what the OL was doing well (covering up the DL) and covering up what the OL was doing poorly (not scraping off double teams to the LB’s). The reason Carr struggled versus Arizona is because he prefers to read his blockers then cut up field, which doesn’t work when your linemen can’t get to the second level defenders
USC looked solid offensively for the first quarter and half, but then things began to fall apart (as they usually do under Helton). Same old suspects, penalties, bad snaps, turnovers, failure to win the halftime adjustment battle, poor pass protection, and WR not getting open. All these issues conspired to stall the office for the entire 2nd half, frustrating Trojan fans in the process.
As a Defense, USC came out with a solid plan to stop Khalil Tate. Play Press/Man coverage, which would take away the short throws, forcing Tate to make the tougher intermediate throws, which he struggles with. Keep the DL in their rush lane responsibilities to contain and force Tate to throw from the pocket (where he is least comfortable/effective). USC spied Tate early in the game with John Houston. His job was to follow Tate around the field, to prevent him from hurting them with big runs. By the second quarter it was clear Tate was still really slowed by his ankle injury, as a result it looked to me like USC pulled the spy backer sometime in the second quarter, freeing another man up for coverage. I was really impressed with everything USC’s defense did for 90% of the game. They were able to keep Tate and the Arizona offense completely in check. A combination of mistakes and turnovers on offense, gave Arizona some great field position opportunities, which the Wildcats used to breathe new life into their offense in the 2nd half. At the same time the usual suspects caught up with USC on defense. The lack of pressure on the QB and poor secondary coverage skills gave Arizona a few cheap touchdowns at critical times. When Porter Guston came out in the 2nd half, the only reliable source of QB pressure left with him. This change bought Tate just enough time to scramble out of the pocket and make some deep throws. Tate connected on three of these throws to bring the game within reach, late in the fourth quarter. These were the only positives Arizona had on offense all night. USC has to be better at closing out bad football teams like Arizona. USC has to be able to adjust and re-adjust with success. If it wasn’t for some sloppiness in the form of bad snaps, penalties, and two or three blown coverages this could have been a 35 point blowout.
I really believe special teams has been the difference the last 2 weeks. They once again came through with a blocked field goal, which could have been the difference in the game. Kickoff and punts teams looked solid, made no mistakes. The one area I would love to see improvement in is that kick return game. I think back to Adoree’ Jackson and what a game changer his returns were. It have to believe we can do better than we are doing now.