Quickly descending into disaster in the middle of a season, Donnett Williams was willing to try anything to turn USC’s football fortunes.
“I also tried to wear my white shoes and channel my inner Pete Carroll,” joked Williams, pointing to his new shoes at practice this week. “Whatever has to be done now.”
With a much-needed goodbye week at USC, Williams could certainly use some of the magic of the mid-2000s.
Putting aside the decision to split from Clay Helton after Game 2, let’s take a look at where the Trojans stand at the midpoint of the season.
what went right
1. Drake London has emerged as one of the top receivers in the country.
It’s tempting to list London’s achievements to fill this spot – most competitive catches, most receptions in the country (64), second most receiving yards (832) – but we’ll leave you a long list of numbers. . Just know this: London has been a force to be reckoned with this season so far.
His combination of size and skill and smooth running has breached the defence, making him nearly impossible to cover with just one man. In turn, that extra attention has opened up opportunities for the rest of USC’s crimes. London has at least nine catches and 130 yards in five of USC’s six games – seeing as how the defense has focused on the gameplan to stop him, even as a regular. There is remarkable stability for taking cheap shots.
None of the defendants have yet figured out how to stop him, even though they have figured out the rest of the USC offenses. On a better team, their prolific stats might have sparked the Heisman Trophy buzz by now. But London may actually have to settle for being a great college receiver who didn’t dominate during a great season en route to the draft.
2. The run game has really improved.
USC’s rapid attack was on a downward trajectory for years, before it finally bottomed out last season, as the Trojans could barely score 97 yards per game together, good for 120th place in the nation. .
Enter the two transfer backs from Texas to Keonte Ingram and Darwin Barlow. Ingram as lead back has been a major upgrade, while Barlow has proven worthy of replacing Wawe Malepei in the primary change-of-motion role in recent weeks. Together, they have given USC a passive fleeing attack, which is more than what USC has been saying in recent years.
Ingram has been the pivot of that progress. A violent sprinter capable of moving tacklers, his presence in the backfield eases the offense on quarterback Kydon Slovis. Ingram already has 16 plays for 10 or more yards this season, just two fewer than the entire USC backfield during his six games last season.
His emergence has been aided by improved run blocking up front, a testament to first-year offensive line coach and run game coordinator Clay McGuire. But in the end the opposing defense deserves a ton of Ingram credit for honoring the run… that is, until USC has been forced to pass for trying to wipe out the deficit quickly. .
3. The future is secure in the hands of newcomer Jackson Dart.
It was just a game, but boy was it a game. In a dynamic debut for the ages against Washington State, Jackson’s dart threw for 391 yards and four touchdowns worked his way to a resounding road victory over an injured meniscus.
He hasn’t played a game since, but the single-game performance was enough to support what we thought after fall camp: The dart quarterback holds USC’s future.
Until USC comes back from his goodbyes, he might as well be his present. Dart is moving into practice and is on the verge of relinquishing his injury, probably from next Saturday’s Notre Dame game. It’s unclear if this means he’ll get a shot at the starting job, like Williams promised after the Washington State game. But their bright future beyond this season has good reason to hold some hope until 2021.
4. For what it’s worth, the offensive line has been better than expected.
OK, so maybe this is a back-handed compliment. But after expecting the worst, USC’s offensive line has at least exceeded those expectations.
USC was always going to take its knots with two new offensive tackles. But Jonah Monheim has shown a propensity for blocking runs, at least on the right side of the line, while the interior has done well in that regard as well, having cleared more room in recent years than USC has been accustomed to at the back. .
Blocking passes, especially at the edges, has been a different story. But believe it or not, USC ranks among the top-20 teams in the country with sacks, having taken just seven so far this season.
I know, I was surprised too. But signs point to both Monheim and left tackle Cortland Ford tracing their progress sometime in the second half of the season.
what went wrong
1. The USC defense is settled.
There is no need to set aside a specific part of the USC’s defense. Depending on the week, it has been crushed to the ground or torn apart through the air. What once seemed like USC’s best chance to compete in the Pac-12 has now become its biggest question mark.
Its pass defense, despite its tremendous brilliance, allowed 8.4 yards per pass effort, the worst in the nation at Pac-12 and 112th. After horrifying looks in fall camp, a defensive front full of potential NFL talent has been just mediocre through the midpoint of the season.
Edge rusher Drake Jackson has had brief brushes with greatness, matching two sacks and a fumble recovery against Colorado, but he isn’t as consistent as you’d expect from a potential first-rounder. Cornerback Chris Steele and safety Isaiah Pola-Mao, both major giants have certainly put up a strong fight after picking themselves up.
It’s hard to figure out what’s wrong with the rescue because it’s been a different problem every week. But if USC doesn’t isolate the issue soon, it could get worse from here.
2. There is no other option in the passing game.
2 option, but his suspension before the season left USC scrambling for another weapon. It’s still scrambled more than two months later.
Memphis transfer Tehaj Washington was the most likely option to fill that void, but he seemed wrong in the offense of USC so far. Gary Bryant Jr. has had his moments but got off to a slow start due to a hamstring injury. And Newman tight end Michael Trigg appeared to be bound for a breakout role, before a knee injury slowed him against Utah.
No one has taken over the reins yet. But USC Drake can’t tell London to do it all. Defense will adjust at some point.
The Trojans have a lot of top recruits in their receiving corps. Should be able to make a move with London at least in the second half of the season.
3. Trojan’s top new players haven’t reached their top billing yet.
When Corey Foreman signed with USC, the athletic department was not exactly subtle in announcing the new player’s arrival. It did so with a billboard on the premises, making it clear how prominent a role the foreman played in the Trojans’ future plans.
But six games through, Foreman hasn’t thought majorly on USC’s defense. The top overall recruit averaged 11.5 snaps per game, most of which apparently came on passing down. Foreman got his first sack last week, but he still has a lot to do to earn the trust of the coaches.
He is not alone. Rasjon Davis, the second-highest-rated recruit in the Trojans’ 2021 category, has played a total of 11 snaps on defense this season, all of which came against San Jose State. After foreman and standout safety Callen Bullock, defensive back Jailyne Smith has been at the fore of the newcomers. But since making a sack and interception against Washington State, Smith has played only three snaps.
4. Punishment is still a problem.
Broken Record Drone on. USC has somehow, somehow managed to get Worse in the Penal Department. Only six teams in college football are losing more penalty yards per game than USC, which has lost 80.7 yards this season at an average of 8.2 penalties per game.
When Williams first stepped into her interim role, she promised to address USC’s disciplinary issues and improve accountability. But till now he has not been able to stop the fine. USC had two of its most punishing games of the past three years under Williams’ supervision.