Trojans still hungry to figure out their identity


You’d never know it, but USC is three games into its football season.

So that explains the guys in white and cardinal playing on ESPN Saturday against Minnesota. And those same guys jubilantly singing “Fight On” afterward — I guess those must have been Trojans.

Still, three games into the season, I can’t help but wonder, “Who are these guys?”

After three weeks showcasing three different teams, the Trojans are still in search of an identity.

In wins against Hawai’i, Virginia and Minnesota, USC has shown different aspects of what could become its trademark qualities this season.

But what will they be?

The hard-nosed rushing attack that sparked USC to 216 yards Saturday? With senior Allen Bradford, redshirt junior Marc Tyler and freshman Dillon Baxter at tailback, there is no reason the Trojans shouldn’t be able to run the ball whenever they feel like it.

Bradford, the most physical of the backs, imposed his will in a breakout performance of 131 yards on 12 carries. But coming into the game, Bradford was the third running back on the depth chart, and USC coach Lane Kiffin said afterward that no decision had been made about changing the starter.

Not that there should be after just one game. But since Kiffin’s Trojans are wisely unwilling to employ a tailback-by-committee offense like Pete Carroll did, the decision as to which running back starts will go a long way in determining the flavor of the USC offense.

Tyler, who has started every game this season, looked fantastic against Hawai’i, but then sputtered out the following games. He is more versatile than Bradford but less physical. If the Trojans want to be a pound-the-ball team, No. 21 should be the first guy getting carries.

Baxter has gotten his chances here and there, but after only seven carries for 24 yards last week, it is unlikely he will come to define this offense.

Will the Trojans be the pass-happy, explosive offense we saw against Hawai’i, then? Maybe, considering the Trojans showed flashes of brilliance Saturday, such as when sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley hit senior wide receiver Ronald Johnson on a perfectly timed 53-yard touchdown.

The passing game still looked inconsistent, however, with no reliable third receiver emerging for Barkley to count on. Freshman wide receiver Robert Woods has shown potential, as has redshirt junior tight end Rhett Ellison.

The defense is perhaps the Trojans’ greatest enigma.

After an awful outing in the season opener where the Warriors exposed more holes than a graveyard, the back line has been impressive in the last two games, especially in shutting down Minnesota’s rushing attack. The Trojans held the Gophers to just 83 total rushing yards, with only six of those coming from major threat tailback Duane Bennett.

And what’s up with these wacky special teams?

Woods officially established himself as a special teams threat after his 97-yard kickoff return. But that, along with Johnson’s punt return for a touchdown against Hawai’i, has been the only bright spot for the special teams unit.

The Trojans failed on three two-point conversion attempts Saturday, making this the second game where Kiffin unnecessarily decided against the conventional extra point. Senior kicker Joe Houston hasn’t missed an extra point all season, but is only 1-3 on field goal attempts.

Going for two injects a team with a brazenness and confidence — when the conversion attempts are successful. When they are not, they take a little bit of momentum away from a touchdown and probably more than anything, annoy the other team.

Whatever message Kiffin is trying to send to his team with these conversions isn’t working.

With so many uncertainties abounding in every aspect of the game for the Trojans, “Who are these guys?” is still a legitimate question. Kiffin recognized last week that developing an identity is a long process, especially with a new coaching staff and a new mentality.

Luckily for the Trojans, the weakest part of their schedule has come at these early stages, when they can afford to be inconsistent and still manage to win games.

Whatever the Trojans end up identifying as — a power running team, a bend-but-don’t-break defense, etc. — will define this season. If they remain an unrecognizable team from one week to the next, they will fade in the latter half of the schedule.

Maybe this week, the Trojans will finally put all the pieces together.

Scratch that. The Trojans visit Washington State for the annual scrimmage against a high school team masquerading as an Football Bowl Subdivision program.

Maybe, then, the week after.

“Middle Ground” usually runs Tuesdays. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or e-mail Josh at jjovanel@usc.edu.