Preparation can only go so far.
Teams can only condition, practice and rest up so much before hitting a wall, and any additional time to focus on an upcoming opponent has marginal benefit.
At that point, out of all the things that are worked on in practice, only one factor remains in deciding the outcome of a game, something that can’t be finely tuned: execution.
As USC faced Oregon on Saturday night, the more-than-ready Trojans weren’t physically fatigued, mentally rattled or morally beaten as the game wore down. The defense kept pace with the high-powered Duck offense, and the offense had all the pieces in place to put points on the board.
They just didn’t execute.
Don’t take it from me; take it straight from the source.
“Everything that we saw on film was what we saw in the game,” redshirt sophomore defensive end Wes Horton said. “I didn’t feel like [Oregon’s speed] was an issue. I feel like everyone was in shape, and everyone was lined up. They just gassed us on a few plays.”
Sophomore safety Jawanza Starling said that it wasn’t the speed of the game that overwhelmed the Trojans.
“The tempo wasn’t anything that we haven’t practiced all week for or anything; it was just missing keys,” he said. “That’s how they get all their big breaks.”
Of course, with roster limitations and several injuries still relevant problems for USC, the team entered Saturday at a slight disadvantage. It was not the case that Oregon had better athletes than USC; rather, when the Trojans made mistakes, the Ducks did not.
And once again, that discrepancy simply boils down to an inexperienced team playing a much more seasoned squad.
Although Chip Kelly has led the Ducks as their coach for only two seasons, he has been with the program as the offensive coordinator for four, and seamlessly took the reigns from former coach Mike Bellotti when he was promoted to the athletic director position.
In doing this, Oregon ensured that it would continue playing football the same way it had been for the last five years. Even with the large turnover the Ducks have had at the quarterback position since 2007, there remained an overall consistency in the way the team was run. If there were any holes in the Ducks’ roster, they could simply fill the spot with a player that had grown with the team and knew the system like the back of his hand.
In the past, the Trojans had this luxury. They always seemed to have sufficient depth and recruiting to avoid inexperience, and they certainly had consistent coaching.
But with all of the shakeups the program has withstood in the last year and the major coaching and schematic changes the team has gone through, USC is too full of fresh faces to stay on the level it was once at.
Unfortunately for the Trojans, this ugly truth became blatantly apparent on Saturday.
Let’s make this clear: USC still has some of the most talented players in the nation. But the fact that the Trojans have not had a consistent maturation process within the program has left the team disoriented and often times desperate. A cohesive, flawless system — even if it is run by weaker players — will trump a raw, unstable, young team almost every time.
The Trojans do not need faster players or more conditioning. They need time and stability. If Kiffin and his assistants stay in Southern California and continue to focus on helping their ranks grow up and learn how to fit into the current system, it’s only a matter of time before the budding talent they have develops back into a national contender.
But until then, teams like Oregon will continue to remind the Trojans that they are currently rebuilding, not reloading.
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