Matt Barkley, Robert Woods, Marc Tyler — a Heisman Trophy candidate, a sophomore stud and a heart-warming story, respectively.
But the stats these three put up wouldn’t be possible without the play of USC’s offensive line.
Yes, Barkley, Woods and Tyler dazzle with the eye-popping stats. Yes, they make the big, flashy plays.
But without an offensive front that has surrendered two sacks on the year, Barkley doesn’t tie a USC game-high against Syracuse with five touchdown passes; Woods doesn’t have a record-breaking performance against Minnesota; Tyler doesn’t run for 113 rushing yards and a touchdown in his 2011 debut.
To put it in better perspective, No. 23 USC (3-0, 1-0) could easily have been heading into the Arizona State game 2-1. Junior left tackle Matt Kalil’s blocked field against Utah saved overtime, saved a game the Utes would have basically stolen from the Trojans.
Despite the encouragement in seeing USC undefeated at this point in the season, much of that credit should fall on the play of the offensive line (here’s a shout out to the defense, too).
One of the biggest question marks heading into the season were the men protecting Barkley. Losing Tyron Smith, Kris O’Dowd and Butch Lewis to the NFL left a gaping hole on the frontline for the Trojans.
Only Kalil was slated to play a familiar position (left tackle); junior Khaled Holmes transitioned to center from right guard. To fill the other voids, senior Martin Coleman, junior college transfer Jeremy Galten, junior Abe Markowitz, redshirt sophomores John Martinez and Kevin Graf, freshmen Aundrey Walker, Marcus Martin and Cyrus Hobbi would all be competing for playing time and/or a starting position.
A lot of unknowns. A lot of uncertainty.
Fast-forward to week one against Minnesota. The starting offensive line gave Barkley enough time to complete 34 passes, which was enough time to connect with Woods 17 times. Both tied USC single-game records. Even more importantly, it didn’t allow a sack.
Against Utah, the offensive line matched up against a strong front-seven, one the coaching staff knew would be a difficult task for its young, inexperienced unit.
“I would say this is the best front four we’ve seen and had to face,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “The front-seven in general is really, really good and dominant at times.”
Despite this, the Trojans created enough running room for Tyler to gain 113 yards on the ground.
Kiffin even appeared to trust his young unit in week two, electing to run the ball 39 times compared to 32 pass attempts as opposed to just 45 pass attempts and 28 rush attempts against Minnesota.
In week three, it was much of the same. Though Barkley tied a USC game-high record with five touchdown passes, the offensive line controlled the Orange’s defensive front.
The Trojans’ running backs gained 175 yards on the ground, averaging almost six yards per carry.
Even more telling are the penalties the USC offensive line hasn’t committed.
The offensive line had five penalties against Minnesota (two delay-of-games, two false starts and one illegal block). But for a unit playing its first game together, that’s respectable.
It has shown much improvement from week one committing just two penalties combined against Utah and Syracuse — one delay-of-game against the Utes and one false start against the Orange.
Though not a lot of people have talked about this front-five, except for Kalil’s game-saving block, this line has quietly done its job, much like it always has for USC football.
During the days when LenDale White and Reggie Bush ran buck wild against opposing defenses, it was an offensive line that gave them the running room. It was an offensive line that gave Matt Leinart enough time to sit in the pocket and drop perfect passes to the outstretched arms of Mike Williams and Steve Smith.
The offense outside of this offensive line is getting the attention, but this unit will quietly do what it has always done.
It will continue to make plays, it will continue to fight to win the battle in the trenches.
Somebody’s got to do the dirty work; somebody’s got to protect the star quarterback; somebody’s got to make running holes for the tailback.
These players should receive the credit they rightfully deserve.
“In the Zone” runs every other Friday.
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