Inefficiency on third down plagues USC

Halfway through a season that was supposed to end with the Trojans hoisting the crystal football in South Florida, let’s just say things have not gone as smoothly as expected. USC holds a respectable 5-1 record, including a 301 mark in Pac-12 play, and is in no way out of contention for the national championship, especially after coming in at No. 10 in the first BCS standings of the season. But as anyone who has watched the team thus far will attest, there are a number of issues that need to be sorted out before any more national title talk can be taken seriously.

Perhaps the most surprising part about the current state of the team is that most of these issues are on the offensive side of the football. Last season, the Trojans’ offense was downright lethal, averaging more than 35 points and 456 yards of total offense per game. The team featured a 3,500-yard passer in quarterback Matt Barkley, two 1,000-yard receivers in Marqise Lee and Robert Woods and a 1,000-yard rusher in Curtis McNeal. With the addition of star running back transfer Silas Redd, just about everybody expected the Trojans to light up the scoreboard at an even more impressive rate this season.

Needless to say, that hasn’t happened. On the surface, the offense does not look that bad: 32.3 points per game is nothing to scoff at, and the team averages 415.2 yards of offense per game. When watching the games live, however, the unit’s struggles appear more than evident.

Barkley and Co. have yet to have a game in which they looked completely in control. The season-opening victory against Hawai’i featured a nearly non-existent rushing attack, and the following game against Syracuse was anything but pretty, despite Barkley’s six touchdown passes. The Stanford game was abysmal by all accounts, and since then the offense has been shaky at best in victories over California, Utah and Washington.

So what gives? This is essentially the exact same offense that was scoring at will in the second half of last season; the only changes have been inserting Aundrey Walker at left tackle (though certainly a downgrade compared to former starter Matt Kalil) and Silas Redd at running back (a definite upgrade over former tailback Marc Tyler).

Perhaps the Trojans’ most obvious shortcoming to date is an inexplicable inability to pick up first downs. Last year’s team converted a robust 48 percent of their third downs. This year: a woeful 30 percent, a figure that was worsened by last week’s awful two-for-12 performance against Washington in Seattle.

To what can we attribute this mediocre performance? Mostly mental errors. USC has been unable to excel in high-pressure situations, a result of not keeping its cool when the stakes are raised. Moreover, USC has often been ravaged by penalties that put the Trojans in third-and-long situations that are nearly impossible to convert.

Given that these same players experienced so much success last year in third-down conversions, Trojan fans should expect the team’s performance in this regard to improve moving forward.

Perhaps the pressure of an expected perfect season with virtually no margin for error clouded the team’s focus in the first half. Or maybe this is a group of players that simply experiences slow starts to the season. After all, USC averaged only 30 points per game through the first half of last year before going on a tear in the second half in which the team averaged 41.5 points per game. Perhaps this year’s squad has a similar hot streak in them.

Frankly, this offense is too experienced and too talented to continue to be plagued by seemingly easy-to-fix mental errors. And if the goal is still to capture college football’s biggest prize, then the team will have to re-establish its focus on the little things in order to be the last ones standing at season’s end.


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