Up until Saturday’s matchup against Notre Dame, the Ed Orgeron era at USC had been all about fun, smiles and desserts.
But after watching the Trojans repeatedly shoot themselves in the foot in the final minutes to hand the game to one of their biggest rivals, it was hard for any member of the Trojan faithful to stay positive.
Even with “Darth Visor” no longer roaming the USC sideline, questionable coaching decisions and stagnant offensive play down the stretch hamstrung the Trojans as they suffered a 14-10 loss that was tough to watch for most of the second half.
Orgeron kept up an upbeat demeanor after the game, smiling at each reporter who asked him a question in the post-game press conference. He was questioned about everything from his fourth-down playcall to his confidence in junior kicker Andre Heidari, who missed two field goals that ended up being the difference in the game.
“He’s been good for us,” Orgeron said of the kicker, who is now 6 of 11 on the season, and 2 of 7 on kicks longer than 30 yards.
It was hard to watch Heidari on Saturday night and come to the same conclusion; Heidari’s 46-yard attempt in the fourth quarter fell well short of the uprights, and he’s never resembled the same player that made 15 of 17 attempts his freshman year since suffering a knee injury early last season.
But it’s obviously not fair to fault the kicker for what unfolded Saturday night — there’s plenty of blame to go around.
Senior running back Silas Redd spent the first half ripping Notre Dame’s defense for 91 yards on 14 carries, arguably playing the best half of his USC career. Yet he only received two touches in the painfully slow third quarter, when both teams combined for just 57 yards. Where was USC’s most consistent offensive contributor during this snoozefest?
USC averaged just 2.1 yards per play in the third quarter — did it not cross the mind of offensive coordinator Clay Helton to hand the ball off to the player who had just averaged 6.5 yards per carry in the first half?
Now, some would criticize Orgeron for electing to go for it on 4th and 20 with three minutes left instead of taking the field goal on what would turn out to be USC’s second-to-last possession. But I find it hard to argue with that decision since there was no guarantee USC would be getting the ball back. And as Orgeron astutely observed after the game, “We weren’t kicking field goals very well.”
What really hurt USC’s chances the most was the offensive line’s frustrating penchant for penalties.
With both offenses slogging, USC decided to go for it on 4th and 6 from Notre Dame’s 29-yard line on the last play of the third quarter. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Cody Kessler appeared to pick up the first down on a scramble, but a holding call on junior right guard Aundrey Walker canceled out the pickup and forced a punt.
When faced with nearly the same exact situation on their next drive — 4th and 5 on the Notre Dame 29-yard line — the Trojans elected for a field goal, and Heidari’s 46-yard try fell short.
That first penalty on Walker was certainly maddening, but not nearly as devastating as the subsequent holding call on him that negated another run by Kessler inside Notre Dame’s 5-yard line with less than four minutes remaining in the game. Instead of having a first and goal opportunity, the Trojans were instead faced with 3rd and 22 from the 33-yard line.
That drive ended with a false start by redshirt freshman left tackle Chad Wheeler and a sack. All in all, the offensive line had accounted for 25 penalty yards (sophomore left guard Max Tuerk also was flagged for holding earlier in the drive), essentially negating the 28 yards Kessler and the offense had managed to scrape together when they weren’t penalized. The Trojans netted only three yards while taking 3:38 off the clock, ruining their own chances to escape with a win.
The mistake-laden performance wasted a superb effort from USC’s defense that allowed only 47 yards in the second half.
“We were killing ourselves with penalties and missed assignments,” Kessler said. “If you can’t convert on third down and keep drives going you can’t really win a game.”
The fact that USC even got two possessions near the end with a chance to win seemed like a miracle in itself. After a rush by Notre Dame backup quarterback Andrew Hendrix with seven minutes remaining, in which he picked up the first third-down conversion by either team since the first quarter, the game seemed destined to end without any more threats from the Trojans.
That proved untrue, as freshman safety Su’a Cravens’ fumble recovery gave USC another chance. But the Trojans failed to capitalize on the opportunities as they had the rest of the night — and most of this season.
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