Saturday night’s loss to Boston College was miserable. After three and a half quarters, it was just shocking. The last eight minutes, however, elevated it to another level of agony because the second half of the fourth quarter demonstrated why USC should have won the game.
USC could have given up 600 yards on the ground, and the Trojans still should have won. Fleet-footed Boston College quarterback Tyler Murphy could have elevated his game from Ell Roberson impersonator to the second coming of Vince Young and the Trojans still should have won. The USC team could have shanked even more punts and muffed even more squib kicks, and the Trojans still should have won.
The reason is simple: Boston College’s secondary couldn’t handle USC’s wide receivers if they knew the plays ahead of time. They are a hapless bunch to say the least. The Trojans should have hung 70 on them. Those last eight minutes proved as much, when Coach Steve Sarkisian was finally forced to abandon the run and commit to the short passing game.
The result? Two crisp, beautiful drives down the field that shredded the BC defense. Redshirt junior quarterback Cody Kessler channeled his inner Drew Brees, marching the Trojans down the field with quick, accurate passes letting his arsenal of athletic receivers, tight ends and running backs work in space. The only thing that could have stopped USC on Saturday night was what ultimately did them in: Coach Steve Sarkisian’s stubborn insistence on running the football.
Kiffin bubble screen, meet Sarkisian run up the middle. In theory, I’m all for Sarkisian’s power running scheme. In a year or two, I have no doubt that his vision of an up-tempo power running attack will be a force to be reckoned with. It worked against Fresno State, and I’m sure it could conceivably work wonders in more games this year.
And yet, it had no hope of working against Boston College. That much was evident by halftime. Sophomore running back Justin Davis was a revelation last year before an ankle injury ended his year prematurely. He still hasn’t recaptured the burst that made him so dangerous last year. Even with a hobbled Davis, a worn-out Allen and an offensive line splitting like the Red Sea, Sark insisted on running up the middle. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, and that was the USC offense in a nutshell.
Every glimmer of hope –— a brilliant pass call to senior tight end Randall Telfer, a quick throw to freshman receiver JuJu Smith as he muscled his way to a first down — was soon dashed as USC’s stable of running backs were engulfed by a sea of Boston College defenders play after play. If I squinted at precisely the right angle, I probably could have seen Washington State defenders on the TV, camped out and waiting on Marqise Lee as he caught a bubble screen for negative yards.
As this exercise in futility progressed, every USC couch coach in the country was saying the same thing: throw the ball. Lo and behold, with eight minutes left in the fourth quarter, Kessler’s leash was finally taken off. Who would have thought that the most sought-after skill position players in the country would make plays with the ball in their hands. That revelation is surely one only the brain surgeons at the Keck School of Medicine could have dreamed up.
USC punted the ball eight straight times. If they had run their offense the way they did on their last two possessions drives, it is not out of the realm of possibilities to think they would have scored on anywhere from three to six of those drives.
Sure, the argument could be made that USC tried to pass in the first three quarters and Kessler often missed high in the first half and got sacked on four straight third downs in the third quarter. Those first half calls, however, are not where Kessler excels, and even Peyton Manning struggles when his head is repeatedly bashed into the turf.
Quick methodical throws to the plethora of athletes at Sark’s disposal is not a novel concept. It’s the same thing that works at the park. Superior talent generally triumphs in one-on-one matchups. Sometimes, the easy thing works, especially against an inferior defensive squad like the Boston College Golden Eagles.
Sarkisian is a brilliant offensive mind and a tremendous recruiter, but so was Lane Kiffin. Kiffin’s downfall was a healthy dose of arrogance accompanied by a refusal to alter his game plan and adapt. So far, Sark has shown flexibility in every facet of coaching besides actual in-game adjustments. I hope this disturbing loss was a wakeup call. USC can still be a team to be reckoned with. They have the most explosive receivers in the country; all it takes is getting them the ball.
There are plenty of other issues with the team, namely a defensive scheme that gets gassed and then gashed with a thin, beleaguered front seven. That’s not Sark or Justin Wilcox’s fault, that’s the NCAA for you. Even if the defense resembled a Monte Kiffin special on Saturday, USC should have won in a shootout. They had the ability to score at will, if Sark had just gotten out of his own way.
To his credit, he took full responsibility after the game. I know Sark is going to build an unbelievable dynasty at USC in the future. In the here and now, however, great coaches make adjustments to fit their current team. Plain and simple. Without Tre Madden, this isn’t a power running squad. It’s an explosive offensive, brimming with talent at the wide receiver and tight end positions. The minute USC starts to realize that identity is the minute games like the one played Saturday become a relic of a woebegone transition era.
Jake Davidson is a sophomore majoring in accounting. His column, “Davidson’s Direction,” runs Mondays.