USC’s football team is heading into its first weekend without a game since late September. Over this weekend, Trojan fans will have to sit back and watch the national and the Pac-12 landscapes shift beyond their control. Daily Trojan sports editors Aubrey Kragen and Will Hanley, along with Editor-In-Chief Euno Lee, sat down to discuss the Trojans’ season so far and going forward.
Q: The Trojans are hitting the home stretch and they have a matchup against Cal on a Thursday along with the two rivalry games after that. They’re 6-3 right now. What’s their record going to be at the end of the season?
Will Hanley: 9-3. The Trojans have the talent to beat nearly any team in the country. Individually, USC can claim more Pac-12 Player of the Week awards — six, between offense, defense and special teams — than any other Pac-12 squad thus far. The Trojans’ results as a team, however, do not tell that story, and believing in them to go undefeated from here on out is an admittedly dangerous proposition. Everything depends on which USC team shows up on a given Saturday — or Thursday. Will it be the squad that held on for gutsy road wins at Arizona and Stanford, or the group that was eviscerated by an entirely average Boston College offense? Because there is clearly no way to predict that, it still seems a little foolish to pick against the Trojans’ talent.
Cal has given up at least 30 points to all but one FBS opponent this season, and it’s hard to believe the Bears’ offense can keep them in the game against a stout USC defensive front. Though rivalry games are always a crapshoot, UCLA nonetheless has yet to put together impressive performances from its offense and defense in the same game. A 17-7 home win over Arizona does not inspire confidence that the Bruins can match their crosstown rivals’ firepower. And Notre Dame? Well, our luck against the Irish has to change at some point, right?
Aubrey Kragen: In our first columnist roundtable this year, I predicted that USC would go 14-1 and win the national championship. And after the first game of the season, my ridiculous claim didn’t seem so ridiculous. But the Trojans have hilariously stumbled a few times this season, and I have a feeling they won’t go smoothly through these last three games. We’ll probably beat Cal, but lose to UCLA and Notre Dame. Despite not looking terribly impressive this season, the Bruins have escaped with a handful of wins that they didn’t deserve, and the Nov. 22 tilt between the crosstown rivals will probably fall in their favor, simply because this USC season has been impossible to predict, and Notre Dame is one call away from being undefeated this year.
Q: How would you grade USC head coach Steve Sarkisian’s performance as a coach so far?
Euno Lee: I’d grade Sarkisian’s season a solid B, with the understanding that it’s his first season with a completely new set of players. I’m disappointed that he couldn’t find a way to bring back Clancy Pendergast, who did brilliant things with the defensive backs last season. For a reason that completely escapes me given the generally dilapidated state of Pac-12 defenses, this man does not have a job.
What I certainly respect is that Sarkisian takes chances and puts faith in his players to execute. The sky is the limit with this Trojan offense, and though it can be hampered by some shaky play-calling at times, Kessler still has 25 touchdowns to two interceptions on the season.
WH: B-minus. As much as USC fans don’t want to hear this, Sarkisian and the Trojans are legitimately a Hail Mary away from being 7-2, and a converted fourth-and-2 away from being 8-1. Yes, a purely results-based evaluation is flawed. And yes, USC even finding itself in situations to lose those games can partially be blamed on the coaching staff. Still, I’d bet that most fans would be willing to look the other way about those coaching errors if a little luck swung their team’s way.
Losing close games against ranked conference opponents is no knock on a rookie head coach. If anything, Sarkisian’s deserves a downgrade for one thing: his team’s woeful lack of preparation against Boston College. Without prognosticating about where the season could have gone if the Trojans had won that game, the 37-31 loss cast a pall over a season that started with a lot of hope. It was an inexcusable result among excusable inconsistency.
Q: With just three games remaining, who would you tab the Trojans’ offensive and defensive MVPs at the end of the season?
WH: Offense: redshirt junior tailback Javorius “Buck” Allen. Defense: sophomore linebacker Su’a Cravens.
Man, I wish I could give the offensive award to two people. Both Allen and redshirt junior quarterback Cody Kessler have exceeded expectations, and both rank at or near the top of the Pac-12 in a variety of statistical categories. If anything, I have to give Allen the nod for pure value. The Tallahassee, Florida, native has only one sub-100-yard rushing game this season — in the loss to BC — while two of his three best performances in terms of yards per carry have come in key wins over Arizona and Stanford. Kessler, on the other hand, had his two worst performances of the year in those games.
Defense is a no-doubter. I swear Cravens has figured out a way to be in two places at once this season. The man has been all over the field, racking up 12.5 tackles for loss — costing opponents a total of 67 yards — all while figuring out a new position. Get well soon, Su’a.
AK: You know it’s a weird season when the quarterback who sets the school record for touchdown passes in a game isn’t the consensus pick for offensive MVP. But like my fellow sports editor, I’ve also gotta tab Buck Allen as that guy. He’s always been dependable, takes care of the ball, and sustains drives. He doesn’t score as many touchdowns as you’d expect, and when he does, they aren’t as spectacular as Nelson Agholor’s punt return touchdowns, but he somewhat quietly accrued the ninth-most rushing yards in the nation.
If I say Leonard Williams for defensive MVP, will that launch him back into the conversation for the first pick in the 2015 NFL Draft? Yeah, I’m gonna do that. Rooting for you, Leo.