USC is not a bad team, but its 1-2 record is not an ideal situation. In their two losses to No. 1 Alabama and No. 7 Stanford, the Trojans were outscored 79-16. They scored one touchdown between the two games. You can’t really expect to win games — especially in the Pac-12 — by only scoring one touchdown.
To say the Trojans’ offense has been lackluster would be a bit of an understatement. Monday after practice, head coach Clay Helton announced that redshirt freshman Sam Darnold would replace redshirt junior Max Browne as USC’s starting quarterback.
Helton said that the “realism of football” was behind his decision for the change.
“I wanted to see a spark in our offense,” Helton said. “I hope that Sam can bring that.”
While Darnold behind center will mix up the Trojans’ offense, a change isn’t going to do much if the playcalling and discipline doesn’t also improve. The losses also weren’t a product of Browne’s doing, but when you’ve only scored one touchdown against ranked opponents, changes on offense are necessary.
Stanford has been victorious in seven of the last nine games against USC. That’s the best stretch of games for the Cardinal in the 111 years and 96 games the two have faced off in. With three consecutive losses to their foes up north, USC’s place as a conference power is becoming questionable.
Senior running back Justin Davis said it best following the loss to the Cardinal.
“If we don’t play disciplined with this talent, this talent’s going to go to waste,” he said. “That’s what makes me so mad.”
The discipline Davis is talking about can be interpreted a couple of different ways; the team’s numerous penalties that stalled momentum against Stanford, the suspensions in the first two games of the season or the coaching staff’s struggles.
The state of the Trojans can be best described as having a Ferrari and only driving it at 20 mph. USC is made up of predominantly four and five-star recruits, yet the team as a whole is playing barely at a three-star level. The Trojans showed spurts of their potential, but it’s never enough to pull out a win.
One prime example is junior wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. He was talked about before the season as being one of the best receivers in college football, if not the best. That talk was justified; last season he had 89 catches for 1,454 yards with 10 touchdowns while averaging 16.3 yards per catch. This season against Stanford and Alabama, he’s had four catches for 43 yards with no touchdowns, averaging 10.8 yards.
There are numerous factors that have affected Smith-Schuster’s play — a combination of his struggle to get open at times, Browne’s decision making and the unimaginative, conservative play calling. Though credit is due to Alabama and Stanford’s defenses for limiting his potency, the power lies in USC’s hands, it’s just a matter of whether they can do it or if they’re in over their heads. Perhaps Darnold will fare better at getting the ball into the hands of USC’s best offensive weapon.
Part of the drive to change how they’re playing will need to come from the players’ mindsets. That’s something that they’re missing as a whole during their games. During halftime against Stanford, players could be heard shouting from the visitors’ locker room. The effects were seen at the start of the third as USC came out on fire and drove down the field. That drive resulted in a touchdown by sophomore running back Ronald Jones II — the only Trojan touchdown against a ranked opponent this season. While their fire was good for that bit of play, it wasn’t even enough to sustain through the rest of the quarter.
On Sunday, Helton talked about the possibility of using cornerback and kick returner Adoree’ Jackson on offense “to create a spark.” The offense is struggling right now with what to do with its numerous talents, and Jackson might go unused as a result. However, just having him out on the field — whether he touches the ball or not — causes the opposing team to worry about the possibility of a dynamic talent making a big play.
Jackson has been a standout on a team that’s been generally lackluster. Against the Cardinal, he had an interception, knocked away a pass in the endzone and made six tackles, the second most on the team. He also held Michael Rector, Stanford’s top receiver other than McCaffrey, to one catch for three yards. Against Alabama, Jackson shut down Calvin Ridley to two catches for nine yards and stopped Damien Harris just short of the end zone to save a touchdown.
USC’s problems are centered on the discrepancy between the level of talent and the coaches’ game plan. While the coaching is a portion of the issue, the blame doesn’t fall entirely on the staff. There’s already some talk about firing Helton, but while the team hasn’t been doing well, that talk is unwarranted. USC doesn’t need another head coach fired midseason. If anything, USC deserves to have one head coach for the entirety of a season. The program has been in enough turmoil after the last six years with coaching changes that it doesn’t need another. Also, the coaching staff deserves the chance to coach through a whole season and see if it can solve the problems the team is facing during the season.
The 1-2 record the Trojans are carrying into Friday’s matchup against No. 24 Utah State is the first time USC has started out 1-2 since 2001. That was Pete Carroll’s first season, and he started as 1-4. He then went on to only lose 15 more games over nine seasons. Of course, the conference is much deeper and more competitive than when Carroll started coaching, but the similarity is interesting. While the current situation looks bleak, Helton and his team have the potential to find success similar to Carroll. The team has talent, but it’s going to come down to whether or not USC can utilize it.
For USC to turn its season around, it’s going to be on both the coaches and the players. The coaches will need to put together a game plan that utilizes the team’s vast talents. The players will need to come together under their new game plan and play with heart and discipline as a unit.
USC’s season isn’t over yet, but if the Trojans don’t fix their problems and get a win over Utah, they will have dug themselves a bigger hole than they can get out of.
Jodee Storm Sullivan is a junior majoring in broadcast and digital journalism. Her column, “The Storm Report,” runs Tuesdays.