In a waiting area outside the weight room adjacent to where USC’s team buses were parked following its upset loss to Washington State on Friday in Pullman, Wash., offensive coordinator Tee Martin faced the media and delivered a series of terse, one- to two-word answers.
Did he feel like receivers were getting open consistently? “No.” Why was it hard for USC to get a rhythm on offense? “They’re good,” he responded, referring to the Cougars’ defense. How did he think the blown offensive pass interference call on redshirt freshman wide receiver Tyler Vaughns affected the outcome? “No excuses.” Or the numerous injuries to the offensive line? “No excuses.” And how would he assess his own performance? “We didn’t win a game,” he said.
It was that kind of night, for Martin and for the rest of the team. But it wasn’t like we couldn’t have seen this coming. In a season that thus far has been underwhelming for USC despite entering Friday’s contest with a 4-0 record, a loss like this was bound to happen. The Trojans did just enough to win those four contests, but within each game still had issues to fix — specifically on offense — and concerns piling up for a team expected to compete for a national championship. It seemed, to an extent, USC’s offense had been “bailed out” in those wins – by electric running backs in junior Ronald Jones II and freshman Stephen Carr, by the defense, and by some lucky breaks.
But on Friday, playing a road game on short rest in front of a packed house at Martin Stadium, no one bailed out the Trojans — not even Super Sam.
Friday night brought about a much-needed dose of reality for this team and drove home the cold, hard truth: USC isn’t what we thought it would be. Good team? Sure. Talented? Absolutely. Top-10 program? Probably.
But to be a national championship contender, it has a lot of work ahead, and it starts with Martin’s offense.
Up until Friday, USC had been able to ride redshirt sophomore Sam Darnold’s coattails because he was just that good. His athleticism and creativity masked many of the problems the Trojans may have had offensively, whether it be a shaky offensive line or the wide receivers having an off-night. But Darnold cannot do it all. He cannot block and pass at the same time, nor can he throw and catch the ball by himself.
Against Washington State, with a makeshift offensive line and two of his top three wide receivers injured, it was clear that the task was too Herculean, even for Darnold.
Instead of the veteran blockers he was accustomed to, he watched as junior right tackle Chuma Edoga turned his ankle and senior right guard Viane Talamaivao hurt his left shoulder. With redshirt junior left tackle Toa Lobendahn already out with a staph infection, plugging in two freshmen — Austin Jackson and Andrew Vorhees — along with redshirt sophomore Clayton Johnston had to fill in the other spots.
On the receiving corps, Darnold did not have the services of redshirt senior Steven Mitchell Jr., who had a groin injury, and redshirt junior Jalen Greene left the game at halftime. And redshirt sophomore tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe remains out with a hip flexor.
Even with all those players healthy earlier this season, USC’s offense struggled at times, though Darnold still managed to put up decent numbers. But against Washington State, the preseason Heisman favorite was downright pedestrian. His 52 percent completion rate (15-of-29) was the lowest of his USC career, as were the 164 yards he threw for. He misfired on several passes, either overthrowing or miscommunicating with the receiver. On Darnold’s lone interception, he badly underthrew redshirt freshman wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe, with the defender able to read his eyes.
Some of that is Darnold’s own fault. But it’s also the larger offensive scheme as a whole. The offense overall was anemic in Pullman. There was no flow, no rhythm whatsoever, and questionable play-calling to boot for a team that is supposedly “run first” and has two premier running backs. USC had as many run plays as throws — 29 each — which is nonsensical considering the pass game was getting nowhere. Redshirt freshman Tyler Vaughns was the only receiver who had any kind of night catching the ball — and perhaps the lone bright spot for the Trojans on Friday. But for Carr to only have five carries for 11 yards and for Jones to only have one memorable run — the 86-yard touchdown gallop in the first half — is to play right into the defense’s hands.
Instead of trying to be cute, such as attempt a flea-flicker in the second quarter that led to an intentional grounding penalty and a momentum shift, Martin needs to stick to plain and simple. It’s tempting to try and be elaborate, especially given the talent he has on the offense from the quarterback to the young receivers to the running backs. But sometimes, less is more, and calling basic run plays or screen passes or simpler routes can be more effective than trick plays — and if something breaks down, Darnold is still that wild card who can improvise.
Out of all the dumb clichés in sports, the worst is “defense wins championships” because a good defense with a bad offense won’t even make the playoffs. Right now, USC’s offense is — for lack of a better term — bad. The only thing saving it is Darnold’s talent, and as we saw against Washington State, even that is not good enough when the injury bug hits. So, it’s up to Martin to make the adjustments, to call the right plays and build an offense that doesn’t revolve around Darnold having to save the day in every fourth quarter.
“He did a really good job,” Martin said when asked about Darnold’s play on Friday. “Made some good reads. He put us in position to win the game, just fell short.”
Sam Darnold is doing his job. It’s time for Tee Martin to do his.
Eric He is a junior studying journalism. He is also the associate managing editor for the Daily Trojan. His column, Grinding Gears, runs Mondays.