What plagued USC football throughout a dismal 5-7 campaign a year ago was discipline. No team in the country saw more talented players miss so many assignments, pick up so many penalties and set their team back with so many boneheaded mistakes.
There was cornerback Iman Marshall’s unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that sealed a loss to Cal.
There was quarterback JT Daniels’ horrible decision to throw deep on a fourth-quarter interception against UCLA, a game in which Bruin running back Joshua Kelley ran practically unabated for 289 yards and two touchdowns as defenders missed tackle after tackle and assignment after assignment.
There was wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown’s fumble at the opposing 15-yard line against Notre Dame just before the half, giving the Irish all the momentum in a tightly-contested game.
Every time, you could either feel the mistake coming or knew that it spelled doom for the Trojans’ chances in that game. Often, it was both.
It was a problem I thought had been addressed at least a little this season. Through four games, the defensive line’s stinginess was one of the Trojans’ highlights, and the offensive line was doing a much better job. Sure, there were some conduct penalties, but one of them (redshirt freshman tailback Markese Stepp dapping up Reggie Bush after a game-sealing touchdown run against then-No. 10 Utah) was pretty great, and the team seemed to feed off the emotion that drew those flags rather than letting them derail its progress. As the defense flew around and the offense decimated defenders through the air in victories over Stanford and Utah, I kept waiting for the telltale flags and miscues that always seemed destined to sink this team. They never came. Even the BYU game was more about the Cougars’ game plan than USC’s errors.
That is, until USC went to Seattle to face No. 17 Washington Saturday. The Trojans lost 28-14 as third-string redshirt junior quarterback Matt Fink threw three interceptions in his first collegiate start, but the game was closer than the final score indicated. USC had a lot of chances in the second half to pull even with the Huskies but fell into the same bad habits that afflicted it in 2018.
The biggest swing in momentum came in the third quarter after a long run from junior tailback Stephen Carr helped move the Trojans inside the Washington 11-yard line. Fink dropped back and targeted senior wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. on a slant, never seeing junior defensive back Elijah Molden dropping into coverage. Two plays later, multiple Trojan defenders over-pursued on a run play, allowing junior tailback Salvon Ahmed to sprint 89 yards untouched for a score that put Washington up 28-7.
There is no possible excuse for USC overcommitting on a back as explosive as Ahmed. Some might say Fink’s interception can be chalked up to the inexperience and inability of a third-stringer, which would make sense if Daniels and freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis hadn’t made almost identical bad decisions against Fresno State and BYU, respectively. Missing underneath defenders has been a trend in the Trojans’ otherwise successful passing game this season, and with three different quarterbacks displaying issues with it, it can only be attributed to poor coaching.
On that topic, offensive coordinator Graham Harrell faces some questions for his play-calling on USC’s last truly threatening drive of the game. With 6:29 remaining, USC had first-and-goal inside the Washington 10 and had a chance to make things interesting with a score and a stop. USC ran three straight times before Harrell called for a corner route to freshman wide receiver Drake London at the back corner of the end zone, hardly the ideal route or target against such a deep secondary and with a bevy of proven pass-catchers.
USC also missed out on a scoring opportunity after freshman cornerback Chris Steele recovered a fumble in Washington territory early in the fourth quarter. USC had needed a spark, something to break the cycle of incompetence its offense had displayed for most of the game, and this appeared to be it … until St. Brown picked up an offensive pass interference penalty for blocking downfield, setting the Trojans up for a glum three-and-out.
The Trojans’ effort was littered with these ill-timed mistakes. The team had eight penalties for 80 yards, many of which came in the form of false starts on the offensive line, which had been surprisingly solid to open the season. The crowd noise at a rollicking Husky Stadium gave the unit fits; at one point, redshirt senior offensive tackle Drew Richmond, a repeat offender Saturday, got so frustrated after one of his false starts that he yelled at Fink even though the quarterback was using claps rather than his voice to start the play.
Richmond’s outburst reflected the feelings of many USC fans during the last year and a half. Despite some of its issues in recruiting, the program still has too much talent to lose the games it does. The most frustrating part of Saturday’s loss was that it was a winnable game, and yet anyone familiar with this team could feel pretty much from kickoff that the Trojans would do everything they could to shoot themselves in the foot.
It has been clear for a while now that the team needs a culture change, and it appears a pivot to Harrell’s Air Raid offense is not enough. Head coach Clay Helton has had well over a year to fix the discipline issues that have cost the program not only wins, but its reputation.
It’s time to find someone who can restore a culture of accountability at USC.
Aidan Berg is a junior writing about sports. He is also an associate managing editor for Daily Trojan. His column, “Berg is the Word,” runs every Monday.