After a quick three-and-out by Notre Dame to start the game on Saturday, USC took over possession and proceeded to do exactly the opposite of what everyone expected — it ran the ball.
If USC coach Lane Kiffin would have proposed this game plan to the USC faithful before the Trojans’ first snap, I would have put money down that a good ole’ Tennessee-style headhunt would ensue.
After all, running the ball didn’t make a whole lot of sense in the current situation — at least, not according to conventional wisdom.
For one, the Trojans sport one of the best receiving corps in the nation, with All-American junior quarterback Matt Barkley slinging the ball better than he ever has at USC. USC faced a secondary that, in addition to being ranked 59th in the country in pass defense, proved wholly ineffective in a big game setting when the Fighting Irish were shredded by Michigan in week two.
But even more pertinent are the Trojans’ previous concerns with their running game. In addition to having a depleted and relatively inexperienced offensive line leading the charge, USC has dealt with yet another merry-go-round of starting tailbacks, as injuries and production issues have once again clouded the decision of who should be atop the depth chart.
But a funny thing happened on that first run — it worked. Senior tailback Marc Tyler ran for 15 yards and a first down on the Trojans’ first play from scrimmage.
So USC continued to run the ball. So much so, that by the end of the Trojans’ first touchdown-scoring drive, they had run the ball on 11 of 13 plays for 60 yards and four first downs.
By the time the final whistle was blown and the Trojans had secured a 31-17 victory, Tyler and junior tailback Curtis McNeal had combined for 185 yards on 37 carries.
But more importantly, they made it painfully obvious to the Irish that simply defending the pass wasn’t enough to secure a win.
A major point of contention toward Kiffin during his time here as coach has been his tendency to be one-dimensional on offense, relying on Barkley to move the ball through the air. This has worked against mediocre teams, but has stalled USC in major games when facing more-than-capable defenses.
But if recent games are any indication, a balance has slowly crept back into the Trojan offense, and has begun to open up the field.
I’m sure it wasn’t easy for Kiffin to trust his team to continue to pound the ball on the ground more times than in any other game this year. With the number of momentum-killing fumbles and the general lack of consistency he has seen in the run game during his one-and-a-half seasons, there weren’t a whole lot of on-field reminders that he was the coach of Tailback U.
Let’s not forget, either, that the backs he has called upon didn’t show much dependability coming into 2011, either, with Tyler missing most of fall camp and the first game because of alcohol-fueled infractions and McNeal missing all of last season because of academic ineligibility.
But in showing dedication to the run game, he allowed his two backs to show off their talent, and the mutual understanding has paid off.
Kiffin is no newcomer to the idea of using the run game to propel an offense. He was the offensive coordinator at USC during the Reggie Bush and LenDale White era — a time when running the ball wasn’t just a setup for the pass, but a dynamic offensive attack all by itself.
And though the current squad might not match up exactly with the 2005 team, there is no doubt that an effort has been made to rekindle some of the offensive rhythm that led to so much success during that time.
Despite all of the obstacles this team has dealt with recently, the pieces still remain for the offense to be productive — they just need to be used properly.
And, as all of us saw last Saturday, it starts with the run.
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