The Sun Bowl didn’t go as most people thought it would. Georgia Tech, with a 6-7 record at the time, beat the Trojans 21-7 in a game most assumed USC would easily win. It was really just a fitting end to a season that was about as disastrous as they come. From preseason No. 1 in the Associated Press poll to a 7-6 record, the Sun Bowl encapsulated the season into 60 minutes: turnovers, defensive lapses and a lack of discipline.
No, senior quarterback Matt Barkley didn’t make his triumphant return from injury to lead the Trojans to a win, which would have brought in a positive offseason. Instead, he was on the sidelines, chatting it up with players, unable to really do anything. Now, there were certainly a lot of bad things that happened in this game. They will be brought up quite soon, actually. But there were a lot of good things that Trojan fans can hold onto going into the 2013 season.
First, though, are the negatives. Where to begin?
A reasonable starting point would be with Barkley’s replacement, redshirt freshman Max Wittek. Now, it’s fair to point out that it was just his second career start. He showed glimpses of brilliance against No. 1 Notre Dame in his first start, though those glimpses were hard to find against the Yellow Jackets.
Wittek overthrew junior receiver Robert Woods and sophomore All-American Marqise Lee the entire day en route to a 14-for-37 passing performance. He threw for just 107 yards and tossed three interceptions to go along with the game’s lone touchdown. It wasn’t so much the numbers that told Wittek’s story on this New Year’s Eve game. It was his decision making. He stared down receivers. He was late on most throws. Those throws sailed over receivers or into the hands of cornerbacks. It was not a good sight for fans looking for positives heading into the offseason, considering Barkley is heading to the NFL.
Perhaps more frustrating, however, was the performance of the defense. And it wasn’t that the defense even played badly. Quite the opposite, actually. The defense held up its end of the bargain; it was just put in terrible positions because of the offense’s lackluster performance.
But there were so many instances when the defense could have gotten a big third-down stop and Georgia Tech’s triple option gashed them. There were numerous long runs by Yellow Jacket quarterbacks — they even had more touchdown passes than USC did. There was a huge missed tackle by junior cornerback Nickell Robey in the red zone that seemed to be the nail in the coffin. As was the case most of the year, USC’s defense just couldn’t get off the field when it needed to. Throw in Woods’ intention to enter the 2013 NFL Draft after the game, and the whole day was disastrous.
But lost in the 14-point loss were a few positives that the Trojans can take with them, though they won’t make up for the embarrassment that took place in El Paso.
The main one was the running of junior running back Silas Redd. Redd, who was in and out of the lineup for much of the season, came back strong in the game, running for 88 yards and catching a scoring toss from Wittek. He ended up rushing for 905 yards on the season with nine touchdown runs despite missing a game and playing in two contests where he had just three carries. Redd announced that he will return to the Trojans for his senior season, which bodes well for the team.
Breaking in a new quarterback in 2013, USC will need to rely more on the running attack that coach Lane Kiffin tended to avoid. Having Redd running strong will be incredibly valuable. If he runs anything like he did against the Yellow Jackets, he should rush for more than 1,000 yards pretty easily.
And, speaking of the quarterback that will have to be broken in, it would be foolish to say Wittek is out of the running with heralded recruit Max Browne in the mix. Wittek still has a lot of potential. He has a huge arm, and that arm was evident in the game (even if it meant the pass went over Woods’ outstretched arms). He is a big, mobile quarterback who can move around the pocket and extend plays to the outside when need be. And perhaps most importantly, he is still very young. He has some time to let his head develop to where arm is. Remember, Barkley’s struggles weren’t cured overnight.
Protecting Wittek will be a trio of tackles: freshman Max Tuerk, sophomore Aundrey Walker and redshirt junior Kevin Graf. Now, the line didn’t protect as well as it could have at times in 2012. But in the bowl game, they made some holes for the running backs and did not let Wittek get sacked. It’s little things like this that could make all the difference next season for the young signal caller.
The Sun Bowl was a pretty rough game for fans to tolerate. It was probably tough for players as well. But there were some promising signs that could bode well for the 2013 Trojans. The agony of the 2012 season has to sink in before those signs can come to fruition, though. Hopefully, it’s worth the wait.