USC continued preparation for its critical Pac-12 showdown with Arizona State on Tuesday, and the focal point of the day was on slowing down the Sun Devils’ vaunted front seven and trying to develop consistency among the Trojans’ sputtering offense.
“Unfortunately, we haven’t been clicking on all cylinders,” USC head coach Lane Kiffin said. “At times, we’ve been moving the ball. I do feel like we’ve run the ball more consistently than we did a year ago, but we don’t throw the ball as well as we did a year ago.”
Through its first four games of the season, USC has scored a total of seven points in the third quarter, a trend that would suggest an inability to adjust to opposing defenses coming out of the locker room after halftime.
But Kiffin said he doesn’t view the lack of third quarter scoring as an indication that his team fails to make adjustments, but rather as a coincidental footnote.
“The [whole] game is [about] adjustments,” Kiffin said. “You’re always making adjustments, [whether it’s] in between series or between plays. For whatever reason, we’ve scored more points in the second quarter and the fourth quarter than we have in the first and third.”
Against ASU, the focus will be on simply scoring points, regardless of which quarter they come in. The Trojans have failed to develop a strong rhythm so far this season on the offensive side of the ball, particularly in the passing game. USC ranks No. 110 in the nation in passing offense per game.
“[Scoring] is not gonna be easy,” redshirt sophomore quarterback Cody Kessler said. “They’re a really good defense and they have a lot of good players. We just have to stick to what we do and keep working and be really disciplined up front.”
Against Utah State in particular, the USC passing attack was far less effective in the second half then in the first, continuing the Trojans’ tendency to become easier to defend in the latter part of games.
“[Utah State] made good adjustments and played us really well in the second half,” Kessler said. “But we just missed some big plays on offense, especially in the passing game. [Consistency] just comes with more experience in games.”
Though the Trojans’ aerial attack has been less than stellar, the team has run the ball more efficiently than it did all of last season, despite last year’s leading rusher, senior tailback Silas Redd, still recovering from a knee injury.
USC’s strong running attack has been so effective thanks to the emergence of the team’s two young tailbacks, redshirt sophomore Tre Madden and freshman Justin Davis, who have averaged just over 150 combined rushing yards per game.
Despite their lack of experience, Kiffin has not felt the need to taper the offense’s reliance on the duo. Madden has averaged 22.5 carries per game so far, and Davis, who has not yet turned 18, is second on the team with eight carries per game.
“No,” Kiffin said when asked if he was concerned about leaning too heavily on Madden and Davis. “Tre has shown really good ball security, which is what you worry about when their carries get up there. Justin is still young, so there are some ball security issues there. We’re still working on it, but we have to do whatever it takes to win.”
Madden relishes his extended opportunities and appears to be more than comfortable as the focal point of the USC offense.
“Definitely not,” Madden said when asked if he was being overworked. “I’m just looking week-by-week and trying to improve and stay healthy. I’m staying in the training room, rehabbing, and I feel good every week.”
The USC offensive line will be tasked with stopping ASU All-American defensive tackle Will Sutton, who was ranked No. 2 in the Pac-12 in sacks in 2012 but has yet to record a sack this season.
“He’s a great player,” junior center Marcus Martin said. “You just have to watch a lot of film on the guy. He’s a great pass rusher and great run stopper, so you just have to come out and play our tails off.”
Kiffin and USC Athletic Director Pat Haden were both diplomatic in their responses to news about Penn State’s NCAA sanctions being reduced on Tuesday. Kiffin felt empathy for Penn State head coach Bill O’Brien, who inherited the program under tumultuous conditions.
“I was happy for them,” Kiffin said. “I don’t sit around and root against other people. I’m happy for Coach [O’Brien] and for their players. We know what [dealing with scholarship losses] is like … there’s a lot of challenges that come with it.”
Redd, who transferred to USC from Penn State prior to the 2012 season after the punishments were announced, expressed similar sentiments upon hearing the news.
“Whether [Penn State fans] believe it or not, they still mean a lot to me,” Redd said. “I spent two good years there, and those are years that I’ll never forget. They’ll always have a place in my heart, whether they believe it or not, but I know how I feel about them.”
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