Penalties, not injuries, are hamstringing USC

The USC sideline is becoming more like a scene on ER every game, as an astounding number of players limp off the field.

Yet, the biggest problems are not physical, like knee injuries to junior wide receiver Marqise Lee and redshirt junior cornerback Anthony Brown. Mental errors by Lee and Brown are the ones that cost USC a win against Notre Dame, and these mistakes are the ones that have taken their toll this season, no matter who’s able to suit up for the Trojans.

The case freshest in our mind is the takeaway from South Bend. The Trojans were reduced to their third-string tight end, had lost Lee and freshman wideout Darreus Rogers mid-game, and at running back were without redshirt sophomore Tre Madden while freshman Justin Davis left in the third quarter. That being said, the offense still had plenty of chances to muster more than 10 points.

At the start of the second quarter, with USC deep into Notre Dame territory, Lee dropped a fade to the end zone from redshirt sophomore quarterback Cody Kessler that would have put USC up 14-7. Two plays later, junior kicker Andre Heidari shanked a 40-yard field goal wide to the right.

In the second half, when it became apparent Notre Dame’s offense would disappear with Andrew Hendrix in to replace injured quarterback Tommy Rees, USC’s young offensive line killed momentum. The line was called seven times in the second half for holding or a false start, either making it 1st and a mile for the struggling offense or making an already tricky third or fourth down conversion even more difficult.

“Every time, we had a first down … We shot ourselves in the foot,” Orgeron said.

On the Trojans’ final drive, Kessler and sophomore receiver Nelson Agholor carried USC 39 yards down the field into Notre Dame territory. On 3rd and 3 with just over a minute left, sophomore tight end Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick flinched and jumped offsides. What could have been a Silas Redd rush for a first down turned into eight yards to go and two more pass plays. Two incompletions later, USC’s defeat was sealed. The penalty was only five yards, but like most of USC’s 11 infractions on the night, it stopped the signs of life we did see from the Trojan offense.

Just like 2012, USC is in the bottom 25 nationally in racking up 64.4 penalty yards per game.

I’m not saying USC is the only team to commit penalties or mental errors. As the Trojans’ victory over Utah State showed, opponents are equally susceptible to game-costing gaffes. Still, these errors have not been caused by injuries, but rather brain freezes or blown coverage. Injuries are why USC’s offense didn’t have the firepower to put up 30 or 40 on the Fighting Irish; errors are why it couldn’t manage one more touchdown in the game’s final 37 minutes and 50 seconds.

In USC’s 38-31 win over Arizona two weeks ago, their 21-point lead evaporated thanks to USC’s cornerbacks and safeties simply losing track of their assigned receivers. By my count, Wildcats QB B.J. Denker threw up at least five desperation heaves off his back foot, and four were caught, two for touchdowns.

In the Trojans’ 62-41 loss to Arizona State, Sun Devils quarterback Taylor Kelly certainly benefitted from stellar offensive line play, as he was only sacked once by USC. But even when his protection broke down, he turned broken plays into long gains thanks to poor tackling.

There’s no antidote to solving these issues on the squad. Young players make mistakes, and seasoned veterans are prone to errors. My point, though, is that while injuries are making Orgeron and the coaching staff’s job very difficult, they can be overcome. The win over Arizona without Lee and Madden in the second half showed that.

But when you combine reduced opportunities with mistakes that squander what chances the Trojans do have, then you have a major problem.

Utah comes to town Saturday, and the Trojans will be missing Davis and starting redshirt junior tight ends Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer, while Madden and Lee are questionable. The Trojans still have the talent to win, but in a matchup of Pac-12 teams looking for their second conference win, the team with fewer broken plays and erased gains will have the edge. Considering the roster depletion, it’s an edge USC has to seize.


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