The Wrap: USC can only be as good as its offensive line

Redshirt junior left tackle Alijah Vera-Tucker has anchored USC’s offensive line. Beyond him, though, the group is leaving much to be desired. (Photo courtesy of John McGillen / USC Athletics)

After the Arizona State game a week ago, I half-jokingly advised USC fans to skip this year’s TV broadcasts and check the game scores afterward rather than suffer through the weekly roller coaster of emotions if the whole season is going to look like Week 1.

I hope, with every ounce of my being, you took my advice. 

Though to be fair, if USC’s Week 2 win over Arizona was a roller coaster, it was the kiddie version that you’ve been on 700 times and pretend to be enthralled by solely out of perceived obligation to the football gods orchestrating this nightmare, knowing all too well that when the thing ends, your emotional state will be one that hardly approaches descriptory terms such as “thrilled” or “satisfied.”

I mean, my goodness. What a game.

In Week 1, I gave USC somewhat of a pass. Arizona State was a quality opponent, and USC was playing its first game of the season. 

In Week 2, none of those disclaimers applied. Yet still, it was basically the same story, minus the turnovers. USC came out slow but ahead, couldn’t separate, went down and came back late. Sophomore quarterback Kedon Slovis started off “meh” and turned it on in the last two drives, and the Trojans escaped with a way-too-close win that didn’t jump them in the rankings, while a convincing one could have.

Again, we’re left with the same questions: Why does it take USC so long to get going? Is this team a viable College Football Playoff contender, or are we kidding ourselves? Is Todd Orlando’s defense really that much better than Clancy Pendergast’s? 

At this point, a “Fire Clay Helton” column would be useless, because frankly, that can be summed up in a tweet 264 characters short of the max, and it’s not like I’m offering any groundbreaking opinions in that regard anyway. 

As such, I’ll always look for an excuse to write about something else. This week, one of those excuses was what has been ailing USC all season, far beyond the level anyone anticipated. I’m talking, of course, about the trenches. 

They say games are won and lost in said trenches. Assuming that is true — and I believe it is — it’s nothing short of a miracle that USC is 2-0.

I’m not too worried about the defensive line. 

No, it isn’t great when they can’t finish plays behind the line of scrimmage and instead invite sophomore quarterback Grant Gunnell with open arms to a middle of the field devoid of linebackers. 

Still, though, my personal Week 2 MVP sophomore Drake Jackson (albeit technically a linebacker) and redshirt junior Marlon Tuipulotu have been outright phenomenal on the D-line, and USC was missing two starters to injury against the Wildcats — seniors Brandon Pili and redshirt Caleb Tremblay.

But that offensive line — yikes. Note: The following section does not apply to redshirt junior left tackle Alijah Vera-Tucker.

It’s no secret that Slovis hasn’t quite looked like himself the first two weeks. He hasn’t been bad, of course — a 71.4% completion percentage with 353 yards per game to go along with a 3-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio can only be so deceiving. But he hasn’t played quite up to the lofty standard levied upon him this season. 

A lot of that is self-inflicted, but a lot of it is on an offensive line that hasn’t allowed him to look comfortable in the first place. 

The Trojans’ offensive line on Saturday, particularly the right side and particularly in the first half, was basically a bunch of traffic cones. Slovis had no time to work with the pocket collapsing around him, USC could not establish the run game (though offensive coordinator Graham Harrell deserves plenty of blame for unimaginative play-calling) and how Slovis didn’t get sacked all night is a testament to the quarterback’s awareness and evasiveness. 

Again, the right side of the line improved in the second half. One play in particular stands out: With 3:34 remaining in the third quarter, redshirts junior right tackle Jalen McKenzie and senior right guard Liam Jimmons — with the help of redshirt junior left guard Andrew Vorhees — created a beautiful hole for senior tailback Stephen Carr, which Carr found for 37 yards. (Redshirt freshman tight end Jude Wolfe deserves a shoutout for a block of his own on that play as well.) 

The Trojans need more of that. If they can’t find it, they’ll be in for a real fun time against Oregon in a potential Pac-12 Championship Game.

If USC even makes it that far, that is. I think it’ll happen. But I wish I was more confident.

Last week, after USC pulled off the miraculous comeback against ASU, Fox Sports commentator Joel Klatt made what seemed at the time to be a promising point about the Trojans’ Week 1 performance: They probably didn’t deserve to win, yet they still found a way to get it done. 

This week, the point feels accurate again, but not quite as hopeful. 

How good really is this USC team? At what point are we forced to consider that the USC we’ve seen the last two weeks might actually be somewhat close to the real USC? 

To be honest, I don’t know the answer to either of those questions. I thought I knew before the season started, or at least, I thought I had a reasonable approximation. But so far, despite the 2-0 record, I’m not sold.

I do know three things: 1) USC has a ton of that potential. 2) That means absolutely nothing if it keeps posting performances like the one against Arizona and 3) head coach Clay Helton should probably be fired (sorry, I had to fit it in somewhere).

Yes, it’s true that USC plays down to its opponents, and this has been true for the last several years. (Hey, what’s the common denominator?) But the Trojans are about to get tested against Utah. It’s not going to be an easy test. It’s going to be one that USC will most definitely fail if the performance looks anything like it did in Week 1 or 2.

It’s also one that could quell many Trojan fans’ anxieties if the team comes out with a showing like we expected to see early on.

Which will it be? Time will tell. Or, it won’t, because the game gets canceled due to the Utes’ coronavirus outbreak.

Assuming the game gets played, though, I’ll choose to sit back and let whatever happens happen. This team is impossible to predict. We might as well just enjoy the roller coaster — or at least, pretend to.

Nathan Ackerman is a junior writing about USC football. He is also an associate managing editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “The Wrap,” runs every Monday during football season.