September 29, 2009
Coming off the humiliating loss to Washington, USC needed a real bodybag game against hapless Washington State, and out for blood moment that confirmed the Trojans' killer instinct, and they didn't get it: The offense punched in three short touchdown drives set up by the defense and special teams in the first quarter, but appeared so listless that the home crowd actually began to boo with a mere 7-0 lead roughly eight minutes into the game. SC won easily, 27-6, but failed to come within two touchdowns of the point spread and left everyone watching antsy about the prospects of visiting Cal this Saturday for a make-or-break conference game, the rubber match that helps props the Trojans back up as Pac-10 contenders or sends them careening toward the Holiday or Sun bowls.
So, a month into an already up-and-down season, just how far has this young team been behind the elite curve USC partisans have grown accustomed to?
On most front, they're extremely competitive, actually. The numbers that really stand out are the per-play margins: Through four games, this relatively maligned group is outgaining by more yards per play and more yards per carry -- it's not even close on yards per carry -- than any of Carroll's previous five teams, and outgaining them per pass by more than all but last year's dominant outfit. The gaping yards-per-carry margin makes very clear just how physically dominant the '09 team has been in the trenches.
But then you get to the end of the chart, which makes clear just how sloppy the '09 edition has been. The decline in turnover margin has to sting Carroll, since his best teams were defined largely by taking the ball away: Even in his first year, 2001, the Trojans finished fifth nationally in turnover margin, and went on to finish first or second three years in a row from 2003-05 -- not coincidentally, the three years they ended the regular season No. 1 in the mainstream polls and either won, played for or were controversially voted a national championship. It's no coincidence that the subsequent teams that failed to hit those marks also failed on the perpetual mandate to play for a title, despite being roughly comparable (or, in the case of the '08, generally better) by most other measures.
The '09 Trojans have failed on that front to date mainly by losing six fumbles already, two apiece against San Jose State, Washington and Washington State, including a couple killers that put a pillow on the face of potential scoring drives in the loss in Seattle; if they'd let one get away against Ohio State, depending on the circumstances, they may not have gotten out of Columbus unscathed, either. But they've fallen behind in another area of traditional strength under Carroll, as well:
USC Offense: 3rd Down Conversion Percentage
2005: 55.1 percent
2006: 46.1 percent
2007: 43.7 percent
2008: 45.8 percent
First four games of 2009: 25.0 percent
The great '05 offense led the nation in third down percentage, and the 2006-08 teams all finished in the top 30. The '09 team currently ranks 114th, having failed colossally with an 0-for-10 third down performance that took a at Washington.
The huge declines in turnover margin and third down percentage both lead down the same harrowing path of blown opportunities. Where previous Trojan teams were aggressively opportunistic on top of pulverizing teams in conventional fashion, this one has gone around shooting itself in the foot despite continuing to win the every-down push and pull -- against Washington, for example, the veteran line and star-studded backfield predictably paved the Huskies for 250 yards on almost eight yards per carry, a dominating effort that was totally overshadowed by the fact that SC struggled in the passing game, failed to score at all on four separate trips inside the U-Dub 30-yard line and had to settle for field goals on two more.
Against Washington State, again, the Trojans averaged eight yards per snap -- largely thanks to a strong return effort by freshman quarterback Matt Barkley, who hit six passes of at least 20 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions -- but fumbled twice more, failed to score on five more trips deep into Cougar into territory and ultimately "lost" time of possession by a full 15 minutes, only getting off 51 plays to Washington State's 77, dramatically cutting their chances to pull away. In addition to the fumbles, the Trojans failed twice on fourth down insdie the Cougar three-yard line in the second half and missed a field goal in the first. Opportunities to really hammer the Cougars in the fashion the bloodthirsty crowd expected were all over the place; the frustration comes from the memory of teams that seized those moments with flair.
One key fact, however, remains intact: Whatever issues it has at quarterback, with the deep passing game, with key injuries or on special teams, USC does not lose when it doesn't turn the ball over. Even without a particularly explosive passing game, the Trojans remain accustomed to grinding most of the defenses they face to dust with the deep backfield and keeping opponents' scores way down. If they can establish the same template against Cal Saturday without gacking the ball up, this could be the effort that sets the season back on track. If the sloppiness remains, with three straight unimpressive scores already in the books, it could be the night that proves, finally, that this isn't the Trojans' year.