Trojans had things working against Stanford, up to a point

USC runing back Vavae Malepeai turns upfield against the Stanford defense.
USC runing back Vavae Malepeai turns upfield against the Stanford defense.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

For considerable stretches of Saturday’s loss to Stanford, the USC offense looked exactly how Clay Helton says he wants it to look.

Against a stout, physical Cardinal front, the Trojans were getting everything they wanted handing the ball to their tailbacks, play after play, letting them pick a hole and go. All the way into the middle of the third quarter, trailing by two touchdowns, USC stuck with its stated powerful principles — to a point.

The Trojans followed up a five-yard sack on first down with an 11-yard run by Aca’Cedric Ware. To start the next set of downs, Ware rushed for 12 more. The next play, there were 13 more waiting for Stephen Carr. But the way the drive finished once USC entered Stanford territory was a microcosm of the frustrating night: Carr carried for two yards, Tyler Petite dropped a pass and JT Daniels was sacked, resulting in a punt.

USC’s coaches were left trying to explain how an offense that netted 89 yards on 17 first-down running plays (5.3 yards per carry) was unable to score a touchdown.

“We got into a deal where first-down runs were really good for us,” offensive coordinator Tee Martin said. “We averaged over five yards a carry. But I couldn’t run it every first down and be predictable. We had two sacks and two interceptions on first down trying to pass the ball. It was a little bit frustrating. It’s something we are going to focus on as a staff as to how to be better in the passing game on first down.”


Martin walked himself into a question: If you’re running for five yards per carry on first down, and your running backs are averaging 4.2 yards per carry for the game, why not stick with what is having success?

“It’s tough to be that predictable,” Martin said. “You don’t want second and 15, second and 10 and having to change the rhythm of what you know is working, so that’s kind of what happened a little bit. It was one of those things. We were doing really good at that, but we need to do this. At some point, they’ll take that away from us on first down.”

To isolate USC’s myriad offensive issues to this would be too simplistic. For Trojans fans who still haven’t woken up in a sunny-side-up mood this week, there are plenty of other things to dwell on. But with another road test waiting Saturday at Texas — another major challenge for a freshman quarterback recovering from a bruised throwing hand — there are applicable lessons from Martin’s Stanford thought process that can be used against the Longhorns.

“We’ve got to establish the run because we have a young quarterback in JT and we want to make it easy on him,” USC center Toa Lobendahn said. “That’s definitely the focal point.”

Ware didn’t sound certain Tuesday that the Trojans were capable of riding the run game.

“I wish that was something they do,” Ware said, “but I know they have a lot of confidence in the kid, and so do we. I know as long as we are protecting him, keeping him healthy and safe, he’s going to be good. He’s going to make his plays.”

Through two games, though, USC has been a much better run-blocking team than pass blocking.

Plus, Texas enters the game 90th in the nation against the run after struggling against Maryland and Tulsa. This doesn’t look like the Longhorns unit that held USC’s Ronald Jones II to 47 yards in 18 carries last season.

“It’s been two games now that I’ve felt we’ve been run effective with our three backs,” Helton said. “It’s going to be important in this game. With a young quarterback with all these zone pressures, we’re gonna have to lean on that run game, just like we have the last two games. It’s kept us in the game, it’s kept the ball moving. … It’s probably our best group right now on offense, those three backs.”

Helton seems to think it’s only going to get better. The Trojans have been cautious with Carr coming off offseason back surgery. He had nine carries against Nevada Las Vegas and 10 against Stanford compared to 18 for Ware.

“He’s looking healthier and healthier to be able to carry the load,” Helton said.

Going against a Texas team that plays a no-huddle offense, Saturday night is likely to bring the most plays yet for the USC offense. Helton has his number in mind for how many carries his backs should get, but can the offense execute well enough to get them there?

“I’m hoping at some point in time when we get 80 plays,” Helton said, “we can get 40 runs.”

Daniels looks good for Texas

Daniels participated fully in Tuesday’s practice and did not show any ill effects from the bruised right hand he sustained against Stanford.

“I thought he was decisive,” Helton said. “I didn’t see any hesitation, any wincing. I’m confident he’ll be available for Saturday.”


Tight end Josh Falo, who has missed the first two games with a hamstring injury, returned to practice and is looking promising to play at Texas. … Right tackle Jalen McKenzie was held out of Tuesday’s practice with an illness. … Defensive end Christian Rector practiced through a back injury. … Cornerback Isaiah Langley was held out with a hip injury and a groin injury.

Twitter: @BradyMcCollough