At most college football programs, a three-game winning streak and a perch atop the division standings would lead to at least a momentary ceasefire on objective criticism. But this is USC, and the Trojans’ rookie quarterback is learning that the questions won’t stop until the offense consistently looks the part of a traditional power and not a group skating by on its talent.
Asked Tuesday what he saw on film from his performance in USC’s 31-20 win over Colorado, JT Daniels said, with a hint of frustration, “It’s the same answer every single week.”
Only, with the Trojans this season, even as they’ve put themselves in position for another Pac-12 South title, being able to predict how the offense will function from drive to drive or quarter to quarter, much less week to week, has been nearly impossible.
In Saturday’s victory over the Buffaloes, one good quarter of offense predicated on taking deep shots in the passing game was enough to win. That second-quarter aerial assault, in which Daniels threw for 212 of his 283 yards and three touchdowns, was beautiful to behold. Yet critics pointed out the Trojans had zero yards rushing in the first half.
In the third quarter, those who want to see that “Tailback U” running game got what they wanted for a drive. USC handed the ball to Aca’Cedric Ware and Stephen Carr on six straight carries for 26 yards in helping to reverse poor field position. But on the last of those carries, a six-yard run by Ware that would have yielded a first down was brought back by a Chuma Edoga holding penalty. A first down became third and 12, and, a play later, a USC punt.
Those who prefer USC ditch all pretense of balance and continue chucking deep balls to its brilliant wide receivers could critique how the Trojans did not score an offensive point in the third quarter because they stopped doing what was working.
Washington State was the game that provided optimum balance. The Trojans scored 39 points and picked their spots well in the passing and running games. At Arizona, against the Wildcats’ woeful run defense, USC pounded out 253 rushing yards as Daniels threw only 24 times. Against Colorado’s defense, which routinely brought safeties into the box and played man-to-man coverage, it swung back the other way.
“Teams gotta figure out how they want to defend us,” offensive coordinator Tee Martin said. “If you want to play man and put people in the box, stop the receivers and the quarterback. If you want to play coverage, then we’re going to run the ball. What’s good for me and us is, we’ve shown we can win games doing both.”
Said USC coach Clay Helton: “Each game feels different. The one thing I will give credit to Tee for, he’s really trying to take what the defense gives him. I was glad to see the run game not given up on. I’m a run guy by nature, being an O-line coach’s son. I thought coming back into that second half that he tried to reestablish the run game.”
The third quarter Saturday is a good example of how things continue to stall. The Trojans had only two possessions because Ajene Harris’ interception return for a touchdown gave the Buffaloes back-to-back possessions. On both USC drives, an Edoga holding penalty put the Trojans in third and long. Leading 28-7 after the pick-six and facing third and 19 after the second Edoga penalty, Martin went conservative with a Carr three-yard run and a punt to protect field position — a perfectly reasonable decision but not one that produces points.
“The thing we talked about during the bye week was drive-killers,” Martin said. “We just gotta get out of our own way.”
Martin says he does not have much concern about the running game. But Utah comes in second nationally in rush defense and 69th in pass defense, which would lead one to believe USC will have to loosen up the Utes with the deep ball.
Of course, with these Trojans, one can never know.
“It doesn’t matter to me,” Daniels said. “If the ball’s moving, it’s moving. If a team played deep quarters every single play and we ran the ball every single time and won the game, you would not hear a complaint from me.”