USC has room to improve this year

first_imgThe college football season follows a predictable pattern each year. Early on, a number of teams have standout performances, with each squad making their case for elite status. Then injuries, upsets and conference play start, and the season begins to fall into focus. This generally happens at the end of September, when almost everything crystalizes.This year is no different. We learned a lot in the first month. On a national level, elite defenses are few and far between this season. It seems like 56-49 shootouts are the new norm, an upgraded version of the old 17-13 grind-it-out slugfest.At the Pac-12 level, it is abundantly clear there will be no easy victories this season. Combine a collection of coaches of the highest caliber and a crop of phenomenal quarterbacks leading explosive offenses, and you have the toughest conference schedule week in and week out in all of college football.Such a demanding schedule casts a bleak shadow over USC’s upcoming games. The idea was that if the Trojans could get through Oregon State and Arizona State, October would be a cakewalk. But with the emergence of Arizona, Colorado and Utah as viable competition, gliding through October looks to be a demanding task.That’s what we know. Unfortunately, there are still a lot of questions about the USC football team. While the 35-10 victory over the Oregon State Beavers appears to be a resounding blowout in the Pac-12 home opener, statistics certainly do not tell the full story of the matchup.It was certainly a great bounce-back win coming off the bye, but USC’s victory left me feeling a bit uncertain about the rest of the season. There were positives, such as the freshman class taking another giant step forward. The collection of skill position players is the most impressive group of freshmen in a long time, anywhere. The linemen are continuing to progress, and there is not much more to say about cornerback-wide receiver Adoree’ Jackson, other than that he is one of the best freshmen in the country.There are other bright spots on offense. Junior wide receiver Nelson Agholor and redshirt junior running back Javorius “Buck” Allen are dependable and dynamic. Redshirt junior quarterback Cody Kessler shook off a first half where he was aiming it instead of throwing it, to look like his usual efficient, effective self in the second half. It appears that sophomore running back Justin Davis finally has his burst back, and junior Max Tuerk is developing into an All-American candidate as a center.On defense, sophomore safety Su’a Cravens is phenomenal. He might be the best safety in college football, and if Saturday was any indication, he is gunning for most talented linebacker as well. Besides junior defensive end Leonard Williams, Cravens seems to make more plays in the backfield than any other Trojan. That is where the problems start, though.I understand the preseason All-American is a dynamic, physical specimen. But a safety-linebacker hybrid should not be making more stops behind the line than the combined efforts of the defensive line and linebacking corps.Though USC did not surrender a touchdown on defense, I can’t help but feel unsettled about the Trojans’ defensive unit. Whether it was junior cornerback Kevon Seymour failing to turn repeatedly on back shoulder throws or the bevy of avoidable penalties on an assortment of Trojans, the defense was underwhelming. This was not a dominant performance by any stretch of the imagination.One bright spot was the tip by Jackson to emerging sophomore safety Leon McQuay III, who then secured the interception in the endzone. That duo will be the cornerstone of a stingy secondary for the next few years. The pick by McQuay had shades of Richard Sherman and Malcolm Smith for the Seahawks against the 49ers last season, which was only fitting as Smith led the Trojans out of the tunnel.Overall, time will tell if the ’SC defense is suited for the 3-4. The Trojans seem to have trouble defending screen passes, which happens to be an Arizona State Sun Devil specialty. If ASU has its starting signal caller back next Saturday, the Trojans have to step it up in order to win.Forget UCLA and Notre Dame, there are no certain victories over the next six weeks. USC could conceivably hold each team they play to low double digits like Oregon State and Stanford, or they could give up close to 40 like they did against Boston College. Four games into the year, the outlook of the rest of the season is hazy at best. While we know the future of the program is incredibly bright, the present has yet to be determined.The direction of this year is not dependent on the defense though — it is up to the offense. Even though they sustained multiple drives on Saturday, the offense is not truly a fluid mechanism yet.This could be the play calling or it could be the execution, or a combination of both. Either way, the offense will need to step it up in Pac-12 play. Maybe throwing it more to sophomore wide receiver Darreus Rogers, who happens to score almost every time he touches the ball, would be a step in the right direction.It seemed that the team found a groove from the second quarter on, once Kessler started moving out of the pocket and putting some zip on his throws. Here’s hoping that continues, and Sarkisian and Kessler prove that they stack up near the top when it comes to quarterback-coach combinations in the Pac-12. After all, 52-49 gets you the same result as 10-7 — a victory. At the end of the day, that’s what matters. Jake Davidson is a sophomore majoring in economics. His column, “Davidson’s Direction,” runs Mondays. To comment on this story, email Jake at or visit