“Outside the Pocket” is a column by Sam Arslanian about USC football.
If you are a USC fan, please stop by your local drug store for a blood pressure check.
USC lost its second-string quarterback in freshman Kedon Slovis Friday night. Usually, when you lose a quarterback on the second play of the game against the No. 10 team in the country, you are cruisin’ for a bruisin’. That was definitely not the case as third-string quarterback Matt Fink stepped in.
First-string quarterbacks dream of the performance Fink delivered on Friday: 351 yards, a 73% completion percentage and three touchdowns, including a 77-yarder.
Not to discredit Fink’s performance, but the reality is that any good quarterback can thrive in this offense. It’s not easy to step into a game you weren’t planning on playing in and then suddenly run a new offensive style for the first time in your collegiate career, and Fink handled the situation masterfully.
Air-raid is a quarterback-friendly offense, and with USC’s receiving core, a lot of defenses don’t stand a chance. Senior wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. ate up the Utah secondary, which was playing him man-to-man. With 232 yards on 10 receptions, it’s hard to ask more from Pittman. Regardless of whether it’s Pittman, sophomore Amon-Ra St. Brown or redshirt junior Tyler Vaughns, each receiver can win a man-to-man battle nine times out of 10.
It’s clear that when this offense gets going, there’s no stopping it. But like we saw against BYU, if the opposing defense can run a scheme that will mitigate the productivity of USC’s passing like drop-eight zone coverage — the Trojans are in for a rough time.
No. 21 USC’s next two matchups are against No. 17 Washington and No. 10 Notre Dame. Both games are on the road, which doesn’t bode well for the Trojans, as USC went 2-4 in road games last season. The two wins came against Oregon State and Arizona, both of which finished unranked last season.
There are two ways to look at these upcoming matches.
The Trojans have shown the ability to play up to their opponents’ level. Against Utah, the Trojans kept the tempo up and, for the most part, were able to keep Utah out of reach of re-entering the game.
If USC can play with the same intensity as Washington and Notre Dame, those contests could get interesting.
As mentioned before, if this team can get its offense going, there is no stopping it. If Washington plays USC man-on-man, USC will undoubtedly win. However, a defensive scheme similar to that of BYU’s will ring trouble for offensive coordinator Graham Harrell’s beloved air-raid offense. In that case, USC will need to adapt much better than it did against BYU.
It is also reassuring to know that this Trojan team will not be phased by injury, at least at the quarterback spot.
In the same way that the Trojans can play up to a team’s level, they can just as easily play down to a team’s level. That’s where a lot of the problems with USC stem from.
Win or lose, ranked or unranked opponent, USC always finds a way to shoot itself in the foot every game. Against Utah, USC suffered 11 penalties for 117 yards. They were somehow outmatched as Utah committed 16 fouls for 120 yards.
The fact of the matter is a strong amount of USC’s penalties are preventable. One ridiculous penalty that comes to mind was freshman defensive lineman Drake Jackson’s personal foul. He grabbed a Utah running back from behind and dropped him head-first into the ground.
In the heat of the moment, it’s tough to hold yourself back from an aggressive tackle like that; you want to ensure that the runner is downed. Jackson had a stand out performance, but that type of attention to detail is where USC needs to improve.
Giving teams free yards and pushing yourself back several times a game will make winning against teams like No. 17 Washington and No. 10 Notre Dame a very difficult task.
Saturday looks like it could be in Seattle. The game is going to come down to Washington’s defense; whether or not they can slow USC down. If the Trojans come out with a win, a Pac-12 championship looks like it could be on the radar.
“Outside the Pocket” runs every Monday.