USC’s “middle-eight minutes” troubles continue in another disappointing loss

The Trojans are losing the game within the game, but their problems run much deeper.

A photo of Kedon Slovis fumbling the ball against Notre Dame

Following Saturday night’s loss at Notre Dame, USC junior quarterback Kedon Slovis spoke about the “middle-eight minutes” of a football game, supposedly the most important stretch of time in a game, according to the analytics.

“There’s some statistic out there that says the middle eight — the last four minutes before halftime and the first four minutes of [the] second half — can win you the game a lot of times. That’s a big momentum shifter, especially when you get the ball. We didn’t win those eight today. Especially when you get behind, you need to win those,” Slovis said. “It’s something we focused on in the bye week, but we just gotta get better.”

The third-year starter is right; USC certainly didn’t win those eight minutes in Saturday’s loss. Notre Dame scored a touchdown with 4:13 (close enough) left in the second quarter to extend its lead to 17-3. The Trojans got the ball back and had a chance to keep themselves in the game, but they needed to score points.

What happened on the following drive was an unforgivable mismanagement of the clock and an unacceptable miscommunication, especially for a team coming off a bye week. With 39 seconds to play in the half, Notre Dame called a timeout before the Trojans could run a play on fourth-and-2. Coming out of the timeout, USC was unable to get a play off within the play clock and was forced to burn its own final timeout of the half.

Now the Trojans needed to be careful with the clock in order to get a field goal try and at least put something on the board. But they ran the ball to pick up the first down. Then they ran it again. Then, with head coach Donte Williams screaming from the sideline for a spike, Slovis ran another play and, rather than throwing toward the sideline for a receiver to get out of bounds, scrambled for six yards that were ultimately meaningless. The game clock hit 0:00 before the Trojans could spike the ball at Notre Dame’s 25-yard line.

Coming out of the half, USC received the ball and put together a drive that was promising until it wasn’t. First-and-10 from Notre Dame’s 25 quickly turned into fourth-and-10 and a missed 42-yard field goal, a microcosm of USC’s inability to get the ball into the end zone, even after driving the length of the field. Zero points for the Trojans in the middle-eight minutes. Seven for the Irish. Final score: Irish 31, Trojans 16.

But USC’s “middle eight” struggles are not unique to Saturday’s loss.

Two weeks ago, Utah scored a touchdown to take the lead, 14-10, with 3:57 left in the first half. USC shortly gave the ball back with 0:51 left and surrendered a 77-yard drive, capped off by a 37-yard morale-crushing bomb right over the top of USC’s secondary to make it 21-10. To start the third quarter, it took just two minutes and 19 seconds for the Utes to put up seven more. Cue the emptying of the student section at the Coliseum.

Against Oregon State in Week 4, USC kicked a 26-yard field goal during the middle eight minutes, not nearly enough to offset the Beavers’ three touchdowns in the same stretch. Against Stanford in Week 2, the Trojans again surrendered a touchdown with nine seconds left in the first half.

The theory also held true in USC’s 45-14 victory at Washington State, the most inspiring of its three Ws this year. In freshman quarterback Jaxson Dart’s debut, he connected with sophomore receiver Gary Bryant Jr. for 38 yards and a momentum-swinging touchdown to close out the half. USC would score again to open the third quarter and never looked back.

The middle eight theory actually comes from New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, perhaps the greatest football coach of all time. Surprise.

Michael Lombardi, who formerly coached on Belichick’s staff in New England, wrote in his book Gridiron Genius, “Belichick actually built an entire game-management theory around this simple realization. If the Patriots could manage a drive at the end of the second quarter, that would keep the opposing offense off the field for almost an hour of real-time.”

The numbers support it as well. From 2014 to 2019, college teams that won the middle-eight minutes won 74% of FBS games. This week, 14 of the 19 AP Top 25 games went to the winner of the middle-eight minutes. 73.6%.

So, if the coaching staff is aware of the middle-eight minutes theory and wanted to improve on that area of their game, why was USC’s clock management and performance in that stretch so dysfunctional Saturday night?

It’s very possible nobody in the USC football program has the answer to that question. Williams said the Trojans chose to run the ball in the final seconds of the first half because the Irish were dropping eight defenders into coverage.

Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell, on the other hand, had a different thought process about that same play.

“Obviously, the play that we ran the football, we didn’t want to run it there, we wanted to throw the football there,” Harrell said.

It doesn’t seem like anyone is on the same page, which is extra concerning coming off a bye, when USC had an extra week to prepare. The head coach wants to run the ball with 30 seconds left and no timeouts; the offensive coordinator wants to throw it. The coach wants to spike the ball and kick a field goal; the quarterback wants to run another play to pick up a few extra yards.

The result is zero points and painfully bad execution in the middle-eight minutes, which you would think the Trojans had never heard of if you’ve watched their losses this year.

USC’s “middle-eight” struggles are concerning, but that’s not the point. Games are not eight minutes long.

What’s more concerning is the lack of improvement in an area the starting quarterback noted was a focus for the team in preparation for this game. It speaks volumes about the team’s issues with improving on its weaknesses, cleaning up mistakes that have been prevalent all year and taking its game plan from the locker room to the playing field.

“The next USC coach has his hands full. Roster to culture. Nothing is well done,” Fox Sports’ Colin Cowherd said on Twitter.

He’s right.