USC Football Weekly Roundtable: Four Down, Eight To Go
Those answers and more can be found in this week's USC Football Roundtable.
1. What grade would you give the offense through this point of the year?
Omar Shamout: C+. USC's defense has been the more impressive unit so far this season, and no one thought that would be the case for an offense with so much firepower. The 296 rushing yards against California was impressive, but Barkley still had two interceptions, and Curtis McNeal fumbled the ball. Kiffin needs to find a way to get both the passing and running games clicking simultaneously. Luckily, there are still many big games left for them to shift into high gear.
Mike Piellucci: B-. The offense has run the gamut from brilliant (Hawaii) to blustering (Stanford), which would be frustrating enough in a vacuum but even more so given the firepower this unit has on tap. I buy the idea that Lane Kiffin has much, much more in his playbook than he's shown through four games; what I'm selling is that the passing game has petered out because teams are game-planning to stop Matt Barkley, Robert Woods and Marqise Lee. Last year, Barkley-to-Woods was, for all intents and purposes, USC's entire offense through the first half of the season and yet Woods put up monster numbers because Kiffin used innovative sets to get him the ball. So far, we haven't seen the sets or the emphasis on getting Woods involved nearly as much as Lee, which led to more than a few forced throws against Cal and a stagnated aerial attack. For the Trojans to do well against the meat of the conference schedule, Kiffin not only must establish a balance between the run and the pass but also the balance between his two star receivers.
2. What grade would you give the defense through this point of the year?
Shamout: B+. Defensive end Morgan Breslin might be the player of the season so far for the Trojans. With five sacks total, his pass rushing has been a crucial component in every single game. The 9.5 tackles for loss he's racked up aren't bad either. With three interceptions and 22 solo tackles, linebacker Dion Bailey has been excellent too. The grade would be higher were it not for that second half against Stanford.
Piellucci: A-. Here's the bad - the second cornerback spot across from Nickell Robey, which has fluctuated from passable to disastrous depending on the series. The good? Just about everything else. Dion Bailey and Hayes Pullard are stars at linebacker, with Lamar Dawson coming on strong the past couple of games. Robey and T.J. McDonald have been what we expected in the secondary, and Jawanza Starling has improved his game for the third straight year to become a solid player. We knew all of that, though. The young defensive line, on the other hand, has exceeded every expectation and figures to be even stronger once Wes Horton returns to full health. Without question, this is the strongest defense USC has fielded since its stellar 2008 season, and a group that's legitimately good enough for a national title.
Shamout: B-. Kiffin's made many off-the-field mistakes in the past month, but this evaluation essentially boils down to one play. Third-and-long with less than a minute to go on the final drive against Stanford, and he calls a draw? Really?
Piellucci: B-. I covered some of this above but Kiffin's offensive playcalling must improve in order to revive the flagging passing game - and that's to say nothing about the lack of adjustments made in the Stanford game. Monte Kiffin, meanwhile, has done a nice job integrating some new sets (like the 3-3-5 nickel package) but like last year, there have been instances where he is too content to sit in Cover-2 and play bend, not break defense despite USC having better athletes than the opposition. The common prescription is aggressiveness, something that also improved the fortunes of each unit around this time last year. Here's to hoping history repeats itself.
4. USC's offense has struggled at times. By season's end, which other slow starting Trojan O will it resemble more - 2007 (which never got on track), or 2011 (which exploded in the second half)?
Shamout: 2011. I find it hard to believe that the offense won't turn things up a notch very soon. There's just too much speed and talent out there not to. Woods has been in a bit of a funk, but look for him to bounce back with a touchdown or two against Utah.
Piellucci: I'll go with 2011, primarily because this unit has far more talent on hand than the 07 group did. It's going to come down to playcalling, and I believe we'll see Lane Kiffin open up the offense as the season progresses just like he did last year.