Midseason report card: USC

With the season now halfway over, here is USC’s midseason report card.

Matt Barkley has tossed 1,475 yards, 16 touchdowns and six interceptions – not bad numbers. In fact, the 16 touchdowns are identical to Barkley’s total at this time last season. However, if you are the preseason Heisman favorite and possess – arguably – the best wide receiving duo in the country, those numbers are expected to be inflated. Barkley’s been sharp at times – four games with a 60% completion percentage or higher including two 77% completion percentage games – while at other times, he’s looked less than crisp. In the loss at Stanford, he completed just 48% of his passes and vs. Washington, he was just 10-of-20 last weekend. Aside from Barkley’s numbers, as a team the Trojans are completing only 30% of their third downs. There’s a saying, “quarterbacks make their money on third down” and as the leader of the offense Barkley takes the blame for USC’s ineffectiveness on third down.

This unit returned four starters from a group that allowed just eight sacks last season. They’ve already surrendered nine at the halfway point. They suffered a huge black eye at Stanford when center Khaled Holmes was out of the lineup and they completely fell apart. They couldn’t run block and couldn’t give Barkley enough protection to make anything happen down the field. Highlights have been the 258 rushing yards at Syracuse and the 296 yards against Cal. Still this group, despite all of the experience returning, has looked youthful at times. False starts and holding penalties have been drive killers. Left tackle Aundrey Walker, the only new starter, has been very up and down. Holmes, the leader of the group, nearly cost the team any remaining chance they had at winning a national championship with two early miscues at Utah that spotted the Utes 14 points.

Early in the season, Lane Kiffin didn’t want to make anything out of the disparity in carries between Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal. It’s at the point now where Redd has more than double the amount of carries and has emerged as the guy for better or for worse. McNeal isn’t a bad second option. When healthy he’s showed a burst that put him over 1,000 yards last season and he’s actually averaging more yards per carry (6.4) than Redd (5.6). Since the Stanford loss, Kiffin has made an effort to get them the ball more and they’ve responded. Redd has three 100-yard games this season. In the Cal win, they were both over 100 yards.

Roles have been defined. Marqise Lee is definitely the No. 1 receiver with Robert Woods taking on a lesser role this season. The two have combined for 90 of the team’s 124 receptions. Lee’s had his share of drops, while the sure-handed Woods is five receptions away from becoming the school’s all-time leader in receptions. Freshman Nelson Agholor is the only other receiver who has more than one reception. He has five. This group primarily begins and ends with the production of Lee and Woods. The two have been the primary focus of opposing defenses. With Barkley’s numbers lower than expected, there’s no way his top two targets can have monstrous numbers.  

Once it became evident that opposing defenses were going to do all they could to take away Lee and Woods, it was expected things would open up more for the tight ends. That hasn’t happened. One of the many perplexing questions is why this unit hasn’t been a bigger part of the game plans? Xavier Grimble is the only player on the team not named Lee or Woods with double-digit receptions. He has 10. Randall Telfer has eight. They each have two touchdowns. An answer can be they’ve had their share of drops as well. Also, Grimble has been prone to picking up penalties.

The unit that was the most suspect entering the season has arguably been the strength of the team at the halfway point of the season. Newcomer Morgan Breslin is leading the team with 7.0 sacks and 12 tackles for loss. Behind him is Leonard Williams with 5.5 and 8.5, respectively. Nick Perry led the team in sacks last season with eight. The defensive line has accounted for 21 of the team’s 22 sacks on the season. The team had 30 sacks last season. This season, defensively, the Trojans have had the luxury of being able to send just four and get pressure. The loss of Devon Kennard to a torn pectoral muscle in the summer seemed like a huge loss at the time. It doesn’t anymore.

You can make a strong case Dion Bailey has been the MVP of the defense through the first half of the season. He’s been one of, if not the biggest playmaker on the team. He leads the team in interceptions, passes defended and is second in tackles. They started the season without middle linebacker, Lamar Dawson, but Hayes Pullard was able to show his versatility by stepping in seamlessly. They’ve been sure tacklers as well. Bailey, Pullard and Dawson are second, third and fourth respectively on the team in tackles.

T.J. McDonald has lined up all over the field. At times he’s lined up as a fifth down linemen or rush end. As a result, he’s leading the team in tackles. The other safety, Jawanza Starling, has started every game this season and he’s been around the ball quite a bit. He has two interceptions and made the play of the game in the win at Washington last week, forcing and recovering a fumble at the USC four-yard line when the Huskies were inching towards the endzone. Nickell Robey has been as good as expected. The lone blemish in the defensive backfield has been the second cornerback spot. Anthony Brown started the first two games of the season and Torin Harris has started the last four. In search of answers Kiffin moved Josh Shaw from safety to cornerback. He appears to be a solution… for now.

Punter Kyle Negrete has punted the ball 22 times. Half of those times he’s buried opponents inside their own 20. He has five punts of 50 or more yards and no touchbacks. They went two games without even attempting a field goal while Andre Heidari was out after undergoing knee surgery. He’s connected on four-of-seven field goals since his return but has uncharacteristically missed three of his last four attempts. For the first time in his career, Heidari has missed a field goal in consecutive games. He’s five-of-eight on the season. As a unit, they’ve blocked three kicks…Kickoff coverage has been an issue. The Trojans are tied for 79th in the country in kickoff yards allowed, giving up 22.3 yards per return. Communication on special teams has been an issue as well. Prime example: last weekend at Washington, the Trojans didn’t have enough players on the field for a Heidari field goal attempt and had to burn a timeout. Heidari’s field goal was blocked.