USC Trojans: 2014 season report card

Steve Sarkisian wrapped up his first season as USC’s head coach with a 45-42 win over Nebraska at the Holiday Bowl. The Trojans finished 9-4 on the season, including a 6-3 mark in the Pac-12 South — a three-way tie for second place.

The high of the season, winning at Stanford for the first time since 2008 and a 49-14 win over Notre Dame in the regular season finale to snap the Fighting Irish’s two-game winning streak in the rivalry. And the low points, giving up 352 rush yards in a loss at Boston College and falling to crosstown rival UCLA for the third consecutive season. Here are the grades.  

Quarterback

It’s scary to think how much more Cody Kessler could have done during the 2014 season when you consider how much he did. Kessler set USC records in 2014 for completion percentage (69.7) and completions (315). He tied the school record for touchdown passes (39). However, there was a lot the junior left on the field. There were times when he was timid to throw the ball downfield. The Trojans were 47 percent on third downs during the season but there were critical third downs in which Kessler couldn’t deliver. The scoring droughts in the second half, primarily in the fourth quarter, are a huge cause of concern entering 2015.  

Grade:  A-

Running backs

Buck Allen took a step forward in his first full season as the leader of the USC backfield. He was over 100 all-purpose yards in every game this season. Allen carried a huge load for a running back corp. that was low in numbers. Tre Madden missed the entire season because of injury. Justin Davis, the primary No. 2 back had a tough time getting back to the form he showed after a season-ending injury cut his freshman season short. Ball security was also a huge concern for the sophomore.  

Grade: B

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Wide receivers

Without question, the deepest position group on the team is a nightmare matchup for opposing defenses and that’s before you add two-way player Adoree’ Jackson to the mix. Nelson Agholor thrived in his first full season as a primary target with 104 catches and 1,313 yards, while true freshman JuJu Smith emerged as a clear No. 2. Darreus Rogers didn’t have the season many expected he would have. While George Farmer proved he still has the speed to effortlessly blow past one-on-one coverage. This group received a lot of major contributions from a lot of young players and is only going to get stronger.

Grade: A

Offensive line

The biggest question mark of the 2014 season certainly had its ups and downs. Although Max Tuerk had starts under his belt, none of them were at center. Chad Wheeler, the most experienced lineman after Tuerk, went down with a season-ending knee injury in October. The group was in the bottom half in the country in sacks allowed (32) but it should be noted the USC staff and Kessler himself acknowledged the quarterback has to do a better job of not holding on to the ball too long. There was some shuffling, too. Most notably Toa Lobendahn sliding over from left guard to left tackle after Wheeler’s season-ending injury. Still, the young group was good enough to produce a 1,400-yard back and a 3,800-yard passer.  When Lobendahn and Damien Mama started the season opener against Fresno State at the guard spots it marked the first time two freshmen started an opener on the offensive line in program history.

Grade: B

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Tight ends

With first year head coach Steve Sarkisian coming off a season in which he coached a Mackey Award winner, it was believed the tight ends would be awaken for the Trojans. That wasn’t the case. Freshman Bryce Dixon showed flashes of the type of skill he brings to the table. Senior Randall Telfer continued to be underutilized.  

Grade: C

Defensive line

Anytime you have a player like Leonard Williams in your unit, that’s a big deal. Williams finished second on the team in tackles with 80 during the season and was tied for the team lead with seven sacks. The message of how much Willliams meant to the team was received when the defensive end was named Team MVP.

Grade: B

Linebackers

Perhaps, the most lasting memory of the season when you think of USC linebackers is the image of Hayes Pullard standing in the endzone, arms extended, as Arizona State wide receiver Jaelen Strong hauled in a Hail Mary. It shouldn’t be. The USC linebacker corp. did a lot more good than that isolated play. You could argue Pullard should have never been placed in that situation. For the third straight season, the USC captain led the Trojans in tackles (95). J.R. Tavai was tied for the team lead in sacks (7) and forced fumbles (3). When Su’a Cravens joins this bunch it’s only boosted by having one of the nation’s premiere defensive playmakers. Anthony Sarao had a larger role in 2014 and filled it well.  

Grade: B+

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Secondary

When you take Su’a Cravens away from this group, it suffers tremendously. The suspension of Josh Shaw greatly affected this group as well. Adoree’ Jackson was a huge bright spot for a secondary that had its issues with costly misreads and missed assignments. Steve Sarkisian said a huge point of emphasis during the offseason will be improving in man-to-man coverage to come up with critical stops when necessary.  

Grade: C

Special Teams

Two kickoffs and two punts were returned for touchdowns this season. The blocked field goal by Delvon Simmons at Stanford was huge in the Trojans being able to walk out of Palo Alto with a win. That still didn’t stop Trojan fans for screaming for former USC special teams coordinator John Baxter. Running backs coach Johnny Nansen also dubbed as the team’s special team’s coordinator. Kris Albarado had two punts blocked during the season and Cody Kessler’s pooch punts just never seemed like a good idea.

Grade: B-

Overall

Steve Sarkisian says his first season as USC’s head coach was a success. He stands by that statement. His nine wins in his first season are the third most by a USC first year head coach. Still, he took over a team that won 10 games with three different head coaches in 2013. The Trojans were a top-10 team when they laid an egg on Chestnut Hill. They lost on a Hail Mary to Arizona State after which players admitted they were confused about the defensive call and were outclassed at the Rose Bowl by UCLA. Yes, the Trojans finished the season 9-4 and there are many who will argue they should’ve finished 11-2. For those, the counter could be made this is a team that easily could’ve finished 7-6, if not worse.  

Grade: C