January 16, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

USC can’t afford a second-half offensive lull against UCLA

In his first week on USC’s starting offensive line, Courtland Ford stood alone. Literally.

An outbreak of coronavirus which left 11 quarantined and forced the cancellation of USC’s previous game so thoroughly wiped out the position group that the freshman was the lone starting lineman actually able to practice last week ahead of USC’s 38-13 win over Washington State.

Even Ford wasn’t supposed to be elevated to the starting line so soon. But necessity led to a golden opportunity for the 6-foot-5, 305-pound freshman, even if he didn’t see much of that opportunity during the week. Until the day before the game, when most of the quarantined linemen finally returned, USC’s offense hadn’t held a single team practice together.

Instead, while the skill positions practiced in a seven-on-seven format, Ford and fellow freshman lineman Casey Collier spent most of their time working alone in what offensive coordinator Graham Harrell jokingly called “the playpen.”

The adverse circumstances suggested a slow start might be in store for USC, but Sunday proved otherwise. Ford stepped right in, the line kept intact, and the Trojans offense exploded for four first-quarter touchdowns in their most potent performance yet this season.

“It’s a credit to them and a credit to their talent and their experience that for two weeks they have to be locked up because of contact tracing, and they can still come out and perform at such a high level,” offensive coordinator Graham Harrell said.

The offensive lull came later, well after USC had the game in hand. The Trojans took their foot off the gas and were outscored by the Cougars 7-3 in the second half. Their rushing attack lost seven yards after halftime while the offense as a whole tallied just 64 total.

Considering its five-touchdown, first-half lead, coach Clay Helton suggested Tuesday that sort of lull was “natural,” adding that he’s “not really worried about it.” But with a matchup against their crosstown rivals upcoming and a Pac-12 title-game appearance on the line for the Trojans, Helton agreed that such a slip-up “can’t happen, especially in this game.”

UCLA has offered plenty of evidence over the last year that, if given the chance, it can shrink a lead in a hurry. In September 2019, the Bruins rallied from down 32 points to mount an unforgettable 67-63 comeback over Washington State. Last month, they nearly pulled off a similar rally against Colorado, erasing a four-touchdown deficit before falling 48-42.

“This is a really important game to be able to play a full 60 minutes and keep your foot on the gas,” Helton said.

USC will need much more from its rushing attack to assure its offense doesn’t sputter from here. While quarterback Kedon Slovis thrived through the air, the run game came to a halt against Washington State. Kenan Christon led the team with a meager 11 rushing yards while altogether, the Trojans barely scrounged five total yards, their fewest in a game since September 2018.

Helton pinned those issues on USC’s entire offense while also pointing out that Harrell, in large part, aimed to take advantage of soft coverages offered by Washington State’s defense. At one point, Slovis completed 18 straight passes as the Cougars continued to play zone out of Cover-1 and Cover-3.

With its sophomore signal-caller scorching hot, the run game was set aside for large swaths of Sunday’s game. But Helton doesn’t expect that’ll be the case moving forward.

“I think it’s the mark of a good offense, being able to run the ball when needed,” Helton said. “Not to say we’re going to force the run. We’re going to take what the defense gives us.”

Some of those problems may have borne out of the less-than-ideal circumstances faced last week by USC’s offense. This week, it won’t have that problem as the three remaining offensive linemen left in quarantine — Justin Dedich, Liam Douglass and Andrew Vorhees — are expected to return.

But Sunday is hardly the first instance of the Trojans’ rushing attack being shut down this season. Through four games, the offense is averaging fewer rushing yards (111) than any other Pac-12 team while only 16 teams across all of college football have been worse.

Still, when asked to gauge his level of concern with the backfield after the 25-point victory, Harrell was incredulous.

“Well, I think when a quarterback goes 17 of 17 in a half and throws five touchdowns, you’re doing some things well,” Harrell said. “So, that’s our level of concern.”

Etc.

Offensive guard Liam Jimmons injured his left elbow against Washington State, the same elbow he dislocated last season. The redshirt senior was held out of practice on Monday and remains “day to day”, Helton said. Freshman Jonah Monheim took his place against Washington State and is likely to reprise that role if he sits. … After sitting out last week with a foot sprain, linebacker Ralen Goforth returned to practice and “looked a lot better.” His status will be monitored throughout the week.