Posted on November 23, 2020
Well, I guess the Trojans must have read my last column.
On Saturday, USC finally gave its fans what they’d been waiting for all season, and should’ve gotten earlier: a nice, comfortable win by multiple possessions that doesn’t have their hearts racing for the entire last quarter—a win that fans could actually feel good about.
The Trojans needed to make a statement on Tuesday, and they delivered one.
After the first two games of this season—excessively tight wins over Arizona State and Arizona—USC really did not look like a team that was favored to win the Pac-12 South and potentially take down Oregon in a conference championship game.
But Saturday, they did. If the USC team we see for the rest of the season is the team that showed up in Week 3, rather than the first two installments of the 2020 Trojans, the sky’s the limit.
USC’s defense was the best it has looked all year, by a wide margin. The defensive line pressured Utah’s quarterbacks throughout, linebackers were finally making plays, and the secondary did enough.
The Trojans’ offense, though still not quite up to the level it should be at, was much better as well.
Kedon Slovis had more time in the pocket behind a significantly improved offensive line; offensive coordinator Graham Harrell’s play-calling was much more creative; the running game was OK; and the wide receivers were effective, despite none of them having a particularly eye-popping night in the stat sheet.
And, for what it’s worth, freshman kicker Parker Lewis and redshirt sophomore punter Ben Griffiths were solid on special teams as well.
But what does this all mean?
Let’s go game-by-game.
For the purpose of this exercise, I’ll assume that USC’s overall performance against Utah is how the Trojans play each game from here on out (though I’m aware that’s not how things work). While the defense was certainly above the figured projection, the offense was probably an equal amount below, so it roughly evens out.
Next week, USC will take on a Colorado team that, yes, is undefeated, but took down a pretty subpar Stanford team by just 3 points in Week 2, and will have gone 14 days in between games when they take on the Trojans—which, at this point in the season, hurts more than it helps.
If USC can somewhat slow Jarek Broussard (which is a difficult thing to do, but we’re extrapolating from the Utah game here), USC’s offense can take over for a win.
Next, the Trojans will host Washington State, which may have 20 days in between games, and which boasts a defense that USC’s offensive firepower should simply overmatch. That should be another W.
Up next is UCLA, a team that honestly scares me. I’ve been saying that the Bruins will be USC’s second-toughest regular season opponent this year behind ASU, and given their 24-point trouncing of Cal and their slim 3-point loss to Oregon, that’s looking likely.
The big question here is whether USC’s defense can stop dual-threat quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson and running back Demetric Felton in the rushing attack.
Against Utah, the Trojans allowed just 107 rushing yards in the first three quarters. (In the fourth quarter, they allowed just 12 because Utah only ran it four times compared to 15 passes, so I’m ignoring the fourth, even though it helps my point statistically.)
If USC can approximate that rush defense—and even if it takes just a small step back—the Trojans should be looking good.
Of course, Oregon is the metaphorical elephant in the room. But have the No. 9 Ducks looked all that dominant? They didn’t put Washington State away until late, and they only beat UCLA by 3 points in a game they might’ve lost were it not for a quite fortunate pick-6 just before halftime.
At this point, Oregon is a better team than USC. But if the Week 3 version of USC shows up for that potential Pac-12 Championship Game rather than the Week 1 or 2 version, do not be remotely shocked if the Trojans come out on top.
And after that? Yes, I’m going here: What if Notre Dame beats Clemson in the ACC Championship and opens up a spot for an undefeated Pac-12 Champion to crack the College Football Playoff?
By no means am I calling USC to the CFP. All I’m saying is that if USC’s performance against Utah—or something better, such as with an improved Slovis—becomes the norm, this team could go far.
The Trojans need to sustain this and build off it, but things appeared to get a whole lot more promising Saturday night.
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