For as much as the optimists were thinking that this was the season USC would finally get back to the Pac-12 mountaintop, the realists knew the score.
The optimists saw an offense loaded with talent, an electrifying Heisman-level quarterback, a 1,000-yard rusher in Ronald Jones, and a veteran wideout who became a breakout star in the Rose Bowl.
The realists saw a quarterback with only nine career starts and a receivers group bereft of experience outside of Deontay Burnett. The realists saw an offensive line that had to replace three starters.
The optimists saw a defense loaded with stars, “watch list” nominees and preseason all-conference performers.
The realists saw a team that through four games had not shown it could consistently stop the run, and a unit that continued to get pushed around by supposed “inferior” competition.
With USC’s crushing 30-27 loss at No. 16 Washington State on Friday, even the optimists had to come to grips with a hard truth: This loss was inevitable.
Yes, there is something to be said for a team that can grind out hard-fought victories in the fourth quarter. That’s something the Trojans proved they could do through the first four games of the season. But when those victories came against a middle-of-the-road MAC school (Western Michigan), a rebuilding Texas team with a first-year coach that lost at home to Maryland in Week 1, and a Cal squad that had won only 12 conference games in the last five seasons, expectations needed to be recalibrated.
Are the Trojans out of the running for a Pac-12 title and College Football Playoff berth? No, of course not. It’s just one loss to a very good team on the road.
There is no doubt that there is enough talent to allow the Trojans to run the table. As it stands now, a game at Notre Dame on Oct. 21 stands as the toughest challenge remaining. But can they win out playing like they’re playing right now?
And therein lies the problem. The loss in Pullman isn’t just a single pothole on a road paved with dominated opponents. This team isn’t like Oregon in 2014 or Clemson last season, which had losses to Arizona and Pitt, respectively, but navigated the rest of their schedule with relative ease en route to playoff appearances.
There are too many problems that need to be fixed to assume the Trojans are on the level of those teams.
First and foremost, the play calling needs reform immediately.
The biggest key to the Washington State loss was third-down efficiency. The Trojans were 2 for 11 on third down against the Cougars. That’s simply not good enough, and offensive coordinator Tee Martin — who took his fair share of criticism after the game — needs to do a better job drawing up plays that will lead to first downs.
The most egregious example of Martin’s failure on this night was in the fourth quarter when USC was driving to tie the game. The Trojans had just been hit with a false start, moving them back to the WSU 46-yard line. It was 3rd-and-13 and Washington State called timeout.
Coming out of the break, the Trojans inexplicably ran the ball. On 3rd-and-13. When they needed a touchdown to tie the game. In the fourth quarter. Jones got stopped for no gain.
Only an amazing acrobatic catch from Tyler Vaughns on fourth down prevented the game from being over before it actually was over, as the Trojans were able to score on a Darnold keeper three plays later.
But there were other misfires. After Jones’ 86-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, he got only eight attempts the rest of the game, and two were that ill-fated third-down call and a goal-line carry on the final scoring drive.
Martin didn’t use Jones or Stephen Carr effectively to help keep the chains moving and keep the USC offense on the field. With Darnold having an off night, Martin should have recognized that relying on the run, picking his spots with Darnold and setting up some play-action opportunities was the way to go. Instead, he let his quarterback flounder under immense pressure from playing behind a patchwork offensive line missing three starters.
Martin hasn’t been as bad calling plays this season as some fans think, though the Trojans’ inability to move the ball effectively in the Texas game certainly another bad mark on the resume. And it’s not his job wholly to fix things. The bottom line is that Darnold has gone through stretches of being downright bad this season.
His 8 interceptions through five games are tied for second most in the country, trailing only Nebraska’s Tanner Lee, who has 9. Despite all of his wonderful playmaking abilities, his lack of waist-down mechanics continue to lead him to make throws when not properly set or unbalanced. That leads to inaccuracy and has not allowed him to get the needed zip on his throws. His interceptions against WSU and Cal were perfect examples of a defender being able to undercut the route and make an easy pick.
That needs to be rectified as soon as possible.
There also are some issues with the defense, specifically in stopping the run. Many forget what an integral role nose tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu played clogging up the middle last season. But too many times this season, opponents have been able to push around the front seven and pick up chunk yardage. The Trojans have been better recently, but it’s still a big step back from last season, when they ranked 26th nationally against the run. This season, they rank 56th.
But perhaps the biggest issue plaguing the Trojans is one they can’t really control: health. USC has been ravaged by injuries and picked up several more to key players last Friday. Two offensive linemen — junior Chuma Edoga and senior Viane Talamaivao — had to leave the game and did not return. Their status is unknown, but both are expected to be evaluated Tuesday.
Starting left tackle Toa Lobendahn missed the Cal game with a skin infection, but he could be back this week.
Star outside linebacker Porter Gustin has missed the last two games with a torn biceps. There is no timetable for his return. Cornerback Iman Marshall left the Cal game with an injury as well, but he’s not expected to miss much time.
Wide receiver Steven Mitchell missed the last two games with a groin injury. He is recovering, but still may not be back in time for the game with Oregon State on Saturday. Carr injured his foot in the Washington State game and is questionable for this weekend.
You get the idea.
Compounding this, the Trojans are one of the few teams in all of college football that does not have a bye week, so there will be zero chance for these guys to continue to heal without missing game time.
USC coach Clay Helton said on Monday that the team “controls its own destiny.” And while there is truth to that, that’s also no different than every other team. You don’t get a win or a loss based off the name on the front of your jersey. You have to go out and perform, fight, scratch, claw, execute, and for the coaches, make the decisions that give you a chance to win.
So while it’s too early to bury the Trojans, it should also not be a surprise that they’re in this position. All season long, they’ve been doing “just enough” to win most of their games.
Just enough caught up with them at the Palouse, and they came home with an L.
If this group doesn’t want to end up with the same “only hype” label as so many of its predecessors, it’s on everyone to start doing more. The season is not over. The Pac-12 title and a trip to the College Football Playoffs are still within reach. But for that to happen, things cannot stay the same.
On that, both optimists and realists can agree.