In 2003, the Trojans lost an early-season game in the Bay Area but didn’t lose again the rest of the season and claimed a share of the national title. Give three things that have to happen in order for this year’s team to respond in similar fashion.
1. Get back into rhythm: The Trojans need to find that momentum they had at the tail end of 2011, the one that saw them playing with such swagger and confidence. There have been plenty of flashes of dynamic play so far this season, but they haven’t come on a consistent-enough basis to make you think the team has found its rhythm.
2. Don’t overreact: The Trojans lost a game on Saturday, and it came in a surprisingly physical fashion, but it’s still only one game. And time will probably tell that Stanford is still a pretty good football team, even without Andrew Luck. If Khaled Holmes is available for the Trojans, it’s likely a different game. But he wasn’t, so you move on.
3. Change the shoes: OK, maybe this is a bit facetious, but something just doesn’t seem right about these new cardinal-and-gold shoes. One of the most traditional elements of the USC uniform over the years has been the predominantly black cleats and these flashy colors are a drastic change from that classic style.
1. The Trojans first need to get their team healthy. Getting kicker Andre Heidari back will help the offense immensely, so it doesn’t feel like it has to score a touchdown every possession to get points. The return of Holmes is a no-brainer. He is the linchpin of the offensive line, and last weekend he was sorely missed against an aggressive Stanford team.
2. The Trojans coaching staff needs to make the necessary adjustments on both sides of the ball to take control of a game. On offense, there needs to be more screens and draws to take the pressure off Matt Barkley. Speaking of offense, start the guys on the offensive line who play with a motor on every down, and don’t play guys based on potential.
3. The players need to be held accountable for what type of team they want. Do they want to be a finesse team on offense or a physical team like Stanford? Yes, I know it’s a matter of coaching philosophy, but a player can still play mean and nasty with a major chip on his shoulder no matter what the system. Call me out on this one, but I would start Hayes Pullard at middle linebacker the rest of the way and Max Tuerk at left tackle, or move Kevin Graf to left tackle and Tuerk to right tackle. Hayes and Tuerk bring a motor, physicality and have high football IQs.
1. The offensive line needs to improve: The talent at the skill positions is apparent, but as everyone saw against Stanford, that doesn’t mean anything if the offensive line is struggling. Barkley didn’t even have time to set his feet last weekend before Cardinal defensive players were all over him. The opening of the left tackle position for competition shows that the Trojans coaching staff is looking to ensure it has the best options available on the field. USC will also need Holmes to heal quickly to solidify this unit.
2. Establish a consistent ground game: If Barkley and those star wide receivers are ever going to really take off this season, they’re going to need the USC ground game to get rolling, too. The Trojans currently rank No. 93 in the nation with just 121.67 rushing yards per game. Without a balanced offense, the USC passing attack is going to struggle more and more each week as opposing defenses continue to zero in on it.
3. Veteran leaders need to step up: Coming off a loss like the one the Trojans suffered at the hands of Stanford, teams can easily go in the tank. If the Trojans are going to turn it around, they’re going to need the team’s veteran leaders to make sure that everyone is on the same page and focused on the fact that they still have a possible national title to play for. Fortunately for the Trojans, guys like Barkley and T.J. McDonald have proven to be more than capable of filling this role.