Another week of self-inflicted wounds left USC with a fourth double-digit loss and its season on life support after an ill-fated road trip at Notre Dame. So what exactly can we take away from another Saturday defined by many of the same issues?
New coach, same mistakes
Donte Williams tried to instill a new sense of accountability. But when it comes to the penalties and other major mistakes USC has come to be known for, he doesn’t have an answer.
Being an interim coach is a difficult job — especially when you step into a situation like what Williams did at USC, with most of the season still left.
But at a certain point, when the same mistakes and penalties pile up week after week, somebody has to be held accountable. There is no marked difference between the bone-headed errors we saw Saturday and the ones we saw in the Stanford loss that led to Clay Helton’s firing — or any of Helton’s other losses for that matter.
USC had nine penalties for 65 yards against Notre Dame, which ranked among its lowest output of the whole season. But those penalties came at back-breaking times, particularly on the decisive final Notre Dame drive after USC pulled to within a single score.
For all the talk of accountability, it’s not clear if anyone is actually being held accountable.
Losses pile up
It might be time to find new plans for bowl season.
USC has fallen below .500 for the first time since 2018, the last time it missed a bowl game. There’s no reason to think it will follow a different path from here.
Next week’s matchup with winless Arizona may be the only game left on USC’s schedule that it’s guaranteed to win. Arizona State, Brigham Young and UCLA are all better teams than the Trojans right now.
To make it to the six-win mark, USC will have to beat Arizona, get past California on the road and then win as underdogs in any one of the three remaining games.
Considering how easy the schedule looked at the start of the season, it’s stunning we’ve reached this point. But here we are, with USC hoping it can sneak into the Gasparilla Bowl.
Trust the tailbacks
Maybe it’s time to further emphasize the run game.
This might have sounded insane at the start of this season, but as USC’s offense continues to lose its grasp on games, its rushing attack has been a rare, stabilizing force. On a night defined by mistakes, Keaontay Ingram put together his best performance yet against the Irish, rushing for 138 yards and a touchdown in 24 attempts.
It wasn’t until USC was down by two touchdowns that it finally decided to let Ingram cook, and the result was a more methodical approach on offense that allowed it to stay in the game. Why offensive coordinator Graham Harrell refuses to lean on the run earlier is a mystery, but Ingram was the primary reason USC was still alive late in the fourth quarter.
“That’s about as efficiently as we’ve run the ball, probably all year,” Harrell said.
Harrell has at least realized that he’s best emphasizing Ingram and fellow transfer Darwin Barlow, who added four carries for 15 yards and a touchdown. Senior Vavae Malepeai didn’t see a single carry against Notre Dame, his first game without a rushing playall season.
The Trojans’ freshman tackles are still too inconsistent. But at this point, they probably have no choice but to deal with the growing pains.
Kedon Slovis was sacked on the first play of the game, setting the tone for a night spent running for his life. Notre Dame notched only three total sacks, but that was only a fraction of the snaps in which Slovis was pushed out of a collapsing pocket, due to the pressure from the Irish front.
That protection improved over the course of the game, as USC tired out Notre Dame’s defensive front with tempo changes. But why does USC continually have to wait until half the game has elapsed before it figures these things out?
“They got way too much pressure on us, and they were in our backfield too much through the whole game,” Williams said.
Dart will need help
Jaxson Dart wouldn’t have saved USC on Saturday.
Five weeks after his dynamic debut, injury and meniscus surgery, the Trojans’ electric freshman quarterback was cleared “to an extent” Saturday, according to Williams. But after he warmed up in full pads and took pregame snaps with the second-team offense, Dart never saw the field.
Although USC fans called for him to replace Slovis, there’s no reason to thrust Dart into such difficult circumstances when he’s not completely healthy. That would’ve been a recipe for failure — and possibly further injury — and Williams said as much after the loss.
“I care about his long-term health, not just one football game, his long-term health, if he’s not all the way right,” Williams said. “I care about making sure he’s 100% healthy before we put him back on that field.”
That may be sooner rather than later, but on Saturday, Slovis wasn’t the problem. He still completed 73% of his passes for 299 yards. But when Dart regains full strength, expect him to have some sort of role.