Across the Country
The 14th week of the 2014 college football season is in the books and the stakes are going up as we are now less than a week away from the final four teams being selected for the first College Football Playoff on December 7th. There is no better time in college football than Rivalry Week the last weekend of November. Three of the top 10 teams were rolled up and out of contention for a shot at the playoffs last weekend. In the Iron Bowl, #1 Alabama surged late with a 21-point 4th quarter to take down #15 Auburn 55-44 in Tuscaloosa which was the highest scoring game ever in the series. In the Civil War, #2 Oregon demolished 5-7 Oregon State 47-19 in Eugene. #3 Florida State overcame Jameis Winston’s four interceptions to beat 6-5 Florida 24-19 in Tallahassee for their 28th straight win. Winston has the dubious stat of 13 first-half interceptions this season which is tied for the worst in the country but they have found a way to win ugly all season against inferior competition. #19 Ole Miss stunned rival Mississippi State 31-17 in the annual Egg Bowl at Oxford which knocked the Bulldogs out of contention. #5 TCU pounded 6-6 Texas 48-10 in Austin to make a strong case to move into the “Final Four.” #6 Ohio State lost quarterback J.T. Barrett with a season ending leg injury but they outlasted bitter rival Michigan 42-28 in Columbus which sealed the fate of Wolverine Coach Brady Hoke. In the newest rankings, it was interesting to see the committee move Ohio State up to #5 even with the loss of Barrett because their handbook mandates that they consider key injuries that can make a difference. They decided to see how they stack up on their title game against Wisconsin. #7 Baylor held on for dear life against 4-8 Texas Tech in their 48-46 win in Arlington. #17 Missouri locked up the SEC East with their 21-14 win over 6-6 Arkansas in Columbia. #16 Georgia Tech upset #9 Georgia in a 30-24 in overtime at Athens. #13 Wisconsin clinched the Big Ten West Division with their 34-24 win over 8-4 Minnesota at Camp Randall. As we climb into December, conference championship games for the Power Five conferences are here as well as a crucial Big-12 matchup. The committee shook up the most recent rankings with TCU jumping up to #3 over undefeated Florida State which fell to #4. In the SEC Championship Game, #1 Alabama takes on #16 Missouri in Atlanta. #4 Florida State and #11 Georgia Tech collide in the ACC Championship Game and #5 Ohio State and #13 Wisconsin clash in the Big Ten Championship Game. In the other consequential game, #9 Kansas State travels to Waco to take on #6 Baylor. It will be a huge final weekend to determine who gets invited to the first big dance but it is clear that there is no wiggle room for Florida State, Alabama must win to have an SEC team in the final four, and there is a distinct possibility that two Big-12 teams could get into the big dance if any higher ranked teams slip.
The long and windy road in the PAC-12 South Division race came down to last Friday with #8 UCLA controlling their destiny against 7-5 Stanford at the Rose Bowl. The Bruins were riding high after their dominant win against cross-town rival USC the Saturday prior. UCLA under Jim Mora had not beaten Stanford or Oregon since becoming head coach and this was his opportunity. Stanford punched UCLA in the mouth and they shut the Bruins out in the 2nd half to win decisively 31-10 at the Rose Bowl. With UCLA losing, it was winner take all in Tucson with #11 Arizona hosting #13 Arizona State. The Wildcats clinched the South Division in a shootout 42-35 over the Sun Devils. #25 Utah needed a pick-six to rally past an improved 2-10 Colorado team 38-34. The Buffaloes finished 0-9 in conference play but lost to Cal and UCLA in double overtime and were edged by Oregon State and Utah. Cal finished 5-7 with their 42-35 loss to 8-4 BYU denying the Golden Bears bowl eligibility. However, Cal was also very improved from their 1-11 campaign a year ago and with sophomore quarterback Jared Goff coming back, they will be dangerous next year. Washington moved to 8-5 and kept the Apple Cup with their 31-13 demolition of Washington State in Pullman. First year Coach Chris Petersen is reinforcing discipline in Seattle and he is putting his stamp on the Washington program in his first season. USC and Notre Dame renewed the greatest intersectional rivalry in the country and it was only the 12th time in 85 games that neither team was ranked. Both teams entered with identical 7-4 records with only pride to play for but USC hammered Notre Dame 49-14 at the Coliseum, ending a two game slide to the Irish. Arizona and Oregon meet again this Friday at Levi Stadium with the PAC-12 Title on the line. The Wildcats are the only team that beat Oregon this season and they did it in Eugene. They also pounded the Ducks in Tucson last year 42-16 so this game has some extra meaning and interest. Marcus Mariota is the Heisman favorite and he and the Ducks will be extremely tough to beat a third time straight time, this time on a neutral site.
Notre Dame Recap
USC and Notre Dame limped into last Saturday’s matchup with the Trojans getting trounced by cross-town rival UCLA the week prior and Notre Dame having lost four of their last five games after a 6-0 start. It was well noted that Notre Dame was plagued with injuries to key players at several positions but it was also a fact that USC was starting three true freshmen on the offensive line and two true freshmen starting in the defensive backfield. The game had a rare, non-primetime start at 12:30 by virtue of pedestrian records of both teams. It was also Senior Day at the Coliseum and Heisman winner Matt Leinart led the Trojans out of the tunnel. USC started the scoring barrage on their 2nd possession with Cody Kessler finding a streaking George Farmer for 48-yard touchdown strike and a 7-0 lead. The Trojan defense harassed and frustrated Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson from the start and the Irish offense struggled to sustain drives. On the next possession, Kessler found all-purpose standout Adoree Jackson in the seam for a 16-yard touchdown and a 14-0 lead. Following a Notre Dame three and out, Kessler again found George Farmer for a 31-yard streak in the back of the end zone for a 21-0 Trojan lead. It was a coming out party for George Farmer who had very high expectations when he arrived from Gardena Serra and he is making his presence as a redshirt junior. After a Gerald Bowman interception and 24-yard return to the USC 49-yard line, the Trojans went 51 yards in six plays with Kessler hitting Darreus Rogers for a six-yard touchdown pass and a 28-0 lead. Trojan outside linebacker J.R. Tavai forced a fumble that was recovered by Hayes Pullard and Kessler went to work again with a14-yard touchdown to Nelson Agholor for an astonishing 35-0 first-half lead. Kessler and the Trojans scored on five consecutive possessions with five touchdowns in one half against the Irish. Golson was pulled from the game with 5:09 left in the half and he was replaced by sophomore Malik Zaire who was seeing his first action for the Irish. Zaire quickly led the Irish on a three-play, 64-yard touchdown drive capped by his 11-yard TD run and a 35-7 score. After a Trojan punt, Notre Dame mounted another drive but they missed a 44-yard field goal to go in 35-7 at half. USC opened the 2nd half with an 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive with Cody Kessler’s nine yard strike to Randall Telfer which broke the all-time record against Notre Dame with six touchdowns passing. After a Notre Dame punt, USC put another 11-play drive together with Justin Davis slashing for a 16-yard touchdown run and a 49-7 lead. The Irish countered with a nine-play, 75-yard touchdown drive and a 49-14 score. Trojan quarterback Max Brown and Anthony Neyer played in the 4th quarter and the Trojans ran out the clock with a dominant 49-14 win over Notre Dame.
Cody Kessler took his next step as a Trojan quarterback last Saturday. He came into the game with impressive statistics, ranked fourth nationally in completion percentage and he had amassed 30 touchdown passes with only four interceptions on the season. However, he was 0-3 against his arch-rivals over the last two seasons so this was a huge win regardless of the circumstances. A dominant win against the Irish raised the bar for Kessler and his body of work positions him for early Heisman conversation going into the 2015 season. Notre Dame may have been depleted by injuries but Kessler still stepped up on the big stage against his arch-rival. He finished his epic day 32-40 for 372 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions. He also spread the ball around to nine different receivers and the Trojan offense converted 13-18 on 3rd down. He showed urgency and decisiveness in the pocket moving away from pressure or scrambling toward the line of scrimmage with his eyes downfield. He delivered passes that were very accurate when he was in the pocket and on the run. He threaded the needle to Randall Telfer on his last touchdown pass and he threw the deep ball with precision. After a tough game against the Bruins, the Trojan offense went back into attack mode taking shots downfield with different receivers and they did not let up.
The receiving corps was led by Nelson Agholor’s 12 catches and 120 yards and one touchdown. He shook off his forgettable night against UCLA with a workmanlike performance, attacking the Irish defense. Juju Smith plays beyond his years and he finished with five catches for 48 yards. George Farmer reveled in his best day as a Trojan with four catches for 85 yards and two touchdowns. Darreus Rogers had two catches and a touchdown and the tight ends were rediscovered after being non-existent against the Bruins. Senior Randall Telfer had three catches for 28 yards and he caught his first touchdown of the season which was fitting on Senior Day. True freshman Bryce Dixon also had three catches and Buck Allen had one grab out of the backfield for 17 yards.
The offensive line rebounded from a very tough outing against the Bruins. True freshman Damien Mama started at left guard next to true freshman left tackle Toa Lobendahn. The Trojans controlled the line of scrimmage from start to finish and they were able to push the Notre Dame front around both running and passing. The movement off the line was much more effective and they were able to hit and pick up 2nd blocks consistently after getting pushed around by UCLA. It was a great game to build on for a young offensive line that is just getting started. USC utilized a balanced attack rushing for 205 yards and passing for 372 for a total of 577 yards. The Trojans employed a quick tempo against the Irish defense and it was evident that the speed took its toll against them as the game wore on. USC had 93 plays, its highest output since the opener against Fresno State with 105. Not only did they run a fast tempo, they also controlled the clock for 37:39 minutes and they ran for 15 first downs. Buck Allen rumbled for 93 yards on 19 carries for a 4.9 average and Justin Davis had 19 carries for 85 yards and a 4.3 average with one touchdown. The Trojans surrendered two sacks on the day.
The Trojan front seven was led by senior J.R. Tavai on the outside. He has been the best natural pass rusher on the team all season and he saved his best for his last game at the Coliseum. Tavai finished with four and a half tackles for losses including three and a half sacks. He also hit Golson and forced a fumble that was grabbed by Hayes Pullard. Leonard Williams had a pretty quiet day but he finished with five tackles and he is a force with the leverage he plays with inside or at end. On several plays, he disrupted the quarterback and opposing offenses always has to game plan around him. Antwaun Woods and Claude Pelon both played big up front. Woods finished with four tackles and Pelon had a hurry on the quarterback and half a sack.
Su’a Cravens continues to show tremendous athleticism and versatility with his quickness in getting to the quarterback or making plays in the backfield against the run. He finished with six tackles including one for a loss. Hayes Pullard was the catalyst causing a lot of distraction up front. With Notre Dame being vulnerable against the blitz, Coach Wilcox was effective in moving Pullard around, up near the line of scrimmage threatening the A-gaps on both sides of the center. This was a different look than USC had shown and Pullard did his best job of the season timing the snap count and disrupting the attention and rhythm of Notre Dame’s offense. He only finished with three tackles but he had one tackle for loss, forced a fumble and broke up a pass. Anthony Sarao finished with five tackles and he showed good quickness getting down the line of scrimmage. The defense still has a tendency to give up contain too often but it did not play a factor since the Irish got down early and their running game was not the primary focus.
The defensive backs were active in the running game with true freshman safety John Plattenburg and senior safety Gerald Bowman each recording seven tackles. Bowman also intercepted a pass on a deflected ball that he returned 24 yards. Adoree Jackson continues to be the best cover corner on the team but he did get beat on the Zaire’s pass before halftime that set up their first touchdown. He has been a lock down corner all season with rare versatility and he was rewarded this week with the PAC-12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year honor. Senior Josh Shaw got his first start of the season but was pretty quiet with one tackle. The Trojans were fortunate that Golson was out of sync and missed on several passes and the Irish receivers also dropped several passes by Zaire that stalled drives. Overall, it was a huge turnaround from the UCLA game and it started up front with more consistent pressure on the quarterback. They limited Notre Dame to 245 yards passing with a 41% completion percentage and two turnovers.
USC’s special teams units performed well with the kickoff coverage team getting the most action with the prolific scoring of the offense. The Trojans limited Notre Dame’s kickoff return average to 18.8 yards per return. USC only punted twice in the game with Cody Kessler pooching into the end zone after the first possession and Kris Albarado hitting another punt for 36 yards inside the 20-yard line right before halftime. Junior all-purpose special teamer George Katrib had two tackles and Leon McQuay III had a vicious hit on kickoff coverage as well.
The Trojans stopped a two game skid to Notre Dame with their 49-14 romp over the Irish. USC narrowed the overall record in the series to 45-36-5 in favor of Notre Dame. More importantly, the Trojans bounced back after an ugly loss to their cross-town rival the week prior and they showed up for the senior’s last game at the Coliseum. There were a lot of recruits at the game which certainly bodes well for next year’s recruiting class. USC got huge games from seniors J.R. Tavai, Gerald Bowman, Hayes Pullard and Randall Telfer. Five Trojans were recognized this week for all PAC-12 first team honors; Buck Allen, Su’a Cravens, Max Tuerk, Nelson Agholor, and Leonard Williams. Cody Kessler was named a finalist for the Manning Award after his incredible year which included better numbers than Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart the year they won Heismans. It is a foregone conclusion that Leonard Williams played his last home game as a Trojan with the strong likelihood that he will be a top five pick and possibly first overall in next year’s NFL draft. There is also a strong possibility of losing Nelson Agholor and Buck Allen early to the draft even with Cody Kessler’s persuasive techniques. The future is bright with three true freshmen offensive linemen starting most of the season. Two defensive backs started in the last game. Three true freshmen had catches against the Irish. There are several other true freshmen that were in the two-deep rotation for the Trojans that either started or played significant minutes this season.
It was a season with a lot of highs and lows for the Trojans but Coach Sarkisian was able to blow through the “7-win Sark” label that followed him from Washington. With a win in the bowl game, it will exceed his best 8-win season at Washington (they won 9 last year but he had already moved to USC). Coach Sarkisian did not duck the media or minimize expectations when he took the job at USC. He promised that the Trojans would compete for championships now not in a year or two. He and the program encountered numerous distractions from Josh Shaw and Anthony Brown at the start of the season to Pat Haden at Stanford, to Lendale White at Colorado, to the L.A Times printing a story about Ed Orgeron’s desire to return to Troy at the wrong time. On the field, it was a tumultuous season with a great start in the opener pounding Fresno State at a lighting pace and upsetting Stanford at the Farm in week two. The wheels came off in Beantown and the middle of the season was up and down but very frustrating not closing out winnable games vs. Arizona State, Utah, and almost Arizona. The final stretch was ugly getting beat by their cross-town rival with a conference championship on the line. The Notre Dame game righted the ship and gave the team and coaching staff some momentum going into bowl season and the crucial final stages of recruiting.
I have said it before and I will say it again, there are no excuses. The NCAA is a corrupt, biased, and injudicious organization that had a personal vendetta against USC. There is no disputing the sanctions levied against USC were egregious and heavy-handed. The lack of numbers were not cited by Coach Sarkisian but they were emphasized by USC’s sports information department often. The Trojans practiced and played with less scholarship players available for the last several seasons. However, opponents typically play with numbers in the 50’s not the 80’s. There are only 11 players on the field at one time and the NFL plays with 53 players so it is possible to prepare and play at the highest level with numbers in the 50’s.
Coach Sarkisian has had a lot of critics and a lot of “fans” and former players that have taken a wait and see approach. This is not what being a Trojan is about. It is time to get behind Coach Sarkisian right now, not once he has 11 wins. It is easy to find fault but Pete Carroll started 6-6 in year one and he did inherit a Paul Hackett team but he did not have “vice grip” sanctions to deal with. There are improvements that need to happen. The intensity and focus for finishing football games must improve. The schemes need to improve, especially in crunch time at the end of football games. The Trojans cannot go into a shell and play not to lose; they must be the attacker not the victim. They must become a better 2nd half team that makes adjustments. Coach Sarkisian says he approaches every game the same way but he cannot sweep the UCLA and Notre Dame games under the rug. Recruits will be swayed by the outcome of those games so embrace it, don’t minimize it. It is time to develop mental toughness, physicality and a never say die attitude. It is time to mold the psyche of the USC Football Team into the mindset of a champion. It is time to trust your players and go after teams. USC is not about being average. Seven or eight wins will not suffice here. The history and tradition of USC is about being a champion. It is about winning with class and humility, teamwork and discipline, leadership and heart. It is about getting to work and always striving to get better; as student athletes and as young men. It is time to support the program and we will always Fight On!