The Trojans have the week off with their next game coming next Thursday, October 4, against the Utah Utes in Salt Lake City.
We posed some questions to our staff regarding the team's overall play, the biggest surprise and disappointment so far this season, whether the inconsistencies of the passing game is cause for concern and where USC could be come January.
Let's take a look:
1. Heading into the bye week, what grade do you give the team for their play? Why?
Shotgun Spratling: B-. To have been a preseason BCS Championship frontrunner, the Trojans surely haven't shown it. They have yet to put together a full game and have looked downright average for the majority of the first four games.
DC Trojan: B. They've had flashes of quality, they've had moments of debacle, but they look like they're moving in the right direction in the wake of the Cal game. Effort *and* improvement count for a lot.
Will Robinson: I'll give 'em a B-. Mostly, it's been a positive showing from the Trojans, but there have been signs of concern. You know, like how badly the offensive line was manhandled against Stanford and the inability to put Syracuse away. Hawaii and Cal had some excellent signs. But this team has plenty of room to grow.
Joey Kaufman: C. USC won the three games it was favored by double digits. The one game dubbed a "trap game," it got spanked and failed to register a single point over the final 40 minutes. Because of the preseason expectations, and the hype, and the hoopla, that's pretty disappointing for this program, and so I'd call it an average performance all in all to say the least. If someone told you in August, USC would be ranked 13th in both polls after four weeks, I'm not sure any other label would be more appropriate.
Trevor Wong: C. Like Joey said, the Trojans have been just average. I haven't been impressed by their play all season and they've yet to put together a full 60 minutes of good, solid football. Even after its loss against Stanford, I expected them to really come out and make a statement against Cal. But even that game was a lot closer than the score indicated. Yes, there are plenty of games left on the schedule, but USC also still has much to improve upon.
2. Which player has been the biggest surprise through four games this season? Which player has been the biggest disappointment?
Shotgun Spratling: The obvious answer is the "Silent Assassin" Morgan Breslin. His relentless pressure has helped turn one of the team's biggest question marks into one of its greatest strengths. George Uko and Antwuan Woods also deserve credit for the yeoman's work they've been doing in the middle.
The biggest disappointment is more difficult because there are multiple options, but I'm going with the Matt Barkley to Robert Woods connection. Not only are Woods' numbers way down, but the two upperclassmen haven't been on the same page all season. Perhaps it's just because Woods has still been limited in practice and the duo's timing is off, but it has become a common to see the both of them puzzled by what the other did after an incompletion or one of the three interceptions Barkley has thrown originally intended for Woods.
DC Trojan: Just because I wasn't paying attention to transfers, I'm going to agree with those who have picked Morgan Breslin. He has added a great deal both in overall productivity and also by modeling a style of play that's fast and aggressive but not berserker and flag-drawing. He's been a great addition.
Biggest disappointment: coaches in game. I think they've been managing the overall trajectory of the team off the field pretty well, but I am concerned about the overall game plans and the lack of adjustments in games. One of the pleasant surprises of the 2011 season was the dramatic improvement in coaching several games in, and I had hoped that they would pick up from there. It's not that they're doing an awful job, but that's what has disappointed me.
Will Robinson: It sounds like a clichéd answer, but it has to be Morgan Breslin, right? He's been nothing short of a revelation in what everyone thought was the weakest part of the roster after Silas Redd transferred. He's just what the D-line needed.
Alternatively, Robert Woods has been disappointing. Though it has not been entirely his fault. Matt Barkley and Lane Kiffin seem enamored with the new Ferrari in the garage in Marqise Lee, and it shows. Woods isn't even close to his pace from last year, which is anything but surprising. But he's not even with spitting range, which is disconcerting. On another note, Aundrey Walker hasn't even been Matt Kalil lite thus far. With all that talk about him losing weight and getting it together, that's a bit of a letdown.
Joey Kaufman: Morgan Breslin's the obvious answer here and for good reason, posting 5.5 sacks on the season and creating a ton of pressure on guys (to check references, try Zach Mayanrd). For the sake of spreading around credit, I'll also mention Leonard Williams, who's certainly been impressive in his own right. A freshman, Williams has played a ton of minutes in the interior and has totaled four sacks - with two coming last Saturday against Cal. He should be a fixture for ‘SC as well over the coming seasons.
In my mind, the biggest disappointment is the offensive line and by quite a bit. Remember, this unit was returning four of its five starters from 2011. And even minus Matt Khalil (NFL Draft) and Khaled Holmes (injury issues) at times, the unit looks as if it has regressed considerably. Marcus Martin was listed as "out" for Cal for whatever reason and has struggled. For a variety of reasons, conditioning being one of them, Aundrey Walker hasn't established a handle on the left tackle position. And Kevin Graf continues to have issues against some of the quicker ends. A year ago, the Trojans gave up just eight sacks, tied for best nationally. How many has it given up through a third of the 2012 season? That'd be seven.
Trevor Wong: It has to be Morgan Breslin. Every other play, he seems to be in the opponent's backfield. He's relentless, he has a high motor and he's really solidified USC's defensive line that was once a question mark heading into the season.
As for disappointing, I'm going to say Robert Woods, too. I don't want to put all the blame on the guy because some of it he really can't control. For one, Barkley and Woods have had all sorts of communication problems through the first four games. Remember that Woods missed all of fall camp and he's yet to practice a full week this season. I'm not so sure Kiffin has been trying to use Woods in the most effective ways, either. Whatever the case might be, Woods just hasn't really looked like the same guy everybody saw last season, even though he played with a bum ankle.
3. Is the lack of the so-called "sexy" passing numbers against Cal worrisome? Or, will Barkley and Co. get back on track soon enough?
Shotgun Spratling: There was something very worrisome in the Cal game, but it wasn't the lack of pretty passing stats. It was the turnovers -- two more INTs and more fumble issues from the running backs. I also fear what would have happened if Zach Maynard was an adequate passer. Cal's receivers were often able to get the necessary separation, but Maynard time and again didn't deliver the pass where it needed to be. Both interceptions were very poor throws. On the first, the receiver found the soft spot of the Cover Two between the corner and safety, but Maynard overshot him by a good five or more yards. On TJ McDonald's redzone INT, Bryce Treggs was wide open in the end zone twice, but Maynard never saw him.
DC Trojan: It's cause for concern that Woods and Barkley are both having occasional individual struggles and also not doing a great job of connecting during games. Some portion of that has to be from Woods' recovering from injury. The passing game can be made more productive both by practice and perhaps by some more imaginative play-calling.
Will Robinson: Eh. It's worrisome but not a giant deal. Teams don't want to get embarrassed by the Barkley/Woods/Lee triforce and have been playing them as such because the running game couldn't get jump-started. Well, if last week was any indication, opponents won't be able to sit back and open up running lanes for Redd and Curtis McNeal. The passing attack's stats will improve.
Joey Kaufman: It's troubling for sure. A year ago to date, Matt Barkley was completing 68.5 percent of his passes. He's at 61.5 percent this season. And the passing game, for whatever reason, hasn't really been vertical at all, either. But I'm less concerned with the touchdown-to-interception ration and the seemingly sharp decline in efficiency from Barkley. If they're going to climb the national ladder and really get back in the race, No. 7 is going to have shoulder the load.
Trevor Wong: Yes, it is concerning. Barkley has been the victim of numerous dropped balls from his receivers, but at the same time, I don't think he's been all that accurate, either. USC's aerial attack has certainly been lacking. Despite this, though, I still think the passing game will get it together soon. But I also think Lane Kiffin needs to use tight ends Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer more. You get those two involved and that should create more space and more favorable matchups for Woods and Lee on the outside.
4. At 3-1, has this USC team underachieved or is it still positioned well to make a BCS title run?
Shotgun Spratling: USC has underachieved to this point, but the good thing is that they can still redeem this season. Last season, the Trojans were able to go on a late-season run as they gelled and even found a little swagger. There's nothing stopping this year's squad from doing the same. Of course, it would help if they could stay healthy at key positions.
DC Trojan: Given their depth issues and the speed with which opposing teams have worked to shut down Woods and Lee, I don't know that "underachieved" is a word I would use. I don't see this team getting to a national championship game. They could theoretically win the conference, but that would require beating Oregon at least once (in the conference championship game), and Oregon is, unfortunately, very well positioned to exploit SC's lack of depth by rotation of their defense, who seem to be getting bigger but remaining fast.
Will Robinson: Considering how this whole season came about due to Barkley's return and "unfinished business," it has underwhelmed and failed to meet expectations thus far. With that being said, there's still plenty of time left. It will be a challenge for them to make an appearance in Pasadena to battle for Roses -- a trip to Miami will be even tougher. But with 66% of the season left, to quote the sage Kevin Garnett, "Anything is possible."
Joey Kaufman: It's still in position, but mind you, no one-loss team from the Pac-10/Pac-12 has ever played its way into the BCS national game. So the odds really aren't in their favor here. That said, I think, because of what their strength of schedule would look like, that they'll have a chance to play their way back to South Beach.
Trevor Wong: USC has certainly underachieved through four games, but at the same time, I guess you can also say they haven't quite lived up to expectations. How many people pegged the Trojans barely putting away Syracuse, losing at Stanford and struggling with Cal? Not many. The talent is obviously there; the team just hasn't really clicked yet. They're still in position to make a BCS title run. If there was any consolation from that Stanford loss, it's that USC lost early in the season. It still has time to make up ground, and the way the conference is shaping up, some later games on the slate could turn out to be quality wins that could boost its resume for a date in South Beach in January.