The Trojans have one final off day before taking the field under Ed Orgeron, but that will not slow the rigorous preparation process for development of this program. It all begins on offense with the starting quarterback, but this team will need to improve their play on all three sides of the ball if they want to win their first game in conference play.
1. Cody Kessler must become the predominant leader on offense
Throughout the early portions of the season, the emergence of Cody Kessler over Max Wittek has been the biggest story line but also the most controversial saga for the growth of this USC offense. Now in the midst of preparation for his six game under center as the starting quarterback, Kessler aims to bring some consistency and dependability to the position by sustaining long drives with his arm and legs. Surprisingly enough, Kessler passed for nearly 300 yards last week while distributing the football to seven different weapons on offense, a formula that has proven to be rather successful when utilized properly. Combine that with quarterbacks coach Clay Helton calling plays and the Trojans will need to establish the play-action passing game much like the 15-17 passing performance against Boston College.
2. Playmakers must emerge on the outside
As Marqise Lee fell to the ground against Arizona State returning yet another wild and frantic punt, a wide-spread moment of silence and fear dawned through the sideline leaving players rather concerned over the health of their captain. With Lee's status relatively unknown, the Trojans will now need outside weapons Nelson Agholor, Victor Blackwell and De'Von Flourney to emerge as pass-catching weapons, especially against tight press coverage. Combine Lee's recent setback along with the crushing loss to Darreus Rogers against Boston College, and the Trojans are hurting for any type of bonafide deep threat. While the offense should certainly be curtailed to this change of skill level, the fact remains that USC can still hurt teams over the middle with sharp intermediate route runners like Flourney and Agholor.
3. Defensive line must return to top-notch form
Entering the road tilt as one of the best run-stuffing units and pass-rushing demons in the nation, USC's defensive line came out rather flat against Arizona State. While Leonard Williams ran like a middle linebacker out on defense chasing down Taylor Kelly, the fact remains that little pressure was forced up the middle, or from the outside threats of Devon Kennard and Morgan Breslin for that matter. Through the first four games of the season, the Trojans were stuffing the run by forcing pressure up the middle, and wreaking havoc from the outside speed and power rush. Due to the emergence of high-powered spread option attacks, the Trojans front seven looked a step slow all evening long, and will need to regain their swagger on the line of scrimmage against a much formidable Pac-12 slate. Despite the recent struggles the talent certainly exists, along with a proven coach who can make adjustments, to take this defense back to the upper ranks of college football.
4. Trojans must find ways to stop compounding mistakes
The mantra under head coach Lane Kiffin was to not turn the football over, make plays to move the chains and stop committing costly penalties on both sides of the ball. Through the seasons first five games, the Trojans have held a mixed bag of results, most notably allowing two interceptions returned for touchdowns, which negatively highlighted the Trojans two losses this season. In each of the last three games USC has actually won the penalty battle, which in part speaks to the growing discipline on both sides of the ball. But that being said, poor assignments on the defensive side of the ball in pass coverage, and sloppy play against opposing screen looks has been excruciating to watch unfold. Returning home to a place USC has only allowed 28 points all season will certainly help, but the intensity must come out to play from the opening kick. Along with some fun-filled antics under the watch of always fiery Coach Orgeron.
5. Injuries taking their tole, especially at cornerback position
The Trojans have vastly struggled in one-on-one passing situations down the sideline, especially in their last two games as we have seen by the deep-hitting pass plays from Chuckie Keeton and Taylor Kelly. Unfortunately things may not be looking better in terms of depth at the cornerback position, with concerns limiting Anthony Brown, Kevon Seymour and Devian Shelton, who is now officially out for the season. On that note, the Trojans have been forced to rotate Josh Shaw back at corner -not his natural position- and have been giving Torin Harris, an improving corner by no means above average playmaker, more playing time in the secondary. While the hits keep on coming opposing teams will not take matters lightly and thus will continue to test the Trojans on the outside with long and athletic wide receiving threats.
BIG POINT MOVING FORWARD
The question becomes, what can the Trojans adjust in their game for the final eight games of the season? Times may seem rather bleak for USC (3-2, 0-2), but that doesn't mean players will give up on a rather exciting season thus far to say the least, this collective group wants to right the ship and prove they can win with or without Lane Kiffin.