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Observations From USC's Dominant Home Finale

While dominant efforts up front on both sides of the ball spurred the Trojans to victory, mental errors still leave some cause for concern.

J.R. Tavai and co. contained and sacked the Notre Dame quarterbacks all game long.
J.R. Tavai and co. contained and sacked the Notre Dame quarterbacks all game long.
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

After a momentous victory over a historic rivalry school, the USC Trojans and their fans should be happy today. But instead, the feeling is almost bittersweet, as the Trojan dominance of yesterday showed what this team is capable of, and what could have been this season.

In other words: how did this team get blown out by UCLA? Why did the Trojans lose any games, with the kind of upside they're capable of?

It's no secret that the coaching of this USC team has been downright laughable at times, and it really is too bad that this talented team was held back in that way. But in only year one, any new coach would be expected to make some mistakes, and Steve Sarkisian and his crew have unquestioned job security, for now. Let's just hope this trend won't end up being Sark's legacy.

And finally, your observations from yesterday's win over Notre Dame:

  • Defensively, there were both really good and really bad parts to this game. Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox blitzed more than I've seen him do all year, especially sending linebacker Hayes Pullard right up the middle. Blitzing or at least showing pre-snap pressure every now and then keeps an offense honest and helps throw a quarterback off his game too. Doing more of this in the future would be wise of WIlcox.

    Also in the "good" category was the way the defensive line and front seven played. I don't know if it was on purpose or just as a result of the scheme, but it seemed as though there was a defensive end/linebacker (either J.R. Tavai or Su'a Cravens) lined up on the line of scrimmage right next to Leonard Williams more often than has been seen in the past.

    This opens up a number of advantages for the defense when rushing the passer: 1) It puts both Williams and the end in one-on-one matchups instead of allowing Williams to get double-teamed. 2) It could also force the offense to put either a tight end or a running back to Williams' side to help in pass protection and avoid these single matchups. 3) It allows Williams to "one-gap" instead of "two-gap" as he usually does since the end is there to help in run defense, which lets Williams get upfield in a hurry instead of playing the run first.  4) And finally Williams and the end can run a TE stunt (much as Justin Smith and Aldon Smith do often with the San Francisco 49ers) which is very effective when the tackle is as good as moving people as Leonard Williams is. So yeah, putting Big Leonard in positions to make other people better is pretty useful.
  • On the bad side, the USC secondary makes way too many damn mistakes. The coaching job in the secondary had been downright abominable at times this year, including a sequence of about five game-clock minutes against Notre Dame when USC blew THE SAME COVERAGE, TWICE. It appeared either Josh Shaw was supposed to carry the receiver deep or the safety was supposed to pick him up, but instead Shaw stayed shallow and the safety ran toward the middle of the field, leaving the deep receiver wide-freaking-open. Twice. USC was lucky Everett Golson's accuracy is terrible, or else it could have gone for touchdowns both times.

    This talented secondary has blown coverages too many times this year, most notably against Arizona State (Hail Mary) and UCLA. That falls on the coaches to make sure their players' assignments are second nature to them. Justin Wilcox and defensive backs coach Keith Heyward need to do some self-scouting this off-season, because understanding assignments and not leaving guys running wide open should never be an issue for a high-level football team. I could rant more, but you get the point.
  • As I alluded to before, the front seven played a fantastic game. Not only did they get after the quarterback, but they did a great job of containing the athletic Notre Dame passers, not letting them get outside the pocket, improvise, and make plays. J.R. Tavai might have been helped out by Leonard Williams at times, but he also was fantastic on his own, bending around the edge and being relentless.
  • On offense, Steve Sarkisian called a brilliant game. He was so diverse in his playcalling, and the early touchdown to Adoree' Jackson, who ran a route over the middle covered by a linebacker, was basically all Sark, who got Jackson in that matchup. George Farmer is also going to be a really good -- if not great -- Trojan receiver. The dude is so big and fast, he and JuJu Smith should be a lethal combination next year. Also, even though he didn't have a great game, Bryce Dixon is an intriguing matchup player and should add an interesting element to the offense in the near future.
  • Much better work by the offensive line against Notre Dame than against UCLA. Power run blocking was on point, and Cody Kessler had all the time he needed.
  • Speaking of Kessler, he throws one hell of a deep ball. He's also a "sneaky athlete," and by that I mean he is excellent at moving around in the pocket and can even gain some yards with his feet when he has to. I'm very excited to see how he grows for next year.

Anticipation is already high for next year, but the bowl game will be interesting to see if the Trojans can string together two winning performances.