The first game of the Steve Sarkisian era for USC was a rousing success. I will never forget the moment after the first quarter ended, USC ahead 21-0, and the standing ovation the crowd gave for the Trojan football program.
There was the feeling that this celebration wasn't just about that day, or the fact that USC was ahead on the scoreboard, but rather for the new life and hope brought back to USC with Sarkisian. Gone are the days of the sanctions, Lane Kiffin, and mediocrity.
With Sarkisian has come new life for the USC football team and the entire student body, as we now have something to look forward to every Saturday without reserve or caveat.
That being said, there were both good and bad aspects of Saturday's game that I saw from my seat around the 30-yard line. Here are my observations:
- Sarkisian's offense is based on simple decision-making, and is very similar to Chip Kelly's system in that aspect. The offense creates easy throws for the quarterback to receivers who most of the time are wide open in the flat, and if the receivers are being guarded closely, the quarterback simply hands the ball to the running back.
Cody Kessler is perfect for this system -- while he lacks experience, he makes up for it with his arm strength and physical ability. There were still a couple times where I thought Kessler committed to his decision too early without letting the play play itself out, which is fine against Fresno State, but may be an issue against tougher competition. He should get more comfortable and fluid as the season goes on.
- Something else I noticed about the offense: usually you’ll see a zone-based running attack in an offense like Sarkisian’s, but there were a lot of pulling linemen, suggesting more power-running. This would make sense, since power running has been offensive line coach Tim Drevno’s specialty under Jim Harbaugh with the 49ers.
However, there is definitely room to improve the run blocking, as it wasn’t as consistent as it could have been, especially against a lower-level opponent like Fresno State. Expect more wrinkles (such as a tight end seam pass as a third option after the play action and screen fakes) to be added for Stanford.
- Wide receiver JuJu Smith obviously had a tremendous debut, to say the least. He isn't USC’s best receiver as of right now — that title still goes to Nelson Agholor and his excellent speed and route-running abilities. But I think Smith’s size/speed combination gives him a higher ceiling than Agholor, and I expect Smith to be an elite NCAA receiver maybe even as soon as next year. Watching him run reminds me of NFL receivers Josh Gordon and Cordarrelle Patterson — long strides and deceptively fast.
- The blocking of the wide receivers is extremely important in Sarkisian’s offense that relies so much on wide receiver screens and passes into the flat. Against the Bulldogs this blocking was good enough, but there were times when receivers couldn’t quite seal off their assigned defenders. That won’t work against Stanford, who excels at containing the flat. Fresno State was nice, but the real test for Sarkisian’s offense will come next game against one of the best coaching staffs in the country.
- Su'a Cravens played an interesting and important role in containing the Fresno St. spread offense. He was asked to defend the flat on the playside, meaning he had the responsibility of containing the outside run and/or fighting through blocks to make the tackle on receivers in the screen game. Cravens is listed as a safety, but one of his most valuable roles this season will be at the line of scrimmage showing his versatility and tackling ability.
- USC’s base defense appeared to be in a 3-4 throughout the game. They went to sub-packages plenty, but I was surprised we didn’t see more 4-3 looks and multiplicity of the defensive line when in base defense. Leonard Williams’ role was even more curious to me. It seemed as though his primary job in base defense was to play two gaps against the run instead of playing just one gap which is more conducive to rushing the passer.
While Williams is definitely capable and skilled at doing so — there was a sequence in the second half where Fresno State ran at Williams’ side three straight plays in a row, and Williams was in on the tackle all three times including a fourth down stop. This role for him doesn’t seem to me like the best way of deploying one of the best defensive linemen in the country. I would rather see Williams line up and attack the gap between the guard and the tackle, creating havoc in the backfield and helping a pass rush that didn’t look all that great against the Bulldogs.
- Tight end seems to be a position of issue for the Trojans in multiple ways. Besides Bryce Dixon’s 22-yard touchdown catch, tight ends weren’t involved much in the passing game. Also, there were multiple instances where I saw tight ends miss blocks in the run game that caused the play to be stopped in the backfield.
Overall, Saturday was very encouraging for the Trojans. The talent level of this football team is superb, and the offensive system is cutting-edge. This weekend against Stanford will be one of the toughest, if not the toughest, tests for this team at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. It'll be strength vs. strength. We'll see if USC is ready for national conversation yet.