The USC Trojans came into Saturday's Pac-12 opener against the Stanford Cardinal as the No. 6 team in the nation and had aspirations of a Pac-12 title and College Football Playoff appearance on their mind. But after a 41-31 defeat in the Coliseum, the Trojans have to tighten some things up if they want to rebound and it should start with their offensive efficiency.
Coming into the game against the Cardinal, USC's efficiency was a problem that could be overlooked because the team had been dominant in their season-opening wins over the Arkansas State Red Wolves and Idaho Vandals, winning 55-6 and 55-9, respectively. But it was still an underlying issue, as USC was converting just 25 percent on third down (second-lowest rate in the Pac-12), going just 4-for-16 in the first two weeks.
Their relative inefficiency on third down wasn't a problem because the Trojans compensated with home run plays that made their overall offensive performance appear solid. There were underlying cracks, however, that weren't an issue against the lesser competition of USC's early non-conference schedule but came back to haunt them against Stanford.
On the night, USC were 4-for-10 on third down conversions which consistently stalled drives and gave the ball back to the Cardinal, who finished the night 8-of-12 on third downs. That helped the physical Stanford offense find their rhythm as the game went on and grind out long, grueling drives. The Cardinal ended the night dominating the time of possession, holding the ball for nearly 40 minutes (compared to just over 20 minutes for USC) as they ran the ball a whopping 49 times for 195 yards on the night.
The inefficiency went beyond just their struggles on third down as well. While Cody Kessler had a terrific stat line, completing 25 of 32 passes for 272 yards and three touchdowns, his numbers were inflated by a big night from Juju Smith-Schuster. Kessler completed 88.9 percent of his passes to Smith-Schuster, who finished the game with eight catches for 153 yards and a touchdown, 15 percentage points higher than any other Trojans receiver. His 17 yards per target average was three times all other USC receivers for the night combined.
Even with the gaudy stats of Smith-Schuster, however, Kessler's night was a step back in his 2015 campaign. His 8.5 yards per attempt average was significantly lower than his average in the first two games (11.4), and the offense sputtered with the game on the line while trying to rally down 10 points with just over two minutes to play.
USC's inability to sustain drives without the big play had far-reaching effects that ultimately cost them the game. Stanford gave up a couple of big plays, like Smith-Schuster's 54-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter to extend the Trojans' first-half lead to 21-10. But as the Cardinal defense clamped down on the big play, USC struggled to consistently move the ball, resulting in their second-half output of just 10 points.
On the other side of the ball, the Trojan defense paid a serious price for the offensive inefficiency as well. Without the ability sustain drives, USC had to keep sending out their defense to try and contain the bruising Stanford attack. Over time, the Trojan defense got pushed back onto their heels as fatigue became a factor.
It can be argued that the Trojans' starting defense is as talented as any in the country but depth remains an issue from the recently lifted sanctions against the program. So while the top-line talent can match up with anyone (evidenced by just seven points for Stanford in the first quarter) they are susceptible to getting worn down, particularly against a physical offense like the Cardinal. They don't have the bodies to create a viable rotation to keep their starters fresh for four quarters. They need the support of the offense to keep them on the sideline for stretches to allow them time to recover over the course of a game so they don't break down.
Stanford represented the first real test for the Trojans in their quest to return to the elite ranks of college football and they came up short. If USC doesn't figure out how to improve their offensive efficiency and become less reliant on home run plays to score points, it won't be the last time they end up on the wrong end of the scoreboard this season.