The year is 2011. Matt Barkley takes the snap and drops back two steps. UCLA sends an all-out blind side blitz, which USC reads perfectly. Robert Woods finds the opening in the zone defense. Barkley floats a pass to Woods, who walks into the end zone and USC takes an insurmountable 50-0 lead. Now the year is 2012. Barkley drops back two steps as UCLA sends an all-out blind side blitz. Woods is covered, but Barkley sees Marqise Lee streaking open towards the corner of the end zone and prepares to throw a pass he will never make. Barkley gets sacked from the blind side by Anthony Barr, sustaining an injury that would end his season and his USC career, and result in a UCLA win.
When Matt Barkley threw that pass to Woods to put USC up 50-0, he had his blind side protected by future top-five pick Matt Kalil, who gave up zero sacks in 2011. Kalil declared for the draft after the 2011 season. USC went into 2012 as the number one ranked team in the country, because everyone believed that returning key starters like the quarterback, running backs, and wide receivers with an extra year of experience would make them unstoppable. USC went 7-6 in 2012.
A similar situation occurred between USC’s 2016 and 2017 seasons. After USC won their last nine games of the 2016 season and defeated Penn State 52-49 in the 2017 Rose Bowl, three starters on the offensive line--Zach Banner, Damien Mama, and Chad Wheeler--declared for the draft. USC started the 2017 season with expectations of a national championship, and instead went a respectable but disappointing 11-3. They were hurt by a grueling twelve straight games without a bye week, but helped by a relatively easy schedule. A blowout loss to Notre Dame by the score of 49-14 and a loss to Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl by a score of 24-7 exposed their weaknesses when matched up against top opponents.
But nothing showed more of what ailed USC than the Ohio State game. USC rushed for a total of 57 yards despite having second-round draft pick Ronald Jones II at running back, and quarterback Sam Darnold was sacked eight times. USC played without starter Viane Talamaivao for that game and most of the season, and he won’t be returning in 2018. USC struggled with o-line injuries throughout 2017, forced to rely on true freshmen Austin Jackson and Andrew Vorhees. When the o-line was healthy, USC beat Stanford 42-24. But when injuries depleted the line, USC’s offense struggled. Against Texas, a team that gave up 51 points to Maryland, USC managed just 27 points in two overtimes.
Heading into the 2018 season, much of the media seems to be focused on just one storyline for USC football: starting quarterback. Big shoes do need to be filled with the departure of third overall pick Sam Darnold, but everyone seems to only talk about quarterbacks Matt Fink, Jack Sears, and highly-touted J.T. Daniels, or wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown. But senior and leader Toa Lobendahn, redshirt senior Chris Brown, senior Chuma Edoga, and sophomores Andrew Vorhees and Austin Jackson are the true X factors. Everyone continues to ask questions like “who will be USC’s quarterback?” or “will St. Brown start right away?” or “is this the best group of linebackers USC has ever had?” But here are the two most important questions heading into the 2018 season: can USC’s offensive line stay healthy, and can they protect that new quarterback, whoever that might be. Ultimately, away from the glaring media spotlight, it will be the “big uglies” and not the star skill players that will make or break USC’s 2018 season.