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USC vs. Fresno State: Looking Back on it

Fresno State played USC close. But whether this truly indicates the strength of this USC team is a question of how you think about USC’s game plan after Daniels went out. With a limited sample of the actual air raid, here are three takeaways looking back on it.

NCAA Football: Fresno State at Southern California Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

In many respects, USC’s tight win against Fresno State should have been a blowout by multiple scores. In others, USC did not deserve to be comfortably ahead for the vast majority of the game. But that’s what football teaches us. Anything can happen. Any given Saturday.

On the first play of the game, Velus Jones Jr. broke open a 60 yard return, setting the Trojans up with perhaps the most exciting opening play a fan could hope for. That was the case, until the return was called back as the Trojans had two players with the number seven on the field at the time during the return. That’s the type of mental error reminiscent of last season’s 5-7 disaster.

But it was also Velus Jones Jr.’s 100 yard return in the third quarter to bring USC to a comfortable 24-13 lead. Thing is, USC only score once for the remaining quarter and a half of the game. Who knows where USC would be in this game without Jones Jr., who was in the transfer portal before electing to come back to USC.

With the dramatics out of the way, here are three takeaways to bring into the Stanford game.

Running: Back!

With JT Daniels out and Kedon Slovis in, the coaching staff decided it was in USC’s best interest to just hold on for dear life. Offensive play calling was understandably conservative. If I hadn’t had PTSD from last season, I would be OK with the USC offense only scoring once in the second half.

So in the interim, we got a good look at the USC running game on Saturday. With true freshman backup Kedon Slovis in the game, Fresno State knew USC was trying to run. But with the trio of Amon-Ra St. Brown, Michael Pittman Jr., and Tyler Vaughns at receiver, Fresno State was unable to load up too much in the box.

The result is an air raid offense that puts up 175 yards on the ground, with Vavae Malepeai leading the pack with 134 yards for an average of 5.8 yards a carry. It seemed that whenever USC wanted to, it could gash Fresno State between the tackles with a Malepeai run. Whether Fresno State saw it coming or not, Malepeai made them pay on the ground.

Perhaps more impactful, however, was Stephen Carr. Carr had 56 yards rushing and 43 yards through the air, and proved to be an unstoppable receiving threat out of the backfield. On the 18 yard line during the first drive of the game, JT Daniels saw his receiving options open and checked down to Carr, who scampered for ten yards. And the Trojans got the same look the next play. Red-zone gains to Carr of ten and eight were something that USC fans were dying to see last season.

The offense takes on distinctly different qualities when one runningback or the other is in the backfield. The vast majority of Malepeai’s runs came between the tackles, wheras Carr preferred to take advantage of open space and bounce runs outside. Carr is also the more gifted pass catcher, though Malepeai did have one critical red zone reception to set the Trojans up with a first down in the second quarter. Although each back has his own strengths, Harrell made sure to mix things up as well. Carr ran between the tackles from 19 yards out to put USC up 14-0. The other was a long 27 yard run. Staying multi-dimensional regardless of which runningback was on the field stopped Fresno State from being able to key in on just one part of the field.

After so much has been made of the air raid system and USC’s receivers, it was the runningbacks who pushed the Trojans over the top against Fresno State. Who knows whether the offensive line will be able to support this production against Stanford. But for now, the USC rushing attack and runningbacks have their time to shine.

Where are the linebackers?

So USC’s defensive front seven has been heralded as one of its best position groups. Yet against Fresno State, it seemed as though the secondary was the stronger unit.

Granted, the USC defensive line showed up and showed out. Freshly minted senior captain Christian Rector had one sack and one tackle for loss, though I’m not ready to declare him “back” after putting up a disappointing 2018 season. Freshman phenom Drake Jackson made us all believe that he, and not Kayvon Thibodeaux, should have been the most heralded defensive lineman coming out of high school. Hunter Echols caused havoc by applying pressure and moving around in blitz packages. His pressure from the right edge on the last play of the game caused a premature throw, leading to Isaiah Pola-Mao’s game ending interception. On balance, USC got pressure whenever it wanted to. There were some issues finishing sacks, but that seems like nitpicking. Interior pass rush came sporadically, but interior lineman did a great job containing runs up the middle, holding Fresno State runningbacks to under 100 yards rushing.

So all good news so far. What went wrong?

Well, bulldog runningbacks were leashed, but the quarterback was not. Fresno State quarterback Jorge Reyna took what he was given and ran for 88 yards. And that’s including the negative yardage accounted for in sacks.

This run by Reyna was particularly embarrassing. First, Rector has an easy sack with his hands around Reyna’s waist but misses the tackle. After that, it is obviously Palaie Gaoteote’s assignment to get the quarterback. A quarterback with his first solid start as a senior versus a Trojan who has been compared to Rey Maualuga? This should be money in the bank.

Instead, Gaoteote overpursues his angle and Reyna blows right past him. These are the backbreaking plays that Trojan linebackers simply cannot give up. If Gaoteote and co. shut down Reyna’s rushing ability, USC likely keeps Fresno State under 20 points on the night.

If USC wants to make a serious run at the Pac-12, it must get past teams like Arizona with Khalil Tate and UCLA with Dorian Thompson-Robinson. USC must get a handle on running quarterbacks, and Pac-12 running quarterbacks will be more formidable than Mountain West quarterbacks.

The Young DB’s are Showing Out

So Reyna had a great day with his feet. Its a good thing that he was limited through the air. USC limited Jorge Reyna to a putrid 19 completions for 39 attempts. That’s a 48.7% completion percentage and a 31.8 QBR.

One of USC’s bigger storylines this past offseason has been the battle for number two corner. Sophomore Olaijah Griffin, a former five star recruit, had locked up the number one cornerback spot after missing most of the 2018 season with injury. So the battle for number two corner came down to five-star freshman Chris Steele and redshirt freshman Isaac Taylor-Stuart. Though Steele was the big name in the recruiting pool, ITS is both a bigger and faster athlete than Steele. ITS spent spring camp lining up across from Michael Pittman, and to my eye, he did not seem to be at a physical disadvantage.

So it didn’t come as a surprise to me as ITS thoroughly outplayed Steele. Steele gave up Fresno State’s lone air strike on the day, and struggled to get off of his block when Fresno State ran a speed sweep in his direction. On two other plays, Steele and Griffin got beat by a half step deep, but Jorge Reyna was unable to deliver the ball where it needed to be.

Other than those gaffe’s, USC’s secondary was lights out. Fresno State got nothing out of short, intermediate, or long routes. Trojan cornerbacks were there to make sure that if the ball was caught, there was little to no yardage gained after the catch. Even Greg Johnson, USC’s slot corner, held his own for the most part. USC’s corner group is uber talented. The expectation was that the talent would come through, but so would the rookie mistakes. What was most impressive was that there were no rookie mistakes. Griffin, ITS, and Johnson played with poise beyond their years. This was a fantastic first showing by the USC corners.

Not to be outdone, safeties Talanoa Hufunga and Isaiah Pola-Mao were everywhere on the field. Hufunga continued his impressive play from last season with eight tackles. One welcome change from last year was USC’s improved blitz package. When USC brought Pola-Mao on a blitz, he sacked Reyna. And that wasn’t his most impactful play of the game.

In a single score game and two minutes left in regulation, Fresno State was knocking on the door in the redzone. This play is not as incredible on the broadcast as it was in the stadium. From my vantage point, it looked like Reyna had his receiver open with ITS totally beat. There didn’t seem to be a defender in sight. With the ball in the air, my only thoughts were that USC had blown another halftime lead.

And then Pola-Mao comes out of nowhere to intercept the ball. The broadcast cameras catch him when he’s just on top of the play, but you can see how fast he’s moving to get to the ball. This play felt like Jason McCourty’s save out of nowhere to keep the Rams out of the end zone in the Super Bowl.

So with a dominant running game, strong secondary, and a defensive front seven with pedigree, the only question marks entering USC’s upcoming game against Stanford is how Kedon Slovis works with Graham Harrell’s air raid. But from a personnel standpoint, there are many reasons to be optimistic about this USC team. The score against Fresno State does not reflect it, but when JT Daniels went out, the Trojans had outgained the Bulldogs by almost 200 yards. Conservative play calling when Slovis entered was what made the game close.

Now against the Cardinal, the gloves come off.