First and foremost, prayers go out to Stafon Johnson who had a freak weightlifting accident Monday in the weight room before practice. He was bench pressing 275 pounds when the bar rolled out of his hand and landed directly on his throat. He was rushed to the hospital and had seven hours of emergency surgery. The update today is that he is expected to make a full recovery but will not be playing football this season. His talent is a tremendous loss for the team, but more importantly his leadership and heart will be missed this season.
The fourth week of the 2009 college football season is in the books. It was another surprising weekend of upsets with Cal getting clobbered at Oregon 42-3. This will not be indicative of the Cal team that the Trojans will face this coming Saturday. Stanford is making a case that it will be a contender in the conference with a convincing win over the Washington. An improved Arizona beat Oregon State on the road, which also was a surprise. The Sun Devils went down to Georgia but came up short, losing by three and not helping the conference's cause against the SEC.
Overall, the top-10-ranked, unbeaten teams continue to fall. Early on, third-ranked Oklahoma lost to BYU, third-ranked USC promptly lost to Washington, fourth-ranked Ole Miss lost to South Carolina, fifth-ranked Penn State lost to Iowa at home, sixth-ranked Cal ran into the buzz saw at Oregon and ninth-ranked Miami got smacked by Virginia Tech. The Trojans are in a very fortunate position of being ranked seventh two weeks removed from their ugly loss in Seattle.
Here are some big games to be watching for: Oct. 10, Florida vs. LSU in Baton Rouge, Alabama vs. LSU Nov. 10 in Tuscaloosa, and Alabama vs. Auburn Nov. 27 at Auburn. The SEC championship will be played Dec. 5 in Atlanta. Texas vs. Oklahoma in Dallas Oct. 17 and Texas at Texas A & M Nov. 27 in College Station and the Big 12 Championship Dec. 5 are also important for USC. Boise State has a pretty clear path after beating Oregon and Fresno State. Of course, none of these games have any consequence if the Trojans don't take care of their own business.
This will be a very big weekend in Pac-10 football, and it will tell us a lot about the title race. The Trojans are squaring off against Cal, with both teams in must-win situations, has huge implications. Even with their humbling defeat in Eugene, Cal will come in fired up, backs against the wall, with something to prove. UCLA at Stanford will also tell us a lot.
The Trojans came into last Saturday night's game needing to improve in a number of areas as they move into the heart of the schedule. USC needed to address four key areas going into the Washington State game: turnover margin, third down efficiency, converting in the red zone and penalties. It was a beautiful game for the first quarter. Aside from being penalized seven times for 75 yards, the Trojans came out with a more aggressive offense for the first time this season. They moved the ball at will in the first quarter, and Matt Barkley quickly showed that his shoulder was feeling much better than expected. The game plan called for pass plays down field, which will be imperative going forward to execute the "balanced offense" that Coach Pete Carroll has been talking about.
After the first touchdown drive capped by Joe McKnight strolling into the end zone untouched, Barkley hit pay dirt with a beautifully thrown post corner route to Brice Butler for a touchdown. This was the first career touchdown catch for Butler, and it is important that the Trojans have another receiver in addition to Damian Williams step up and start to gain confidence. After a surprising onside kick by Jacob Harfman that he recovered himself, Barkley displayed poise standing in the pocket and delivering a strike under pressure to Williams for a 57 yard score. This is what the Trojans will need to continue to do as the season progresses, and they will need to have some different players step up with the opportunities that they may get. Also, young Barkley will need to continue to take what the defense gives him and utilize his different weapons. He needs to continue to display the poise and confidence that he has exemplified so far.
Some positives on the offensive side of the ball included the play of Allen Bradford who finished with six carries for 55 yards and a 9.2 average per carry. With Stafon Johnson's brutal injury, look for Bradford to have increased playing time. When he picks up steam, he is a runaway locomotive that can run over you or past you. McKnight will likely start and get the majority of the early reps, and C.J. Gable might get back into the rotation depending on the flow of the game. It was also great to see Stanley Havili creating mismatches in space with three catches for 46 yards and the tight ends had two catches for 23 and 40 yards, respectively.
The play after the first quarter certainly left a lot to be desired and quickly reminded all of us that we are going to need to get better quickly. The Trojan defense was on the field a lot of the second quarter after Washington State found the quarterback of the future for their program. Jeff Tuel, a true freshman, did not get much credit after the game, but he replaced their veteran and made a number of plays against the stingy Trojan defense. He consistently made plays with his legs and a couple of key completions to convert third downs. Washington State won the time of possession battle 36:09 to 23:51 and out-gained USC in first downs 18-14. The Trojans again were largely ineffective on third down, converting only 3 of 9. They are currently No.114 in the country for third down conversions at 25%. The Trojans also had 13 penalties for 115 yards. Williams coughed up the football in the second quarter, and Aaron Corp was stripped of the ball in the fourth. These mistakes may not cost them games against the likes of San Jose State or an improved Washington State (whom the Trojans demolished last year 69-0 in Pullman), but as we have already seen what happened on the road in Seattle, this will not get it done this year in October. Through four games this season, the Trojans have had eight turnovers, six lost fumbles and two interceptions. They did have two fumble recoveries, and Josh Pinkard had a late interception to give the Trojans six takeaways for the year and a minus-two turnover margin.
The lack of red zone efficiency has now also joined the three other key areas of concern that the Trojans will need to address. There were two separate opportunities of first-and-goals inside the 5-yard line in which drives stalled on a dropped pass and a tackle for loss on fourth down. This is coming a week after several turnovers inside the red zone at Washington. If they had finished these drives with touchdowns and converted the missed field goal and the bobbled snap/missed extra point, the Trojans would have scored 45 points. It will be crucial for all of these areas and the attention to detail to be improved upon to give them a shot to reach their potential this season. The Trojans must protect the ball, must eliminate stupid penalties, score in the red zone and convert third downs and move the chains.
I anticipate that opponents will continue to force the Trojans to beat them with the pass and will continue to stack the box and take away the run. The dominant offensive line will continue to get better and play like they are capable of playing. They need to utilize their athleticism, discipline, and maintain position so they are not overextended and need to hold. It will be critical, especially on the road in October, not to be putting this developing offense in difficult first-and-20 situations with unnecessary holding penalties. As defenses start to bring more pressure, the Trojans need to develop some screens and draws that will counteract teams pinning their ears back and coming after the quarterback. As they establish the run by pounding the ball, they will also have opportunities to run play-action passes and find opportunities behind the defense.
The defense played a solid game. They held the Cougars to 85 net yards rushing, had two fumble recoveries and a pick by Pinkard, as well as 8 sacks on the night. Michael Morgan recorded 2.5 sacks and Nick Perry had two more sacks running his total to 6.0 on the season even though he is not starting. Linebacker Jordan Campbell did a great job replacing Malcolm Smith, and he posted eight tackles before leaving the game with an ankle sprain. Jurrell Casey continues to be a monster in the middle and is reminding fans of Mike Patterson and Sedrick Ellis. Everson Griffen should continue to dominate from his defensive end position, and they will need him to make plays going into the upcoming battles. These statistics will win football games. As noted, their young quarterback did make plays against the defense and kept them on the field longer than they should have been. The sacks and pressure on opposing quarterbacks will continue to create turnovers, and it will disrupt their rhythm. The best pass defense is a strong pass rush.
The kicking game was improved even with the bobbled hold on the extra point and the missed field goal by Jordan Congdon. Harfman averaged 46.3 yards on three punts and he made a great play on the surprise onside kick that he recovered himself. Williams had a 28-yard punt return in the first quarter that set up the first TD pass to Butler. The punt coverage only gave up three yards in returns, and the kickoff coverage is improving which is being assisted by deeper kicks.
Injuries are starting to add up for the Trojans with defensive tackle, Hebron Fangupo, out for the season with a broken leg. This was a big blow to the defensive line depth, as he was starting to become a key contributor. Defensive back Marshall Jones cracked a bone in his vertebrae and is also out for the season. Campbell has a sprained ankle and Malcolm Smith is still trying to recover from an ankle sprain as well. The good news is that the Trojans should be looking to get Armond Armstead and Ronald Johnson back in the next few weeks.
One thought I would like to address is to please exemplify the class that Trojans do. There is no need to boo a player or a play. In the last seven years, USC has seven straight Pac-10 titles, seven straight 11-plus win seasons and top four finishes, two National Championships, three Heisman Trophy winners and a 6-1 BCS bowl record. I realize that this is a new year, but we have had it pretty good those last eight years. We need to have faith, and we need to back our players and coaches. Being a Trojan is about having loyalty, confidence and class. As Coach Carroll says, "It means that we respect each succeeding generation of Trojan players, coaches, students, professors, administrators and historians without holding on too tightly, but rather to share and rejoice in the efforts of others."
Everyone knows that Carroll is undefeated in November, but October is going to be every bit as important this year. The Trojans have one loss and cannot afford another let down the rest of the way. This is the game that will set the tone for the rest of the season!
In the Pete Carroll-Jeff Tedford era, they have played seven times with USC holding a 6-1 advantage. However, except for the 35-10 blowout in 2005, Cal has not been down by more than a touchdown in every 4th quarter from 2002-2008, with the memories of the Trojan goal line stand in 2004 to preserve a 23-17 victory or the pouring rain game of 2007 with Stafon Johnson scoring from 3 yards out late in the fourth to win 24-17. We don't need to relive the triple overtime game in 2003 when the Trojans ran out of bullets in Berkeley. In the Coach Carroll era, Cal has been the Trojans fiercest Pac-10 rival, and there have been some great games. It will be a huge advantage to come out early and get a lead and force the Bears into passing situations. Jahvid Best, Cal's Heisman candidate, has had an explosive early season but was held to 55 yards rushing against the Ducks last week. The USC defense against the Cal running game will be a key match up come Saturday.
It will be a war with the Trojans going up to Memorial Stadium to face the 19th-ranked Golden Bears. Cal will be fighting to get their pride to get back after last week's melt down, and they will be coming with everything they have. However, this Saturday, they will feel the Trojans wrath. There will be no retreat and no surrender. This is Trojan law. And by Trojan law, they will stand and fight. This is another opportunity to Fight On, to fight like Trojans, to never give in, no matter the circumstances or conditions and to always play your best.
Fight On & Beat the Bears!
Shane Foley played quarterback for the Trojans from 1986-1990. He is a Vice President and Wealth Management Consultant for Wells Fargo in Newport Beach. He serves on the executive board for Pete Carroll's A Better LA, The Blind Children's Learning Center in Orange County and is involved in several other charities. He can be reached at Shane.Foley@wellsfargo.com.