No, You (Still) Can’t Trust USC: Your Weekly College Football Wrap

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Steve Sarkisian arrived at USC last December with an implicit mandate to re-create the recent past that had existed under his old L.A. boss, Pete Carroll. And in at least one sense, Sark is off to a precocious start. But the timeline the no. 9 Trojans revisited in Saturday night’s 37-31 flop at Boston College felt a little too recent, and all too familiar.

After all, it was only five years ago that Sarkisian oversaw a monumental, 16-13 upset over his former team in just his third game as Washington’s head coach, the first sign the balance of power on the West Coast was about to undergo a radical shift. At that point, USC was chasing its eighth consecutive conference championship, while Washington was pursuing its first conference win since November 2007. Only a week removed from an uplifting, come-from-behind victory at Ohio State, the mighty Trojans rolled into Seattle as 21-point favorites, but left with the first crack in their previously invincible facade. By the following January, USC had ceded Pac-10 supremacy to Oregon, Carroll had bailed for the NFL, major NCAA sanctions loomed, and the halcyon days were officially, emphatically over.

On Saturday, only a week removed from an uplifting, come-from-behind victory at Stanford, the Trojans rolled into Chestnut Hill as 17-point favorites. In just Sarkisian’s third game as head coach, USC was once again basking in top-10 rankings in both major polls and looking forward to its first serious run at the conference crown since Sark’s days as an assistant. Meanwhile, based on last week’s 30-20 loss to Pittsburgh, Boston College looked bound for little more than a cameo role as a speed bump in 2014.

The Eagles were barely even that against Pitt, yielding 303 yards rushing (including 214 yards to the Panthers’ mammoth tailback, James Conner) while managing just 142 ground yards of their own (and just 91 prior to a handful of late scrambles by quarterback Tyler Murphy against a prevent defense on BC’s penultimate offensive series). BC entered the season with no recognizable playmakers and no discernible identity absent 2013 Heisman finalist Andre Williams, and limped into Saturday night’s game with no answers in sight.

In that context, there’s not much use attempting to make sense of the final numbers against USC, although there was nothing remotely misleading about them. Including negative yardage on sacks, Boston College outrushed USC by more than 400 yards, averaging an astounding 8.4 yards per carry to the Trojans’ equally astounding 0.7. The Eagles ripped off eight runs covering at least 20 yards, five of them by Murphy; the Trojans’ longest carry of the night went for 16 yards. In contrast to the straight-ahead, power-oriented attack that lifted Williams from obscurity last year, BC unleashed a much slipperier read-option scheme on the USC defense, and found itself springing runners into the open field again, and again, and again.

While the USC defense was busy looking outwitted and unprepared for the possibility that the opposing quarterback might keep the ball, the offense was busy doing, well, nothing: After scoring on three consecutive possessions in the first and second quarters (all three of which began in BC territory), the Trojans proceeded to punt on eight straight possessions,1 failing to earn a first down on four of them. A pair of late touchdowns on the arm of quarterback Cody Kessler made the final score look respectable — at least to the extent that a six-point loss to a 17-point underdog can be considered “respectable” — but after its first possession of the second half, when the score was still just 20-17, USC didn’t touch the ball again with a chance to regain the lead.

In the broader context, though, the result makes perfect sense as the latest in an exceedingly long and incontrovertible line of reminders that, as tempting as it may be to imagine them fulfilling their blue-chip pedigree, the Trojans still cannot be trusted with the keys to their old penthouse in the Pac-12 and the national polls. The allure is obvious: Man for man, USC remains the gold standard for raw talent in the conference, or anywhere west of the Mississippi, and every victory over a quality opponent feels like a glimpse into a room without a fixed ceiling.

The 2014 edition, in particular, is blessed with the requisite star power on both sides of the ball — Kessler, Buck Allen, and Nelson Agholor on offense; Leonard Williams and Hayes Pullard on defense — and is no longer burdened by NCAA sanctions or the disgruntled specter of Lane Kiffin. The Trojans commenced the Sarkisian era by napalming Fresno State to the tune of 52 points on 701 yards of total offense, and followed that promising debut by outslugging the defending conference champs in Stanford. Someday, USC really is going to get back to winning championships, and probably someday soon. Why not this team? Why not now?

Saturday, the answer came right on cue. Maddening volatility was the prevailing theme of the Kiffin era, which was notable mainly for producing, in 2012, the most spectacular failure on record by a team ranked no. 1 in the preseason AP poll. But the trend preceded Kiffin’s arrival, as the senseless flop at Washington in 2009 showed, and now it has persisted beyond his doomed administration as well. The stumble on Saturday was USC’s 12th defeat at the hands of an unranked opponent in the last five years, and the ninth in which the Trojans themselves were ranked.2

Remember that Kiffin, like Sarkisian, was hired in a transparent attempt to extend the Carroll dynasty, despite neither of the former understudies having won much of anything in their previous stops as head coach. Because their public personae are so wildly different, the similarities between the former colleagues seemed to end there. In reality, though, USC fans may be realizing that their new coach has more in common with the old one than anyone realized — or, worse, exactly as much as everyone feared.

Notebook

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No. 24 South Carolina 38, no. 6 Georgia 35: Two weeks ago, I praised Georgia’s defense for its second-half clampdown against Clemson, a mark of significant progress for a unit that allowed at least 30 points in eight games last year. Consider this a retraction. Against South Carolina on Saturday, the Bulldogs yielded five extended touchdown drives and spent most of the afternoon playing catch-up after a disastrous first half for the young secondary. Carolina quarterback Dylan Thompson, who looked inconsistent and inaccurate in the season’s first two weeks, came out smoking, connecting on 10 of his first 11 attempts for 113 yards and two touchdowns in the first quarter.

As genuinely entertaining as this ballgame was, though — between them, both offenses combined for 48 first downs and 855 total yards, including 135 total ferocious yards from Georgia’s herculean tailback, Todd Gurley, who kept going forward whether or not anyone happened to be blocking for him on a given play — the enduring image from Columbia was an intimate study of the ball itself, as it rested on the 50-yard line in a state of limbo between a decisive first down for the Gamecocks and a critical turnover on downs for the Georgia defense:

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Is that a first down? As usual, the spot itself was arbitrary, an educated guess at best, after Thompson disappeared into a mass of bodies on fourth-and-inches. Even if we accept the spot, though, it’s fair to ask: Is this the most inconclusive measurement the game has ever seen? I’m willing to submit that it’s the most inconclusive measurement possible, on a purely hypothetical, atomic level. Officials, having contemplated the unknowable and conferred among themselves, awarded South Carolina the first down with 1:22 to play, and with it an indispensable victory in the SEC East. On such margins, champions are enshrined.

No. 12 UCLA 20, Texas 17: Rarely do winner and loser alike leave a game feeling relatively good about it, but this is — or should be — the rare exception. For UCLA, the undefeated record remains intact despite the early exit of quarterback Brett Hundley, who left in the first quarter with an apparent elbow injury.3 Minus their headliner, the Bruins found a much-needed spark from tailback Paul Perkins, who accounted for a career-high 195 yards from scrimmage as a rusher and receiver, and from the unlikely arm of Jerry “Yes, That Neuheisel” Neuheisel, who didn’t do anything obviously stupid4 in his first significant game action and eventually found Jordan Payton for the go-ahead/game-winning touchdown with three minutes to play. Meanwhile, proud papa Rick, former quarterback and coach for UCLA, watched his son play the hero from somewhere in the bowels of the Pac-12 Network, where nerves ran high and there was much rejoicing.

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As for Texas: Of course Longhorn partisans will insist they don’t do “moral victories,” because this is Texas, etc. But make no mistake, after last week’s blowout loss to BYU in Austin, a highly competitive effort against a ranked opponent is a step in the right direction for a team that’s still groping for traction under first-year coach Charlie Strong. Texas was also missing its starting quarterback on Saturday, as well as most of its starting offensive line. But sophomore QB Tyrone Swoopes looked more comfortable in his second start than in his first, leading three extended scoring drives, and the defense allowed only two touchdowns on 12 UCLA possessions, one of which began on the UT 33-yard line. For now, that’s the kind of mediocrity the Horns can live with.

Florida 36, Kentucky 30 (3 OT): I plan to dive deeper into Florida’s many ongoing issues later in the week, but for now, some praise is due Kentucky and its second-year head coach, Mark Stoops, who came as close as he conceivably could have come to snapping a pair of long, ignominious losing streaks without actually pulling it off. With Saturday’s loss, the Wildcats have lost 17 straight in SEC play, dating back to 2011, and 28 straight against Florida, dating back to 1986.

But the talent gap is not nearly as wide as it was when Stoops took over in November 2012, and his Wildcats are still as green as can be: Kentucky’s top three running backs on Saturday were a transfer (Braylon Heard), a true sophomore (Jojo Kemp), and a true freshman (Stanley “Boom” Williams); the top receivers included two true freshmen (Garrett Johnson and Dorian Baker) and a true sophomore (Ryan Timmons). Altogether, five true freshmen have combined for nine touchdowns in Kentucky’s first three games. The starting quarterback, Patrick Towles, is a redshirt sophomore, and the backup is one of the most hyped recruits in school history (true freshman Drew Barker). Towles and Johnson, especially, were revelations in Gainesville, hooking up on six receptions for 154 yards and two touchdowns. The way Stoops has recruited so far, it won’t be long before the Wildcats start winning games like this one and ruining some seasons in the process.

Reorientation

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It’s time to rethink: Virginia as ACC laughingstock. Speaking of losing streaks: Virginia’s 11-game skid in the ACC is over after a 23-21 upset over no. 21 Louisville, an especially validating win considering that (1) it came against a ranked opponent, and (2) it’s much tougher to dismiss as a fluke after the Cavaliers’ similarly feisty turn against UCLA on opening weekend. Given the state of the ACC’s Coastal Division, it’s also difficult to dismiss Virginia as a dark horse to win the whole damn thing: Among Duke, Georgia Tech, Miami, North Carolina, Pittsburgh, and Virginia Tech, there hasn’t been a clear front-runner in the Coastal in three years, and there’s no reason to think there’s going to be in 2014. (Virginia Tech claimed the title for a week on the strength of its upset win at Ohio State, but put it up for grabs again Saturday by losing to East Carolina at home.) The only constant in the division over the last two years has been Virginia’s status as all-time doormat, and it’s obvious now that even this can no longer be taken for granted.

Quote of the Week

“I haven’t talked to Josh Lambert since he got on campus.” —West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen, on what he said to his kicker prior to Lambert’s game-winning, 47-yard field goal to beat Maryland as time expired

Superlatives

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The best of the week …

Arkansas’s Offensive Line: In a performance that can be described only as Bielemian, the Razorbacks’ starting five (Dan Skipper, Sebastian Tretola, Mitch Smothers, Denver Kirkland, and Brey Cook) paved Texas Tech’s defense into a slightly rugged but easily navigable surface for Arkansas runners, who rushed 68 times for 438 yards in a 49-28 romp in Lubbock. Sixty-eight times! I know I use the word “romp” regularly to describe any kind of decisive win, but here it applies quite literally: On the Razorbacks’ seven touchdown drives, quarterback Brandon Allen attempted three total passes, completing two for 20 yards. Everything else came on the ground:

Arkansas’s Touchdown Drives vs. Texas Tech
Drive Plays Total Yards Number of Passes
1 2 13 0
2 11 68 0
3 5 71 1 (8 yards)
4 1 12 0
5 13 75 2 (1 complete, 12 yards)
6 13 82 0
7 2 85 0

The last touchdown in that sequence, an 84-yard breakaway by Alex Collins, was the Razorbacks’ only gain of the day longer than 21 yards, which speaks to what an old-school, cloud-of-dust trouncing this game was.

Cincinnati QB Gunner Kiel: In 2012, Kiel was everybody’s All-American, a five-star recruit tabbed as the Next Big Thing at Notre Dame.5 After two years on ice — first as a redshirt in South Bend, then as a transfer at Cincinnati — he lived up to the hype and then some in his first college start, passing for 418 yards and six touchdowns in a wild, 58-34 win over Toledo. Cincy opened with six consecutive touchdowns in the first half, only to watch the Rockets rally to turn a 41-7 blowout in the second quarter into a 41-34 nail-biter early in the fourth. From there, though, Kiel rekindled the Bearcats’ attack, connecting on two more scoring passes to put the game away — and to put himself on the map for at least one week as the most efficient passer in the nation.

Florida WR Demarcus Robinson: How long has it been since Florida has been able to count on a first-rate playmaker on offense, the kind of guy who actually scares opposing defenses? Since Percy Harvin, at least, and Harvin left Gainesville after the Gators’ last national championship in 2008. Since then, the UF offense has been stuck in a rut, and a triple-overtime escape against Kentucky isn’t exactly a harbinger of great things to come. Amid the doom and gloom, though, Robinson shone through with 15 catches for 216 yards and two touchdowns, almost single-handedly keeping the passing game afloat. (The rest of the team had 10 catches for 79 yards, the longest of which went for just 15 yards.) Florida has myriad issues — the offensive line, the quarterback, suddenly even the defense — but for the first time in a long time, identifying a clear-cut no. 1 receiver is not one of them.

Catch of the Year of the Week — Oklahoma CB Zack Sanchez: Technically, Sanchez plays defense, but if not for the uniforms, it would have been very tough to tell whether this third-quarter lob from Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley was intended for Vols wide receiver Jason Croom or the dude in red who actually came down with it:

Both the juggling catch and the fancy footwork to remain in bounds are the envy of actual wide receivers everywhere. The no. 4 Sooners went on to win, 34-10.

Fat Guy of the Week — East Carolina NT Terry Williams: The offense put up the numbers, but Williams leapt off the screen in ECU’s upset win in Blacksburg, consistently harassing, disrupting, and diverting Hokie running backs before they arrived at the line of scrimmage. Although he was credited with only five tackles, his impact in the box score is obvious: Including sacks, Virginia Tech finished with just 91 yards rushing on 2.8 yards per carry, and managed as many runs for negative yardage (six) as for first downs.

Demerits

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… and the worst.

Ferentz’s Failed Freeze: Coaches love spending otherwise superfluous timeouts at the end of games to “ice” opposing kickers on crucial field goal attempts, mainly because even the most out-of-touch observers are capable of recognizing the coach as the sole author of such a crippling psychological gambit. Any way to affect the outcome (or at least to be perceived to affect the outcome) must be worth the effort, right? Except that icing the kicker does not work, statistically speaking, and frequently backfires. On Saturday, the only person psyched out at the end of Iowa’s 20-17 loss to rival Iowa State was Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz, who, with seven seconds to play and the score tied at 17-17, oh-so-cleverly used his last timeout just before ISU kicker Cole Netten tried for a potentially decisive attempt from 42 yards out. Of course, that kick sailed wide, leaving Ferentz to stew in the irony like a character in an O. Henry story after Netten calmly nailed the mulligan to win a few seconds later.

Iowa fans were not happy, to say the least, and the failed bit of game theory in the closing seconds was the least of their complaints: For the game, Iowa averaged 4.0 yards per play on offense, while managing just a single play that gained more than 15 yards. With the loss, the Hawkeyes have dropped three of their last four games against Iowa State, plus 12 games since 2006 in which they were the double-digit favorite.

Kent State QB Colin Reardon: Kent State had 15 offensive possessions against Ohio State, resulting in 10 punts, four turnovers, and zero points. All things considered, inadvertently spiking the ball directly into the ground may have been the best possible result for Reardon on this play:

http://youtu.be/WsF49nbVlN0

Reardon finished 14-of-27 passing for 76 yards and was picked off three times in the 66-0 defeat.

Rutgers QB Gary Nova: As his nickname suggests, Gary “Turnova” brought a well-deserved reputation for generosity into the 2014 campaign, having served up 39 interceptions over his first three years on campus. For some context, that’s kind of a lot, especially in an offense not known for going pass-happy. Nova ranked among the top (bottom?) five active passers in interceptions entering this season, and hasn’t improved his position since:

Most Career Interceptions by Active FBS QBs
Rank Quarterback School INTs Attempts Percentage
1 Sean Mannion Oregon State 47 1,467 3.2%
2 Gary Nova Rutgers 45 994 4.5%
3 Connor Halliday Washington St. 44 1,283 3.4%
4 Rakeem Cato Marshall 32 1,477 2.2%
5 Bo Wallace Ole Miss 31 899 3.5%

Still, even by typical Novarian standards, his stat line in Rutgers’ 13-10 loss to Penn State was one for the ages: 15-of-30, 192 yards, zero touchdowns, five interceptions. Yes, count ’em, five interceptions, including picks on consecutive attempts in the first quarter, two picks with the Scarlet Knights clinging to narrow leads in the second half, and one last, decisive dagger in the final minute. No other FBS quarterback has been picked off five times in a game this season, although as a sophomore Nova did once throw six interceptions in a 2012 loss to Kent State.

Incredibly, none of the giveaways on Saturday led directly to points for Penn State, which failed to convert on an early opportunity inside the Rutgers 30-yard line and was later forced to cover 72, 68, and 80 yards on its only three scoring drives. Still, the Rutgers offense was no help in the second half: After going ahead 10-0 just before the half, the Knights’ final eight possessions resulted in five punts and three interceptions — the rare scenario in which punting really was winning. If only they could have made it to fourth down more often.

Texas Chooses to Kick Off … and to Kick Off: In a strategic gambit only Marty Mornhinweg could love, Texas wound up kicking off to UCLA to open both the first and second half, the result of a bizarre gaffe by UT captains at the opening coin flip. In short: UCLA won the toss and deferred its option to kick or receive to the second half, ostensibly ensuring that Texas would get the ball to open the game and the Bruins would get dibs to open the second half. That’s the system you know and love, or that you merely take for granted, because you’ve never seen it play out any other way. This time, however, after UCLA deferred its option to the second half, the Longhorns told officials they still wanted to kick off to open the game, apparently failing to realize there is no option to defer the opponent’s deferral. And since UCLA retained the option to receive after halftime, Texas was forced to open both halves on defense.

The distinction was more than an academic quirk in the box score: After failing to reach the end zone in the first half, UCLA turned the bonus possession to open the second into its only extended touchdown drive, covering 75 yards. After the game, Charlie Strong explained the decision by way of the player who made it, who reportedly told Strong, “I don’t know, Coach, I was just hyped up.”

Filed Under: College Football, Your Weekly College Football Wrap, College Football Week 3, Superlatives and Demerits, Catch of the Year of the Week, Fat Guy of the Week, Reorientation, College Football Playoff, 2014 College Football Playoff, USC Trojans, Steve Sarkisian, Lane Kiffin, Pete Carroll, Boston College Golden Eagles, Tyler Murphy, Georgia Bulldogs, South Carolina Gamecocks, Florida Gators, Kentucky Wildcats, UCLA Bruins, Brett Hundley, Texas Longhorns, Virginia Cavaliers, Arkansas Razorbacks, Kirk Ferentz, injuries, Football, NCAA, NCAAF, Matt Hinton

Matt Hinton is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ MattRHinton