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USC Mid-Season Football Review (Awesome Article)

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USC Football Mid-Season Review

The Hype Machine is Leaking, Badly, and it’s Flammable

October 23, 2017 | Ryan Ringdahl and Bryant Conger

Overview
The folks hired to get you excited about USC football are the same people that brought you Crystal Pepsi, the Isuzu Amigo, and the catastrophe known as Taco Bell’s egg shell breakfast taco. Coming into this season, like every season, it was a popular bet to have USC sweeping a college football triple-crown: Conference Title, Heisman, Return to Title Game. Well, the Men of Troy have a longstanding history of suffering from pirate raids, and if they can’t take care of business against the back half of their Pac-12 schedule then Mike Leach will be drinking rum and the delicious tears of USC fans in his most formal Buccaneer dinner jacket.

Quarterback
In 2016, Sam Darnold was ground zero for insufferable NFL fans who only talk about transcendent college football players in terms of their draft stock. He was, however, one of the few consensus players that drew the respect of these terrible people and hardcore college football fans. His devil-may-care moxie, improvisational brilliance, and arm talent had everyone, including NFL scouts, trying to slide into his DMs.

That was in 2016.

Don’t look now though, because you probably just intercepted Sam Darnold. You're not the only one. Darnold has already thrown as more picks than all of last season (10), while finding the end zone 17 times. He’s entering the Mark Sanchez Zone, folks. Oh, and sure, Darnold isn’t really a runner, but his yards per carry dropping from last year’s respectable 4 to this year’s 0.3 is troubling. Right now, statistically speaking, totally our subjective opinion, he is the 4th best quarterback in the Pac-12. Sad.

Wildcat Radio's Preseason Wild Speculation Grade: A
Wildcat Radio's Mid-Season Reality Check Grade: B-

Running Back
We knew Ronald Jones was a stud who didn’t get the respect he deserves. He still doesn’t. And he isn’t alone. USC’s backfield started the season five deep. In addition to Jones, true freshman Stephen Carr looked exciting enough to steal some snaps from the talented returners Dominic Davis and James Toland, and Aca’Cedric Ware looked to refine his role as situational battering ram.

Mid-Season, Jones and Carr are terrorizing defenses not named ‘Notre Dame’ out of the backfield. Wildcat Radio thought Arizona’s backs could compete with USC’s. We apologize. To you, to your pets, and to your parents. USC’s running backs are awesome -- they are averaging around 6 yards a carry and are a threat to break any run off for points. Jones and Carr are so good that Toland and Davis have barely seen the field. And Aca’Cedric Ware’s 3.5 yards per carry has placed him at the mercy of USC’s bags of money tenacious recruiting. Freshman Vavae Malepeai has emerged as the third ball carrier, toting the rock two dozen times to the tune of 5 yards a pop.

Wildcat Radio's Preseason Wild Speculation Grade: A
Wildcat Radio's Mid-Season Reality Check Grade: A- (until Carr gets back from injury)

Wide Receiver
At the beginning of the season, USC’s never-ending supply of NFL caliber receivers (10 drafted in the last decade) was in the reloading process with five-star talent galore ready to fill the end of all those Sam Darnold highlights. Behind Deontae Burnett the field was wide open for any of a number of kids to make their name: Steven Mitchell, Tyler Vaughns, Trevon Sidney, Joseph Lewis, Josh Imatorbhebhe, Cary Angeline, and Velus Jones were all fighting spots in the rotation.

With half the season behind us, one thing is certain: this offense sorely misses JuJu Smith-Schuster. Deontay Burnett has emerged as Darnold's favorite passing target, grabbing 57 catches for 739 yards and 7 scores, which, for a long time, was about as much as every other receiver on the team combined. While Steven Mitchell is still trying to get right after last season's ACL injury, Tyler Vaughns has found himself as the third leading receiver in yardage through week 6 (31 receptions/352 yards/1 td). The tight ends have not played much of a factor thus far, with Tyler Petite the lone bright spot (17 receptions /245 yards/3 touchdown).

Wildcat Radio's Preseason Wild Speculation Grade:B+
Wildcat Radio's Mid-Season Reality Check Grade: B-

Offensive Line
This offensive line lost 3 starters to the pros, and then lost 3 more projected starters to injury in camp. In the offseason, the USC coaching staff needed to earn their million-dollar salaries to get this group to play with the kind of cohesion in time for the season. They didn’t. But they have given Darnold every opportunity to showcase his next level escapability, and he’s still been dropped for 15 sacks already. Fortunately, USC’s two boss-running backs have been breaking a lot of tackles behind the line of scrimmage and are good enough to make up for this unit’s deficiencies in most games.

Wildcat Radio's Preseason Wild Speculation Grade:B-
Wildcat Radio's Mid-Season Reality Check Grade: B-

Defensive Line
We anticipated Kenny Bigelow and Rasheem Green, who is chaos in a bottle, to be the anchors of this line. Green tallied 6 sacks, 4 pass breakups, 2 forced fumbles, and 2 blocked kicks in his sophomore campaign, and Bigelow has shown a lot of flashes between injuries. Additionally, the Trojans raved about freshman, Jay Tufele, the No. 3 defensive tackle in his class who immediately competed for playing time.

Kenny Bigelow, lol. We’re so dumb. Josh Fatu has made the nose tackle spot his own, and Rasheem Green and Christian Rector have locked down the inside ends in Pendergast’s goofy flex-5 front. These three guys have combined for 17 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks, meaning they have more sacks just by themselves than half the teams in the Pac-12. USC’s defensive line is always nasty. They probably just sacked Sam Darnold.

Wildcat Radio's Preseason Wild Speculation Grade: B+
Wildcat Radio's Mid-Season Reality Check Grade: B+

Linebacker
Returning starters Cameron Smith and Porter Gustin chalked up a combined 131 tackles, 20 tackles for a loss, and 8 pass breakups as underclassmen. Sure, at Arizona, that’s known as one Standard Scooby Wright Season, but returners Smith and Gustin are still incredible. It’s just that Scooby Wright is an undead leviathan from centuries past. USC also returned promising Junior Uchenna Nwosu and sophomores John Huston and Jordan Iosefa.

This season USC’s linebacking corps has, for the most part, lived up to its reputation in spite of some injuries. Cameron Smith has been a force, covering the entire field, leading the team in both tackles (72). He also ranks second on the team with 8 tackles for a loss. Porter Gustin, who flowed back and forth between the D-line and pass coverage, brought a similar impact (15 tackles/3 tfl/3 sk) before tearing a bicep and breaking a toe. Uchenna Nwosu has more than helped fill the gap, he has had a monster season (39 tackles/2.5 tackles for loss/8 pass breakups/7 qb hurries), and John Houston has performed well enough next to Smith in the middle of the field (39 tackles/1 sack).

Wildcat Radio's Preseason Wild Speculation Grade: A-
Wildcat Radio's Mid-Season Reality Check Grade: B+

Secondary
The departure of cornerback Adoree’ Jackson had a number of USC fans worried. Not the smart ones though. Adoree’ is an incredible athlete and will make millions of dollars in the NFL. He also had flaws in USC’s secondary. Additionally, USC returned Iman Marshall, a star in his own right. Going into the 2017 season, the question was whether former five-star commit Jalen Jones could grow into a starter after a promising 2016. Because if he could, the Trojan secondary looked set with Mavell Tell III and Chris Hawkins bringing lots of experience to the safety positions.

Halfway into the season, Iman Marshall (8 pass breakups) and Jack Jones (4 interceptions/5 pass breakups) have lead a secondary has forced turnovers but has been a pedestrian unit when it comes to allowing teams to move the ball through the air. USC, with all its talent, ranks just 6th in the Pac-12 in pass defense. To be fair, some of the blame is on the linebackers. Safties Hawkins and Tell have combined for 96 tackles, 3 picks, and 4 deflections. Nickel-back Ajene Harris has chipped in with 30 tackles on his own.

Wildcat Radio's Preseason Wild Speculation Grade: B
Wildcat Radio's Mid-Season Reality Check Grade: B

Conclusion
Do you smell that? It’s gasoline, and it’s dripping from that expensive Hummer limousine USC drove to the stadium. Everyone inside looks appropriately nervous. A number of folks are looking at the offensive line in the corner. They aren’t drinking the champagne. That’s good. Champagne is for winners. If those guys can get their act together this team could be real, real scary. As it is, Sam Darnold must play like his hair is on fire. He’s jumping at every loud noise and keeps throwing his keys to the wrong friend.

The defense has been silent the entire ride to the game. If they had been doing their jobs everyone would be having an awesome time. Just ask the running backs standing out of the sunroof wearing decorative party hats and throwing beers to adjacent cars. But this version of the SC defense, as chalk full of Sunday talent as it is, remains a unit in the bottom half of the conference in total defense, scoring defense, passing defense, and rushing defense.

Everyone in the car knows that the door hasn’t closed on this year’s Pac-12 title aspirations but the gas tank is running low and everyone’s hair standing on end. Another loss and this party comes to predictable early end that requires everyone to vacuum the interior before they return the car back the rental agency.

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