Does the football team have a plan?

first_imgWe are just four weeks into the season, and yet, after plenty of hair-pulling frustration, lackluster primetime losses and inexplicable coaching decisions, it might be time to beg the question: Does the USC football program have a plan?It’s one thing to lose games as the underdog to top-ranked Alabama and seventh-ranked Stanford, but it’s another to score just 1 touchdown between the two games, let the Crimson Tide drop 52 points on opening night and by Week 3, have more than one player admit that at halftime against Stanford, some of their teammates had already given up. The game plan put forth by Clay Helton and his staff has been uninspiring and, at times, questionable. On a team laced with talent up and down the roster and a bevy of top recruits in the pipeline, it’s depressing to see just how little of its potential USC has shown. No example is clearer than junior wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. One of the most skilled receivers in college football, Smith-Schuster had a grand total of four catches against Alabama and Stanford. Redshirt junior quarterback Max Browne barely looked his way — whether it was because of the play call or defenses clamping down — and USC’s best offensive weapon has been essentially rendered useless in two out of three games.“I’ve been discredited before by only throwing to one guy, and now you have the ball spread around to different guys,” Helton said after the Stanford game before praising wide receivers redshirt junior Steven Mitchell Jr. and senior Darreus Rogers. “You can never be right. You either throw it to one guy or throw it to the guy that’s open.”Helton is right that Mitchell and Rogers are playing well — they are tied for the team lead in catches with 13. But when such a dangerous force in Smith-Schuster is not even remotely involved in a majority of the offensive plays, that’s a problem.Through two games, Smith-Schuster has been targeted 19.4 percent of the time — good enough for second amongst USC receivers but still down from 30.8 percent last season. In comparison, Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey — who torched USC again last Saturday — has just one fewer catches than Smith-Schuster who has 11 and McCaffrey been targeted as a receiver 36.4 percent of the time. Keep in mind that McCaffrey is listed as a running back.That is one of the main differences between USC and Stanford that became apparent last week. Stanford knows exactly how to use its best player, as it seems like McCaffrey either has the ball in his hands or serves as an effective decoy — in the third quarter, the Trojans completely bit on a reverse handoff that was faked to McCaffrey and ended up in the hands of Michael Rector, who scored a 56-yard touchdown on the end-around that put the game away. Even when McCaffrey isn’t directly involved, he’s still making an impact; USC can’t even get Smith-Schuster involved — period.Part of the blame falls on players’ execution, on the quarterback not making his reads and the receiver not finding openings. But it is hard to believe how a team with this much talent doesn’t even come close to showcasing it on the field — and that blame lies with the coaches.Right now, Helton gives off the vibe that he is in over his head at USC. He is 1-4 to start his full-time head coaching career, with the one win coming against Utah State. He named Browne his starting quarterback before the season, said it was his hope Browne would keep the job for “seasons,” but wound up replacing him with a redshirt freshman just three games in. He said before camp that junior cornerback Adoree’ Jackson would focus explicitly on defense, but now is “definitely” considering putting Jackson back on offense. Against Stanford, he opted to punt trailing by 17 in the fourth quarter from the Cardinal’s 44-yard line, a decision he defended by saying he wanted to “pin them deep” (hey, at least they did!). He also saw a “giant leap forward” in his team’s competitiveness level, which, if true, should cause alarm considering the way USC performed.Helton’s decision to replace Browne with Sam Darnold — and, to a lesser extent, putting Jackson back in at wide receiver — reeks of desperation. While the quarterback switch could end up being the right move, it seems to have been made in the spur of the moment, with Helton realizing that this season could be unexpectedly horrendous and playing perhaps his biggest card in changing quarterbacks.This way, if Darnold leads the Trojans to a loss in Utah, the narrative will go that he was a redshirt freshman making his first career start and just getting adapted to the spotlight. Then, USC has the “easy” stretch of its gruesome schedule, with four of its next five games coming at home and the one road game against Arizona. If Darnold doesn’t break in against Utah, he absolutely should by the time November rolls around.Not having a quarterback controversy three months into the season is best-case scenario for the Trojans in a campaign that has turned sour far earlier than expected, and that has to be disappointing for a program expected to contend for a Pac-12 Championship.It can all be attributed to not having a gameplan either on or off the field. When your former athletic director signs an unproven career assistant to a five-year contract to become the head coach, but then bolts for retirement months later and leaves a mess for his successor, was that really the plan? When the new coach’s first major decision — choosing a new quarterback — backfires faster than you can learn to pronounce Stevie Tu’ikolovatu’s last name and you have a redshirt freshman starting on the road, against a ranked opponent, in a conference game and in slick conditions by Week 4, is this really the plan?USC may still be a recognizable brand name, but right now the Trojans are looking more like students winging a midterm they didn’t study for than the professors that they were in a previous life. Eric He is a sophomore majoring in print and digital journalism. He is also the sports editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Grinding Gears,” runs Fridays.last_img read more