Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
17 Sep 2012
by Matt Hinton
It's no great feat of analysis to point out what went wrong after it's gone wrong –- 20/20 hindsight and all that -– but it was also no secret coming into the season that USC's glaring weakness as a national contender was its defensive line. Read those season previews closely enough, somewhere down in the footnotes beneath odes to quarterback Matt Barkley and his world-class wide receivers, and you'll find it. That concern only deepened when senior defensive end Devon Kennard was ruled out for the year in preseason drills, leaving one returning starter along the front four, Wes Horton, who was subsequently injured himself in the Trojans' win over Syracuse. So it probably should not have come as any surprise that Stanford, nouveau beacon of old-school, salt-of-the-earth power running, turned out to be the opponent that exploited it.
True, the Cardinal came into Saturday with lingering questions of their own about replacing a pair of All-American mainstays on the offensive line (David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin) who went among the top 45 picks of the draft. As did departed tight end Coby Fleener. And of course no one had had any good idea how defenses would react against the run without Andrew Luck's $14 million arm to account for. As it turns out, the answer is that it doesn't matter how they're going to react, because Stanford is still going to run over them, anyway.
Against USC, the Cardinal pounded out 202 yards on the ground, the vast majority courtesy of the resident workhorse, Stepfan Taylor, who broke a 59-yard touchdown run in the first half and averaged 5.7 for the night on 27 carries. His success early on, against an inexperienced front besieged by injuries and NCAA-mandated scholarship cuts, made life much easier for Luck's successor at quarterback, Josh Nunes, who rebounded from a pair of interceptions in the first half with a pair of touchdown passes in the second. USC rotated just six defensive linemen all game; Stanford held the ball for more than 19 minutes after halftime to USC's eleven, and outscored the Trojans in that span 14-0.
The part of that equation that was surprising was the gradual, but readily apparent, collapse of the USC offensive line in front of Barkley. It left the brightest star in college football looking like a sleepwalker who's just awoken to find himself in the middle of a highway. Most glaring was the absence of senior center Khaled Holmes, whose replacement, Cyrus Hobbi, struggled physically with his blocks, and subsequently struggled with everything else -– awkward exchanges with Barkley, tangled feet as Barkley began his drops, a key holding penalty from which the Trojans never recovered on their final, failed drive to tie at the end of the game. But there was more than enough fail up front to go around: altogether, Barkley was sacked five times by five different defenders, and the team as a whole netted 26 yards rushing (including sack yardage) on 28 attempts. After going ahead 14-7 in the second quarter, USC's final nine offensive possessions resulted in four three-and-outs, two interceptions, a fumble, and two turnovers on downs.
With that, Barkley will end his college career 0-4 as a starter against the one-time West Coast whipping boy, and won't even have Luck's presence in the opposing huddle to blame for it. What that says about Barkley's "legacy" or place in the lineage of great Trojan quarterbacks over the past decade, it's still a little too soon to say: the Pac-12 championship, BCS, and Heisman Trophy remain within reach, albeit with a greatly reduced margin of error. The Trojans and Cardinal could very well see each other again in December in the conference championship game. But the record doesn't leave much doubt about which program is built on more solid footing.
1. Alabama (3-0). Watching the Crimson Tide play is about as much fun as watching someone get a piano dropped on them.
2. LSU (3-0). Just hangin' out, waiting for the start of SEC play this week at Auburn.
3. Oregon (3-0). Really, really wish there was a better option here than a team that's feasted on Arkansas State, Fresno State and Tennessee Tech. We'll know more late Saturday/early Sunday vs. Arizona.
4. Florida State (3-0). See above. Obliterated Wake Forest in vintage fashion, but jury is out on the 'Noles until Saturday night against Clemson.
5. Stanford (3-0). Nothing fluky about the Cardinal's win over USC, the best of the season to date.
6. Florida (3-0). Gators betrayed September hype in 2010 and 2011, but until further notice, back-to-back road wins at Texas A&M and Tennessee command respect.
7. Georgia (3-0). Jarvis Jones notwithstanding, the defense is beginning to look like a potential issue.
8. Ohio State (3-0). Braxton Miller is the truth, but nothing to get worked up about in a too-close-for-comfort win over Cal.
9. Notre Dame (3-0). Big Ten asterisks apply to Michigan State, but for now, a 17-point road win over a top-10 opponent goes down as Notre Dame's best win in a decade.
10. USC (2-1). Trojans still have every major goal in front of them if they're perfect from here on, but obviously a lot of work to do along both sides of the line of scrimmage.
11. West Virginia (2-0). Wake me when the Mountaineers hit the Big 12 schedule.
12. Oklahoma (2-0). Sooners get a chance to knock off some early rust Saturday against Kansas State.
13. South Carolina (3-0). Gamecocks are beginning to identify a few weapons other than Marcus Lattimore, although against the likes of Alabama-Birmingham, everyone is a potential weapon.
14. Clemson (3-0). Proverbial statement game in Tallahassee could make or break the season.
15. Texas (3-0). Longhorn offense showed up at Ole Miss. Not sure about the Rebel defense that was there to meet them.
16. UCLA (3-0). Another week, another outsized effort from the Bruin offense in a 37-6 win over Houston.
17. Arizona (3-0). Rich Rodriguez has been Arizona's head coach for three games, two of which rank as the two most prolific games in school history in terms of total offense.
18. Kansas State (3-0). Wildcats will do everything in their power to drag the pace at Oklahoma to a screeching halt.
19. Mississippi State (3-0). Backloaded schedule sets up perfectly for a 7-0 start before it starts getting heavy.
20. Michigan State (2-1). Spartans' opening night win over Boise State is still the best by any Big Ten team this year.
21. Northwestern (3-0). Wildcats swept the Smartypants Series against Syracuse, Vanderbilt and Boston College.
22. Louisville (3-0). Cardinals allowed four touchdown passes in the final 20 minutes of a near-collapse against North Carolina, so I'll just mumble something about Teddy Bridgewater and move on.
23. Oregon State (1-0). Bye week allows Beavers to milk that win over Wisconsin before it turns sour.
24. Iowa State (3-0). Well, why not? Beat Texas Tech on Saturday, and the Cyclones are only an upset away from at least breaking even for the third time in four years.
25. Rutgers (3-0). Strictly for the sweet open-field spin move tailback Jawan Jamison flashed on his icing touchdown run at South Florida.
1. Matt Elam, S, Florida. Playing largely from the nickel, Elam was everywhere in the Gators' win over Tennessee, leading the team in tackles while also notching a sack and a momentum-turning interception against Vol quarterback Tyler Bray. After Elam's pick in the third quarter, the Gators scored 17 unanswered points to turn a 20-20 nail-biter into a 37-20 rout.
2. Jordan Richards and Terrence Brown, DBs, Stanford. While the front four was harassing Matt Barkley into submission, Richards and Brown locked down his All-American targets, future first-rounders Marqise Lee and Robert Woods, combining to pick off two Barkley passes and break up six more without allowing a touchdown.
3. Manti Te'o, LB, Notre Dame. Playing just days after the deaths of his grandmother and his girlfriend, Te'o held his ground in the middle of an impenetrable Irish defense that kept Michigan State's burly running game to just 50 yards on the ground in a 20-3 upset. Te'o was credited with a team-high 12 tackles (seven solo, five assists), including one for loss, and generally was everywhere the Spartans did not want him to be.
4. Cornelius "Tank" Carradine, DE, Florida State. Moving into the starting lineup in place of injured All-American Brandon Jenkins, Carradine was the beastliest member of a characteristically feral front four in FSU's 52-0 annihilation of Wake Forest, racking up two solo sacks and generously sharing a third with linemate Bjoern Werner. As bad as the Seminoles' early competition has been, they've made it look even worse, yielding a grand total of 310 yards and three points in three games.
5. Nick Clancy, LB, Boston College. Channeling the spirit of the Great Tackler before him, Luke Kuechly, Clancy racked up a whopping 24 tackles (14 solo, 10 assists) in BC's 22-13 loss at Northwestern, easily the best individual total in a single game this year. If only he'd gotten the Wildcats to the ground before they'd managed to rush for 293 yards...
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