USC: Line play key vs. Stanford

USC’s new and improved offensive line will be tested at the Farm.

NCAA Football: Fresno State at Southern California

Southern California Trojans receiver JuJu Smith (9) carries the ball on a 53-yard reception against the Fresno State Bulldogs at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

(C+P) — USC’s offensive line was horrible last season, and given the quality of players the program has brought at that position over the years there should be no excuse for the mishaps.

The unit allowed 34 sacks, which ranked 104th in the nation last season.

Quarterback Cody Kessler still performed well for the most part, but there were plays where the junior did not look comfortable in the pocket, and had to buy time with his feet.

USC was much better in the run game, however. The Trojans rushed for 172 yards per game, which ranked 59th in the nation.

So to hopefully solve the protection issues and boost up the run game, head coach Steve Sarkisian brought in a new offensive line coach, Tim Drevno, who has an impressive resume.

Southern California quarterback Cody Kessler (6) throws a pass in the Spring Game at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Kessler led the Trojans to victory in the 2014 season opener. (Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports)
Southern California quarterback Cody Kessler (6) throws a pass in the Spring Game at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Kessler led the Trojans to victory in the 2014 season opener. (Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports)

Drevno previously coached the San Francisco 49ers the last three seasons, and before that he was the offensive line coach for two seasons with the Stanford Cardinal, which happens to be the Trojans opponent this Saturday.

With Stanford looking for revenge after a 20-17 upset at the L.A. Coliseum last season, it will be interesting to see if the offensive line can hold up against Stanford’s front seven.  USC did not allow a single sack in their 52-13 win against Fresno State from Saturday.

The outstanding pass protection helped Kessler and the offense convert on their first eight third down attempts before finally slowing down and converting on 11 of 18 for the game. He was back in the pocket all day with so much time and was rarely hit to the ground even after the ball was released from his hand.

While pass protection was fine and dandy, it was the run blocking that might be a concern heading to ‘The Farm.’

USC did rush for 277 for the game, but it took 64 attempts to achieve that total.  That’s a 4.3 average, and the lowest output for any Trojan squad in recent years as USC has averaged around five yards a carry (except last season at 4.55) since 2008.

Another concern was USC only had 118 rush yards in the first half, and at times the two primary running backs, Justin Davis and Buck Allen could not break past the line of scrimmage.

Davis would finish the game with 30 yards on 12 carries while Allen had 133 yards on 22 attempts.

Every one of those yards was a struggle to earn due to the offensive linemen not getting enough push against the Fresno State front seven.

The lack of early success in the run game is also a concern since the Bulldogs represent the WAC, a non-power five conference. No disrespect to the Bulldogs, but they do not have the athletes along the defensive line that Stanford has on their roster.

The push on the offensive line did take off in the second half, however.  The offensive line was able to get much better penetration off the line of scrimmage to help USC total 159 yards on the ground for the second half.

Southern California Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian reacts after the game against the Fresno State Bulldogs at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. USC defeated Fresno State 52-13. (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)
Southern California Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian reacts after the game against the Fresno State Bulldogs at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. USC defeated Fresno State 52-13. (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

Despite the concerns, the lopsided win did give confidence to three new faces along the offensive line. Two true freshman linemen, Toa Lobendahn and Damien Mama each preformed well at the both guard positions, left vacant from last season.

Khaliel Rogers was expected to start at one of the guard spots, but the redshirt freshman sustained a knee sprain during fall camp, and because of that he did not play against the Bulldogs. That injury had its silver lining though as it opened the door for Mama to get his feet wet at the guard spot, but most importantly, just game experience.

Even if Rogers returns this week in place of Mama, the true freshman would still be a viable option to spell Rogers if he reinjures his knee.

Another linemen got his first taste of action, but he was no ‘baby.’  Zach Banner, a redshirt sophomore plagued by injuries early in his career, played well at the tackle spot in the victory. The experience both freshman, and the upperclassman got in the game will benefit USC immensely in terms of confidence, and shrug off any jitters against Stanford.

Remember, two years ago when USC was No.1 in the country and played at Stanford in their third game, the Trojans could not protect then quarterback Matt Barkley as he was sacked four times.  But it was more than that as the now Philadelphia Eagles backup quarterback never seemed comfortable in the pocket.

Heading into the game, the Trojans were experienced at every position along the line except center as Khaled Holmes, a three-year starter who was out with a leg injury.  Cyrus Hobbi, got his first start at center, and because of his limited experience at center, the line’s horrible performance turned out to be USC’s kryptonite for that game.  The Trojans only managed to gain 26 rushing yards, while only passing for 254 yards.

USC will have its hands full against Stanford’s defensive line, which has had its success getting to the quarterback and limiting their opponents in the run during David Shaw’s four years as head coach.

But if the offensive line does its job against the stout Cardinal lineman and linebackers, USC’s offense should have its success in both the run and pass game.

 

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