Funny how a sense of urgency can change things. And maybe change people, too.
Give Steve Sarkisian and Justin Wilcox some credit. USC’s head coach and defensive coordinator watched Stanford manhandle the Trojans’ defense a week ago and realized, as the heat and the criticism mounted, that both they and the players had to kick it up a notch.
The result was a remarkable reversal of form against Arizona State on Saturday night. Granted, the Sun Devils aren’t nearly as physical as those bullies from up north and, for much of the warm evening, Todd Graham’s team pretty much self-destructed in Tempe.
But USC’s defense had a lot to do with that 42-14 bludgeoning. It was more aggressive, more energized and, yes, more passionate. Su’a Cravens, Delvon Simmons and Co. were making plays all over the field. They collected sacks, made interceptions, recovered fumbles and generally performed at a level heretofore unseen in the brief Sarkisian era.
Sark seemed different, too. Clearly, since relinquishing the play-calling duties to Clay Helton, he has become much more involved in the defensive side of things. Reports said he and Wilcox were all over the defense in practice this week, pushing and exhorting them to get better.
Whatever they did, it certainly worked. And Sarkisian appeared more excited about it than anyone. He could be seen cheering and embracing defensive players on the sideline, patting them on the helmet, even body-bumping Simmons after a jarring tackle resulted in a pivotal fumble.
The new Sark, free of the pressure of calling offensive plays, now seems more like a real head coach, someone who is able to both delegate and have a clear overview of everything that is happening on the field.
Everything that happened Saturday was certainly encouraging. Again, ASU was awful, and quarterback Mike Bercovici was rattled and missing open receivers all evening. The Sun Devils tried to out-finesse one of the best finesse teams in America, and it simply couldn’t work.
USC has too many weapons on offense. Cody Kessler and his group haven’t had a bad game yet this season. That loss to Stanford wasn’t their fault. They only had the ball for 20 minutes and still managed to score 31 points.
In Arizona, they seemed capable of scoring anytime they had the ball. Kessler, who seems in total control of this offense now, threw his first interception of the season, but more than made up for it by delivering five more touchdown passes.
JuJu Smith-Schuster continues to prove he is perhaps the finest all around receiver in college football. And as for Adoree’ Jackson … well, there may not be a more exciting player in the country. He had 131 yards in just three zig-zagging receptions.
There ought to be a new USC rule. Adoree’ has to touch the ball on offense at least six times a game. Seriously, not since Reggie Bush has there been a more electric athlete with the ball in his hands.
When JuJu and Adoree’ are both on the field at the same time, the opposing defense is overmatched. And as good as Jackson is as a cornerback, Sarkisian has to find a way to get him on the field more on offense.
One quick note of caution here: If USC boosters overreacted to the loss against Stanford, they should be careful not to get overly giddy about this romp in the desert.
The Trojans still have to prove they can beat the kind of tough, physical teams that are now lurking on the rest of their schedule.
Notre Dame and Utah back-to-back suddenly looks more imposing than any other two-game set they have to play. The Irish are undefeated and are always a handful in South Bend. And the surprising Utes produced the most stunning upset of the week by burying Oregon 62-20 and doing it in Eugene, no less.
Then there is a UCLA team that played just as well as USC, if not better, in hammering Arizona 56-30 in Tucson.
What Saturday night’s USC victory did was inject a much-needed dose of optimism back into the program. This team and, maybe more important, this defense completed a rousing comeback in the stifling desert air.
Even Sarkisian and Wilcox were able to take a deep breath, relax and enjoy themselves afterward. Just don’t get too carried away, guys.
The challenges of October await.