Southern California looking for consistency on offense
LOS ANGELES (AP) When Southern California needed a big play on offense last season, wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster or running back Ronald Jones usually stepped up.
With the offense searching for consistency, the pressure is on Smith-Schuster and Jones once again.
A quarterback change helped Smith-Schuster get more involved in the Trojans' 31-27 loss at No. 18 Utah on Friday night, but Jones was all but invisible. The sophomore had 15 yards on eight carries.
For offensive coordinator Tee Martin, trying to find the right balance between run and pass, and where those touches are allocated, is still a work in progress.
''You try to roll with it,'' Martin said Tuesday.
The distribution of carries between Jones, senior Justin Davis and sophomore Aca'Cedric Ware against the Utes was criticized on social media after USC's last-second loss dropped the Trojans to 1-3 for the first time since 2001. Davis rushed for 126 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries, but did not touch the ball in the fourth quarter.
Martin said the intent going into the game was to rotate backs while also allowing for the possibility of relying on the ''hot guy.'' The rotation happened, but Martin did not say why Davis did not carry the ball in the critical moments.
''Justin ran well,'' Martin said. ''Ronald ran well. And Ced came in, had a big third-down conversion, and ran well.''
After nearly becoming the first USC freshman to rush for 1,000 yards, Jones began this season with immense expectations. But he has not demonstrated the same explosiveness so far.
In four games, Jones has rushed for just 132 yards and one touchdown, though he was limited in the win over Utah State because of a rib contusion. The majority of that production came on a 46-yard run in the third quarter of a blowout loss to Alabama in the opener, and Jones does not have a rush longer than 16 yards in two Pac-12 games.
Martin believes Jones has grown as a back and is displaying a better understanding of the position, rather than simply relying on his speed and athleticism. Martin said information overload can cause a young back to become paralyzed at times but he expects Jones to work through his struggles.
''He is going to break loose,'' coach Clay Helton said. ''He is ultra-talented and we are going to keep on feeding him the ball.''
For Smith-Schuster, the initial struggles seemed to be resolved by naming redshirt freshman Sam Darnold the starting quarterback. Smith-Schuster caught eight balls for 98 yards against Utah, both season highs, and he expects to build on that performance Saturday against Arizona State.
While opponents have used bracket coverage with two defenders in an attempt to limit Smith-Schuster, the Sun Devils use a wide array of pressures that leave the secondary having to defend receivers one-on-one. Though Arizona State coach Todd Graham has reduced the use of blitzes to take pressure off of his inexperienced defense backs, USC expects that to change against a quarterback making his second career start.
That should give Smith-Schuster chances to deliver the big plays that have been missing.
''There is nobody else on the field,'' Smith-Schuster said. ''When it's man-to-man, all I see is the person that is covering me and myself. Just beat that man, do your job and the ball will come.''
NOTES: Defensive tackle Noah Jefferson could miss the next two to three weeks because of injury and academics, Helton said. Jefferson has missed the last three games with a sprained shoulder and briefly returned home to Las Vegas to attend to personal matters earlier this month.