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  • Texas showed signs on both sides of the ball that it is putting itself together after some early-season issues. Meanwhile, it's back to the drawing board for USC.
By Scooby Axson
September 16, 2018

USC and Texas both entered Saturday night’s primetime matchup in Austin dealing with an identity crisis on offense. It was USC’s that remained stuck in neutral for most of the night, while the Longhorns scored 34 unanswered points en route to a 37–14 rout in front of a record 103,507 fans at Darrell K. Royal–Texas Memorial Stadium.

The pregame storylines primarily focused on two head coaches desperate to get their proud programs back to their winning ways after slow starts to the season. Clay Helton and the Trojans were coming off a 17–3 loss to Stanford (only the third time USC has been held without a touchdown in the last quarter-century) in which true freshman quarterback JT Daniels had three turnovers and was sacked four times. Texas had hired Tom Herman two years ago to inject some life into a stagnant offense after Herman had worked magic in his previous stops at Ohio State and Houston.

USC found answers for some of its issues on its opening possession, which was capped off by a 23-yard Stephen Carr touchdown. The visitors’ lead was extended to 11 points after USC running back Vavae Malepeai punched it in from three yards out at the end of the first quarter.

With points at a premium and both teams struggling to move the ball early, USC had a chance to distance themselves from Texas and take momentum into halftime. On a second-and-goal at his own six-yard line with a 14–13 lead, Longhorns quarterback Sam Ehlinger was sacked by USC linebacker Porter Gustin for what appeared to be a game-changing safety. However, officials ruled that Ehlinger had made it out of the end zone with the ball.

Multiple replay angles showed that Ehlinger’s knee and elbow were down before the ball broke the plane of the end zone, but the play was upheld by the replay officials. On the ensuing punt, USC gave Texas’s possession new life with a roughing the kicker call resulting in an automatic first down.

Texas ultimately punted (successfully) to end that possession, but it took the lead for good on its next drive, when kicker Cameron Dicker drilled one of his three field goals from 46 yards out to end the half after a personal foul on Gustin helped get the Longhorns in range.

Things finally opened up in the second half as Ehlinger connected on a 27-yard strike to Joshua Moore, giving the Longhorns a 23–14 lead. That scoring drive was again aided by a Gustin penalty, this time a targeting call that led to his ejection.

The Trojans, who averaged 166 yards rushing in their first two games, were held to minus-five yards on 16 rushes. The lights officially went out for USC in the third quarter when Chase McGrath had his 50-yard field goal attempt blocked by Caden Sterns and Anthony Wheeler scooped up the loose ball and rumbled 46 yards down the sideline for a touchdown.

It’s back to the drawing board for the Trojans. In addition to the struggles in the running game, the special teams were atrocious. Short punts routinely left Texas with good field position, especially in the second half. Daniels finished a competent 30-of-48 for 322 yards and an interception, and there is no sign he is in danger of losing his job.

The silver lining for USC is that the Pac-12 South is still very much in play, with no dominant team separating itself through three weeks.

Texas still has not shown anything close to the offensive consistency most people need to take it seriously. But the O-line excelled in opening up running lanes, and Ehlinger used timely throws and his feet to extend drives. It doesn’t get any easier for that group, as the Longhorns host TCU next weekend and have their annual date with Oklahoma in three weeks.

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