Luke Fickell is not likely to become the next head coach of USC. Let’s be clear on that point. He COULD become the next coach, but there is no clear favorite for the position. However, Fickell is certainly part of a top tier of candidates alongside Matt Campbell of Iowa State and James Franklin of Penn State. With USC’s head coaching search underway, every game coached by these top-tier targets becomes a point of interest for Mike Bohn and the Trojan fan base.
Let’s look at Fickell’s first game since Clay Helton’s firing.
It wasn’t very encouraging for him or for USC fans.
Yes, Cincinnati defeated Indiana, but you have to look beyond the final score and study how this game unfolded.
What has been so frustrating about USC football in the past 12 years is that talent just isn’t developed. The 2011 season is the one true exception to the pattern of the post-Pete Carroll era. In that one year, USC’s talent was substantially developed and close to fully realized. We could also mention 2016, but that was mostly about Sam Darnold transforming a team. It was much less about everyone becoming a top-tier football player in his own right.
Other than 2011 in particular (2016 to a lesser degree), it’s hard to identify a season in which USC developed its talent. Most of USC’s problems have come on offense, but the Clancy Pendergast years were brutal for the defense.
At any rate, seeing an offense fail to rock and roll, to not put the pieces together, is an old and familiar reality for USC fans these days. Recruiting all this talent and not translating it into a smooth, polished offensive product was par for the course under Clay Helton.
Understanding how to make pieces fit and how to improve skill-position talent on offense is an essential quality for a USC head football coach to have.
Given how Fickell’s Cincinnati offense played on Saturday against Indiana, he will have a lot of work to do to convince Mike Bohn he’s the man for the job — IF, of course, he really wants the job.
Cincinnati, coming off a New Year’s Six bowl season, was supposed to be very strong this year, in part because veteran quarterback Desmond Ridder came back for another season.
Cincinnati’s defense is strong. That’s Fickell’s specialty as a coach, having been a position coach for Ohio State on the defensive side of the ball before ascending to a head coaching position at Cincinnati. No one ever has to worry about a Luke Fickell defense. That would be a clear strength at USC.
The offense, however, has to be a concern based on Cincinnati’s very slow start to 2021. The Bearcats have had below-average first halves in all three games. Ridder has been sluggish in every game.
In the first half against Indiana in Week 3, Cincinnati managed just 147 yards. Crucially, most of those yards came only after Indiana’s All-American middle linebacker, Micah McFadden, was ejected on a dubious targeting call. Cincinnati had been shut out before the targeting call. Indiana could have built a 21-0 or 24-0 lead, but threw a red-zone interception and botched a snap on 4th and 1 at the UC 10-yard line.
Cincinnati flipped this game in the second half with Indiana’s best defensive player on the sideline. Indiana failed to score a single point on three separate trips inside the UC red zone. It was a win for Fickell, but hardly a convincing performance, especially from his veteran offense.
A USC head coach needs to know how to manage both sides of the ball, even if he might be an expert on only one side of the ball (as Pete Carroll was). Fickell — if he really wants to pursue the Trojans’ head coaching position under Mike Bohn (whom he knows from Cincinnati) — knows where he needs to improve.
USC, however, can’t spend two years under Fickell waiting to see if improvements will be made. He needs to be ready to win on Day 1.
Saturday’s game against Indiana indicated he might not be.
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