USC head coach Clay Helton and Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz took the podium on Thursday morning to answer questions ahead of the Trojans and Hawkeyes squaring off in Friday evening’s San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl.
Helton was asked whether this bowl game could serve as a fresh start for the USC program. The Trojans could certainly use this opportunity to take a positive step forward after winning five of the final six games to end the season, but listening to plenty of negativity from fans after finishing the early signing period with the lowest-ranked recruiting class in the conference.
“It’s something that I look forward to and it started to be honest with you right after the season,”Helton said. “You looked at the first steps of being able to keep a Graham Harrell here, who I think is one of the top offensive coordinators in the country and to extend his contract was an initial statement right off the bat.
“For me it’s the next game and the next opportunity. It’s kind of like Coach Ferentz said, to be with your team for an extra month and to be able to play a Top-25 opponent, No. 16 in the country like Iowa, it just helps us for the next step. You know, we are going to look at this game and the focus and the preparation that we put into it. It’s going to be very similar next year. You look at our schedule next year, there’s probably six Top-25 opponents that are going to be on that schedule. So what a great opportunity and a great experience for our kids to be down here in San Diego competing against a team like the University of Iowa.”
Iowa’s strength is by far its defense, as the Hawkeyes have allowed just 13 points per game and possess talented players at all three levels. Helton said they remind him of Cal, in terms of teams the Trojans played this season.
“A big front that is athletic, good linebackers, good front, with a secondary that just doesn’t blow coverages and the safeties get heavily involved,” Helton said of the Iowa defense.
It’s considered a bend-but-don’t-break defense, as it doesn’t put itself in position to give up big plays and they are consistently in the right place.
“It’s one of the best defensive fronts we’ve faced all year,” Helton said. “And I think they do a great job on first and second down efficiency. They are so well-coached. You don’t see them missing assignments or getting out of gaps and if they get you in third-and-long, they are elite. I truly believe their pass rush on third down allows them to play advantage coverages because they can — they can rush four and get to you, and that’s always a deterrent for offenses.
“You have to stay in that third-and-manageable against them, and that’s how they are, that bend-but-don’t-break, because they get off the field. You look at that third down percentage efficiency, it’s one of the top 20 in the country, and as well as their defense, and it’s the reason that they are only giving up 13 points a game.”
The Trojans will be without running back Markese Stepp in this game. Stepp has been out since injuring his ankle against Arizona in mid-October. There was a thought he could return against Iowa, but Helton said that won’t happen.
“He’ll be out,” Helton said of Stepp. “Just has not progressed the way we want to, and his confidence level is not there. He’s practicing. But when you’re talking about a 230-pound man, that has to put a foot in the ground.”
The Trojans could also be without starting right tackle Drew Richmond. Helton said it would be 50/50 as to whether Richmond will play. If he can’t go, guard Jalen McKenzie would likely slide out to tackle, while Liam Jimmons could start at guard.
Iowa is very healthy heading into this game, according to Ferentz. Wide receiver Brandon Smith suffered an injury the same day Stepp suffered his, but Smith is likely to return against USC.
Asked about the overall positive health of his team, Ferentz said, “Yeah, unless somebody gets hit by a bus today. Hopefully we can get through today and tomorrow. We always seem to have some drama.
“Again, we see arrows going up right now with guys, they have been out working. Great to get Brandon back. I don’t know if he’s full speed but he’s pretty close and hopefully as Coach mentioned, his confidence level, just hasn’t played in a while, but great to get him back.”
The Trojans will have one final chance to make a statement in this 2019 season, and Iowa will present a tough test. The Hawkeyes haven’t run the ball extremely well this season, but they certainly believe they are tough and strong enough up front to impose their will on the USC defense front. On the other side, the USC wide receivers need to continue doing what they’ve done in every win this season, dominating opposing defensive backs and making life easier for true freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis.
A win against Iowa won’t completely erase the concerns of the entire Trojan fan base right now, but it would give USC some real momentum heading into the regular signing period and toward spring ball.
“It’s a great moment to be honest with you,” Helton said. “This is the reward you get for the finish that both Iowa and USC had, finishing so strong down the stretch. You get to play these type of big games, and I think that outside the Playoff, somebody told me there’s only three Top-25 matchups and to have a Big Ten/Pac 12 matchup, man, that’s special. No. 16 versus No. 22, with these type of fan bases that do travel, let’s all live in the moment because the moment is going to be fun tomorrow.”