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IMHO Saturday Special: Rocky Mountain High in Colorado

In my humble opinion, cardinal and gold thoughts on what I see, what I hear, and what I think from Folsom Field in Boulder, Colorado.

IMHO: We interrupt the following programing for a special USC football news bulletin: We can confirm the Trojans have actually won a road game in 2019, their first road victory since Nov. 3, 2018, when they dominated mighty Oregon State, 38-21, at Reser Stadium.So, celebrate and sing as we cue John Denver’s classic “Rocky Mountain High.” The facts: It wasn’t easy, and that’s an understatement.Despite playing with an offense that was operating with a depleted running back corps, a reshuffled defensive line, and an inexperienced, youthful secondary that continues to learn on the job, the Trojans (5-3, 4-1 Pac-12 South) managed to continue their march towards a Pac-12 South Division title with a pulsating 35-31 Friday night victory over the host Colorado Buffaloes (3-5, 1-4 Pac-12 South) in cold but surprisingly comfortable Folsom Field.

IMHO – Part 2: With just four games to go in the regular season and now riding a modest two-game conference winning streak, the Trojans turn to next week’s enormous battle with No. 11 Oregon in the Coliseum, a game that could propel the Men of Troy to a bigger cushion from the other Pac-12 South aspirants. An upset victory over the Ducks next weekend could go a long way in deciding the fate of the 2019 Trojans and Clay Helton, but there is still a lot – we repeat – a lot to prove and work to be done. Friday night’s victory will be remembered for true freshman Kedon Slovis’s performance in the final quarter, which included two lightening touchdown strikes to Michael Pittman of 44 and 37 yards, the later the game winner, where Trojan legends are made. They Trojans had been down 31-21 entering the final quarter, so this was a big, no, make that a huge comeback considering their previous road record. As for Colorado, they now have extended their losing streak to the Trojans to a eye-popping record of 14-0. Wowzers!

IMHO – Part 3: Friday night’s nerve-rattling victory over Colorado was very significant given the fact that the Trojans were 0-3 on the road going into their contest in Boulder. The victory in Folsom Field brought enormous smiles to the faces of the team in the white visiting uniforms, and you could tell that the proverbial monkey off the Trojans back; it was that evident. Thanks to a gutsy effort by Trojans backups who took advantage of their new extended playing opportunities, the victory over a game Colorado team can’t be underestimated. The significance of the road victory for confidence also can’t be underestimated given the fact that the Cardinal and Gold have two critical road games remaining at Arizona State and Cal, respectively.  

IMHO offensively: Simply put, the final Trojans’ winning touchdown drive, a 12 play, 89-yard march may be remembered as wide receiver Michael Pittman (7 receptions for 156 yards and 2 TDs) running a crossing pattern and turning the corner, which seemed to shock the Colorado secondary. It was a play that the Buffs secondary in the area had to say, “Did he just do that?” Yep, he sure did, which brought the surprisingly good USC fan turnout and TMB band to their collective feet. Almost lost in that final late fourth quarter drive were also big key plays like a 14-yard pass to Pittman on 3rd and 10 and a Slovis 19-yard pass to freshman Drake London to the 50 on 2nd and 20. In terms of running, although freshman Kenan Christon (85 yds rushing on 14 carries) didn’t explode for a long TD run this time around, he was on the end of a 3-yard touchdown reception from Slovis in the second quarter. If anything, Christon proved that he could catch the ball in a big moment and wasn’t fazed by the intensity of the Buffs’ fans.

Thanks to Michael Pittman’s 37-yard TD reception and run, it allowed the Trojans to break their three-game road losing streak and allowed the team to celebrate after with USC fans and the band.

As for Kedon Slovis, the kid showed again he could take hit – and he took many even though he was sacked an official two times. Kedon threw for 406 yards (30-44-1) and four TD passes. Impressive was the fact that after he threw his only interception on drive No 2 of the game, he didn’t crawl into a fetal position but bounced back nicely, and he bounced back from some nasty hits. Speaking of nicely, junior reciever Tyler Vaughns had a significant game with eight receptions and 104 yards with a touchdown grab (21 yds.). The Trojans offensive line did what they had to do and allowed just one sack, but there were times they didn’t help keep Colorado linemen from getting their licks in on Slovis, which is problematic.        

IMHO defensively: The defense didn’t start off well when CU ran a double-reverse – again the Trojans get burned on a reverse – and the Trojans’ DT Caleb Trembley was also called for a horse collar tackle at the end of the play. The Buffs then proceeded to march 70 yards for a 22-yard field goal. To be generous, give Clancy Pendergast’s defense credit for holding the Buffs. However, the Trojans continued to miss tackles, and that resulted in an early second quarter 7-yard touchdown reception by WR KD Nixon from Mendez. The rest of the way it was more of the same – missed tackles, inability to stop the run, and we could go on and on, but what’s the point? At least in the final quarter, the Trojans defense did rise to the occasion, but there were some really questionable calls by the Buffs’ coaching staff. I shudder to read WeAreSC’s crack defensive analyst Kevin Bruce’s review. Probably best not to eat before reading Kev’s analysis. Seriously, in the first half alone, the Buffs had 256 total yards compared to 221 for the Men of Troy. As it were, CU had 520 yards in offense, which outdid the USC offense by two yards, but who’s counting?

Trojans’ defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast Photo above) will have his work cut out for his unit when they face the high-scoring Oregon Ducks next Saturday in the Coliseum

The Trojans were lucky in the first half that Colorado kept shooting itself in the football with 49 yards in penalties. In the second half, it took just the first two plays for NFL-bound receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. to beat freshman Isaac Taylor-Stuart on a slant for a 71-yard eye-popper. I guess if you want to point to a positive defensive note, Pendergast’s defense held the Buffs to just 14 points and shut them out in the fourth and deciding quarter. As the aforementioned, it helped the Trojans defense when Colorado’s clock management left a lot to be desired like those deep, incomplete passes that stopped the clock and some really questionable timeouts.     

IMHO special teams: It was that type of night when the normally reliable Chase McGrath missed a 40-yard field goal with 6:03 in the third quarter, and it could have proved costly until the Trojans’ offense struck for those two lightening TD strikes in the final stanza. In fact, in the battle of field goal kickers, Chase McGrath was 0-1 and the Buffs’ James Stefanou was 1 for 1 (22 yds.). In the battle of punters, the Trojans’ Ben Griffiths had four boots for 184 yards and a 46.0 average while Colorado’s Alex Kinney punted six times for 254 yards and a 42/3 average. Special mention should also go to Troy’s kickoff performer Alex Stadthaus, who had six kickoffs including five touchbacks.

Punter Ben Griffiths (photo above) continues to become more a factor in recent games.

Bottom Line: The Trojans finally got a road win in 2019 and that was extremely important with future road games at ASU and Cal. The Men of Troy also displayed a relentless drive not to cave when things got tough. As the old saying goes, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” And they did. However, the offense seems to be making the best of a tough situation, but the defense still has to come to the party in a number of areas in spite of their injury situation. Next week, the Trojans’ defense is going to be severely tested by a high-octane Oregon offense.  In the post-game interviews, this Trojan team expressed they believe they can win the South Division and mentioned more than once their dream of going to the Rose Bowl. If they can win out – which will be extremely tough – they will have earned it. No question about that.  

The infirmary: None reported.

Next up: The Trojans return to the Coliseum for a Saturday night tilt with the No. 11 Oregon Ducks in a major Pac-12 Conference battle. Kickoff time is 5 p.m. PDT (FOX).

The Trojans/Colorado quote book…

Clay Helton comments: “Glory to God; we have a bunch of great kids and that was a great college football game tonight. We knew walking in here that Colorado plays great ball at their place. You’re looking at a team that was averaging 35 points a game every time they play at home with a great stadium and a great fan base. A hard, hard, day and a hard-fought day. I couldn’t be more proud of every man that is in that (locker) room.”

 Clay Helton comments – Part 2: “To walk in at halftime one score down and say, ‘guys, all we have to do is our job, keep fighting, take a deep breath, be poised, and you’ll walk away as winners.’ Literally those kids fought and fought all the way to the last second. Special play made by Ken (Kedon Slovis) after a young mistake (interception), came back and played like a dang pro.”

Clay Helton comments – Part 3: On how meaningful it was to finally win a road game, Helton said, “Very, for the future and now. They kept saying in there (locker room) that this is our opportunity at a championship, and we needed this game to still be able to control our own destiny – open the road and in a tough environment with a team that has been playing some really good football. So just to walk out of here still on top of the Pac-12 South is special.”

Nobody was happier with the USC win against Colorado on Friday night than head coach Clay Helton (photo above in the middle). Offense stars WR Michael Pittman (left) and QB Kedon Slovis (right) join the head coach in the post-game press conference.

Clay Helton comments – Part 4: On the turning point of the game, Helton said, “I really felt when the defense came together. We were having some issues keeping Steven (Montez) contained, he was breaking the pocket. We knew how he was dangerous once he got outside the box. I thought we did a little bit better job in the second half of not only keeping him back there but forcing the throw to come out on time. But also slowing down the running game; that was really rolling in the first half. I think that the biggest fact was their third down efficiency in the second half, especially on third downs. We found way to get stops and get off the field. I think that was a critical step for us to be able to get balls back offensively.”

Colorado head coach Mel Tucker comments: “That was a tough one for us. Give USC credit. They made more plays than we made. They have a good football team, good players, and good coaches. Our guys played hard on both sides of the ball and special teams. We felt like this was a game where we could get something done on offense.”

Colorado head coach Mel Tucker comments – Part 2: On his team’s missed opportunities, Tucker said, “We had our opportunities on both sides of the ball. We were able to get the ball out. We felt like we were going to be able to get to the quarterback and get the ball on the ground and we did. We just didn’t have enough guys there to get on it. I am not looking to make any excuses for anything. They made more plays than we made. We had our opportunities and weren’t able to get it done. That is the story of it.”

Colorado coach Mel Tucker (photo above) was impressed with the Trojans even in a losing effort for his Buffs.

OC Graham Harrell: “We have a room full of guys we believe in and a room full of receivers that we believe in. The 5-wide package is something we worked on all week. We thought it would be really good for us. It put our best football players on the field, and that’s good for us.”

WR Michael Pittman Jr.: On his winning touchdown 37-yard reception, Pittman modestly said, “The line held up, Kedon threw a great ball, and hit me in stride, and I kind of ran around the defense. That’s it.”

RB Kenan Christon: On his first career start, Christon said, “It feels great. The older guys have supported me a lot, and I took it all in and played my heart out. Playing a full game taught me how to pace myself. It showed me how much it’s going to take to play a full game instead of a half.

RB Kenan Christon – Part 2:
On his swing pass touchdown, Christon said, “ We went through it a lot in practice, so it was pretty easy to run it in the game. I was surprised I was so open.”

Getting his first start, true freshman running back Kenan Christon (photo above) scored against Colorado on a 3-yard swing pass.

SLB Hunter Echols: On the Trojans’ team victory, Echols said, “I always go on the field and have fun with my teammates. We put on a show for the fans, had fun, played together, and fought together.”

NK Greg Johnson:
“We’re trying to get to that Rose Bowl, and we’re taking it one game at a time. At halftime, we said to each other we have to leave it all out there. We came together and came close as a team.”

C Brett Neilon:
“Our O-line was communicating well. We had to score (on the winning drive). We were determined. Between all of us, we knew we had to score. That was our mentality, and we weren’t going to be turned down. I thought as a collective unit, we were hyping each other up.”

Center Brett Neilon (photo above) has been a steady force all season long and said the Colorado win on the road gave the team a lot of confidence for the rest of the way.

CU QB Steven Montez:
“I mean, yeah, I’m not big into moral victories when you’re kind of right there, but I think we did some positive things, some things that we can definitely build on in the future, but we have to do a little bit more and get it done.”

CU S Mikisal Onu:
“They did some good things. Credit to them. They made some play and made more plays than we did. They capitalized on plays. When we get takeaway opportunities, we have to take advantage. I felt like we didn’t do that today.”

From the press box…

Temperature: Folsom Field kickoff temperature was clear and 52 degrees.

Cold, what cold: Prior to official warmups, the Trojan team showed no acknowledgement of the cool weather by working out in USC T-shirts and shorts. Even an ESPN2 end zone cameraman showed distain for the elements by wearing shorts.

The Trojans showed not fear for the cold weather in Folsom Field (photo above) during unofficial warmups after arriving at the stadium.

Heat, what heat: Of course, you’d expect that it’s going to be cold at some point at Folsom Field, and you dress appropriately. Folsom Field is an old stadium and has some real old-time quirks in seating locations and so does the inside the press box. Upon getting our press box seat, which had a great view (35-yarde line), I sat down to learn that the windows were like a sliding glass door, which was okay. However, they had a very intense heating system under the press box table, and it felt like your legs to your face were under an intense heat lamp. I mean you could roast marshmallows and S’mores and still get a tan at the same time.

Folsom Field seems to be attached to quirky seating arrangements (photo above). The whole stadium seems part of other buildings, which give it a unique personality of its own.

Snow down: It snowed in Boulder on Thursday but was sunny on Friday with temps reaching the mid-60s. However, starting Sunday, there were signs on the Colorado campus that snow had not left the campus from Wednesday and early Thursday morning’s drop. 

Just outside Folsom Field (photo above), there were examples of a recent snow drop in Boulder. The Trojans lucked out as snow is forecast for later in the weekend.

Turnstiles: Folsom Field attendance was announced as 48,913. Capacity is listed as 51,183.

No Ralphie: One of the great college football traditions is when Ralphie the buffalo leads Colorado football team onto the field. However, Ralphie did not make the traditional run after being lined up to do so Inside of Folsom Field and a favorite fan photo-op is a statue of Ralphie, and, of course, encouragement to beat the Trojans.

Although “Ralphie” the buffalo mascot didn’t make his traditional run before kickoff due to a “temperament” issue, which was a danger for folks on the field. However, there is still a statue (photo above) of the famous buffalo inside of Folsom Field.

Opps: At the end of the first quarter, the very enthusiastic public address announcer said, “That’s the end of the third period.” One veteran LA wag remarked, “It only seems that way.” Zing!

The blackout: Students and fans of Colorado wore black in the wearing apparel as the game was designated as a “blackout” game.

Colorado fans Photo above) were encouraged to wear black for the USC game, but it didn’t help their cause.

After further review: At Wednesday’s presser, Clay Helton said he was excited about the game plan for Colorado, which was tailored to the depleted running back situation. Helton said, “I really like the game plan that offensive coordinator Graham Harrell has put together and I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.” A lot of fun translated into an offense that featured Amon-Ra St. Brown as a running back, which resulted in a St. Brown’s 37-yard TD run in which a broke a tackle on his way to the promised land.

NFL draft: NFL scouts in attendance, of which there were many, included the Panthers, Dolphins, Buccaneers, Bills, Cardinals, Giants, Browns, Colts, Cowboys, and Broncos.

Let’s go bowling: The Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl had reps in the press box.

The menu: The Folsom Field press box pregame “dinner” menu included meat loaf (BBQ sauce option), brats, mashed potatoes with gravy, pasta, salad, dinner rolls, fruit, brownies, cookies (chocolate chip, sugar). So far, the best spread outside of the Notre Dame press box. Of course, the press box “dinner” was sponsored by Benders Sports Bar & Grill. Even after the game, the food sponsors had club sandwiches and chicken wings.

No question that Colorado’s press box pregame meal (photo above) has been by far the best of the press boxes this season. Food was even served after the game to the hungry scribes.

The post-game show numbers…     

Tackling the issues: Senior inside linebacker John Houston led the Trojans with 9 tackles followed by sophomore inside linebacker Kana’i Mauga with 8 tackles.

Upward trend: Against Colorado, the Trojans scored 35 points. Prior to the game with the Buffaloes, the Trojans were averaging 30.71 points per game.

Upward trend: Against Colorado the Trojans allowed 31 points. Prior to the game with the Buffaloes, Trojans’ defense was allowing 24.0 points per game. 

Upward trend: Against Colorado, the Trojans had 518 yards in total offense. Prior to the game with the Buffaloes, the Trojans were averaging 431.6 yards in total offense per game.

Upward trend: Against Colorado, the Trojans defense allowed 520 total yards in total offense. Prior to the game with the Buffaloes, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 416.4 in total yards per game.

Downward trend: Against Colorado, the Trojans had 112 net yards rushing. Prior to the game with the Buffaloes, the Trojans were averaging 151.1 rushing yards per game. 

Upward trend: Against Colorado, the Trojans allowed 196 net rushing yards. Prior to the game with the Buffaloes, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 189.3 rushing yards per game.

Upward trend: Against Colorado, the Trojans had 406 yards passing yards. Prior to the game with the Buffaloes, Trojans were averaging 280.43 passing yards per game.  

Upward trend: Against Colorado, the Trojans allowed 324 passing yards. Prior to the game with the Buffaloes, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 227.14 passing yards per game.

Time of possession: The Trojans had the ball 25:53 minutes while Colorado had the ball for 34:07minutes.  

Downward flag waving: Against Colorado, the Trojans had five penalties for 50 yards while the Buffs had 13 penalties for 109 yards. Prior to the Colorado game, the Trojans were averaging 69.6 penalty yards per game while the opposition was averaging 55.71 penalty yards per game.

The post-game call-in show:

Caller No. 1: Katz, if the Trojans actually won the Pac-12 South, won the Pac-12 title game, and went to the Rose Bowl, do you think Clay Helton would still be fired? No, if the Trojans go to the Rose Bowl, I would be surprised if he was dismissed. I do think, however, Helton has to not only get to the Pac-12 title game but win it to keep his job. For many Trojans fans, if the Men of Troy went to the Rose Bowl, they – form the moment – would be happy, I am not convinced they would be big-picture happy if that meant that Helton would be retained for another season. Call it winning the battle but losing the war.    

It may be Rose Bowl or bust for Clay Helton (photo above) to keep his job as the Trojans’ head football coach.

Caller No. 2: Mr. Katz, don’t you think that you might have gone overboard last weekend by suggesting that running backs Markese Stepp and Kenan Christon might be the “second coming of Thunder and Lightning (AKA LenDale White and Reggie Bush)”? No, not really. For the record, I wrote the comparison in the form of a question: The second coming of Thunder and Lightning? What does concern me, however, is the current offense and how the two exciting new running back are used and given the opportunity to be productive, especially if and when Vavae Malepeai (not likely) and Stephen Carr (hamstring) return. Of course, the speculation of Stepp and Christon has been greatly tempered after learning that Stepp’s surgery on an ankle ligament, which will put Markese on the shelf for some weeks to come. And, of course, both Stepp and Christon have to be healthy at the same time to make some sort of comparison.    

Caller No. 3: Greg, if you could make three adjustments to Graham Harrell’s offense, what would you do? Great question, Caller No. 3. Give me three suggestions and I would say put in some screen passes, draw plays, and perhaps even more importantly, some misdirection running plays to help the Trojans’ offensive line.

Will Trojans’ offensive coordinator Graham Harrell (photo above) add some screens, draws, or some misdirection to the playbook before the 2019 season is completed?

Caller No. 4: Are you surprised that the young secondary with all the adjustments has been workable? Quietly, I think that secondary coach Greg Burns has been able to get through to his very young and inexperienced freshmen group and deserves credit. I also like – in talking with the young talent – how receptive they are to his coaching and the enthusiasm they display. We’ll learn more about this group after next week’s game with Oregon and their NFL quarterback prospect Justin Herbert.

Caller No. 5: G-man, do you think all this talk about the lack of tackling in practice is being overblown? Absolutely not. You can’t hide what you see in games. It appears that the Trojans practice their tackling in games. I understand Clay Helton’s fear of getting players hurt in practice during a long season, but Pete Carroll’s teams practiced hard with intense tackling drills and it didn’t hurt his teams and create more injuries. Each coach has his own philosophy and priorities, but you can see the results for yourself.   

Caller No. 6: Mr. K, do you think that if Clay Helton is fired, former Trojan Jack Del Rio should be considered as a major candidate for the position? Absolutely. Right now, USC fans are numb to a series of horrible selections of former inexperienced Trojan football players for positions of authority – namely Pat Haden and Lynn Swann – not to mention coaches like Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian, who while not former players were former Carroll assistant coaches. It should not restrict Del Rio from head coaching consideration because he is a former player and coaches and recent selections of former USC players for positions of authority that didn’t turn out well. JDR should be judged on his own resume and merit. IMHO, Jack was cut loose from the Oakland Raiders not because of performance, but the Raiders were intent on getting John Gruden as their coach. For the USC job, I think that Jack – who has no ties to the recent wave of USC hirings and firings – would more than hold his own in guiding the USC football program.

Former Trojans’ All-American linebacker and NFL coach Jack Del Rio (photo above) is a possible candidate if the USC head football coaching position opens.

 Caller No. 7: Gregmeister, have you heard the rumor that former USC athletic official Mark Jackson, current AD at Villanova, is not a candidate for the AD job? I don’t know if this is true, but I have heard and read about Jackson not being in the AD mix, although he was seen at the recent USC/Villanova basketball game working the handshake curcuit. I will say I would be surprised if Jackson is named the AD to be honest, especially after he was a major player in leading the charge to have Steve Sarkisian as the Trojans’ head coach.     

Caller No. 8: Sir, have you adjusted to the media not being to watch a full practice during the season? Honestly, I don’t worry about it anymore, but I do feel sorry that we can’t pass on information to the fans on what is really happening in practice. By covering practice, we were able to confirm or invalidate information such as the team practicing tackling, a perfectly valid fan concern. As said above, You don’t practice in a game.

Caller No. 9: Mr. Katz, during a game you’re covering, do writers like yourself get text messages from former players and fans? My lips are sealed, but, yes, I do. In fact, you would be shocked if you knew what former Trojans players and legends text to not only me but other members of the media during a game. It is rather insightful but sobering. Many of the “texters” are household names in the annals of USC football. This is where you really feel the rage over the current football situation – fair or unfair.  

Caller No. 10: Sir, what are your three favorite sports related movies? I guess when I think about this question, there is some sentimentality in my selections. First, I would say “Field of Dreams.” I never cease to get emotional when Ray plays that last game of catch with his ghost father. I don’t know many guys that don’t tear up when they see that scene. The second flick for me is “Hoosiers” because I played basketball and coached varsity basketball and can relate to the love a team and the love players have for each other over the course of a season. The end “Hoosiers” where you hear the echo of Coach Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) saying, “I love you, guys,” gets to me. Been there. The last sports movie is a tie the more I think about it.  Probably – which will probably draw catcalls from Trojans fans – is “Rudy.” The whole idea of somebody having a goal and overcoming adversity to achieve that goal and the very real game-day football experience of a Notre Dame game is uplifting. The other “tie for third” is “The Natural” with Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs. Aside from the fact that The Natural is a fantasy, the scene at the end when Roy meets about his love-child son and is shown at the end of the movie playing catch with him is very touching. I guess with all these films my age brings out the emotion.

Is there a dry eye for any person who has watched the ending of Field of Dreams with Kevin Costner (photo above). having a final game of catch with his ghost father? What a tearjerker. Pass the Kleenex.

Greg Katz

Now entering his 59th season of either writing, broadcasting, or just plain watching USC football, WeAreSC columnist Greg Katz began his affiliation with the website back in 2001, introducing his well-received O/NSO (The Obvious/The Not So Obvious) column and later adding his respected IMHO Sunday opinion and tidbits column. Greg, a former ESPN.com college football columnist covering USC, is also a member of the Football Writer's Association of America. He is also known in Southern California as a professional public address announcer, having called the the 1996 Rose Bowl Game between USC and Northwestern. Greg also holds a master's degree in athletic administration and was a former varsity high school coach of 27 years.

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