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IMHO Saturday: The Coliseum resurrection

In my humble opinion, cardinal and gold thoughts on what I see, what I hear, and what I think from Los Angeles.

IMHO: Well, anybody want to stand up again and say that JT Daniels is just a freshman quarterback? Yeah, and the Beatles were just a band and Moby Dick was just a whale. Don’t tell Washington State head coach Mike Leach about Daniels who played like a veteran in final quarter against his Cougars and with perhaps the Trojans’ season on the line. In what really was a must win for both the Trojans and their heavily scrutinized head coach Clay Helton, it was more than just a narrow 39-36 victory on Friday night in the Coliseum. It was – maybe – a small turning of a corner that gave their freshman quarterback Daniels (17 of 26/ 241 yds./ 3 TDs/ O int.) more maturity and experience in a tight game and increased his connection among his receivers – namely Michael Pittman (2 rec./72 yds/ 1 TD), Tyler Vaughns (7 rec./64 yds./ 1 TD), Velus Jones Jr. (2 rec./48 yds./) and Amon-Rah St. Brown (2 rec./38 yds./1 TD) , and. The arrival of Pittman, Vaughns, and Jones to the love connection with the already established Daniels to St. Brown is a welcomed sight.

IMHO – Part 2: The USC Trojans (2-2 overall, 1-1 Pac-12) hadn’t won a football game since Sept. 1 against UNLV; that was until the arrival of undefeated Washington State, who played most of the game like an undefeated team on Friday night. For Clay Helton’s Trojans, a previous two-game losing streak on the road resulted in a team looking dazed, confused, and at times beaten up along the way, and did we mention being outscored 54-17 in the previous eight quarters? So, it was a major shot of enthusiasm, adrenaline and confidence when the Men of Troy took advantage of the comforts of home by surviving Washington State (3-1 overall, 0-1 Pac-12). If any major college team in America desperately needed a win, it was this coach and this team wearing the home colors of cardinal and gold. And a 18-game Coliseum winning streak (13 consecutive Pac-12 victims) ain’t bad either .

IMHO – Part 3: And, yes, we can confirm – yes, you were not hallucinating – that was what you that you saw in the final quarter – JT Daniels taking the snap under center in the legendary John McKay’s I-formation with redshirt freshman “fullback” Brett Neilon (normally a backup center but wearing No. 99) leading sophomore tailback Vavae Malepeai (13 c/80 yds/2 TDs) into the end zone for a 2-yard, game-winning score. And, yes, when it counted in the final minutes, the Trojans actually had somewhat of a pass rush and the secondary tightened up considerably. It was a comforting sight to behold. So, will the I-formation offensively and defensively increased playing time for young D-liners like Jay Tufele and Marlon Tuipulotu continue? Probably yes on the second comment and, hopefully, for the first comment. The Trojans running game sure looks a helleva lot better when the tailback is preceded by a blocking fullback. Just ask Washington State’s front seven.

IMHO – Part 4: In a quick synopsis, the offense did what it had to do, although the running game still sputtered for just 113 yards, but that could change if head coach Clay Helton and OC Tee Martin roll the dice and put their offense in the I-formation more than just token appearance. It was – to be frank – a spark plug to their offense. That fullback made all the difference in the world. Do we expect it to happen? Probably not to the extent we would like, but probably more than just a passing thought that was put in this past week of practice. As for the defense, there are still problems with the pass rush and there was still too much run yardage for a team like Washington State to get (91 yds and a TD), but the young D-line showed promise. The secondary still has some major holes as demonstrated and revealed by Washington State (344 yds. passing/3 TDs). However, when it counted the most, they held it together at crunch time – bend but don’t break. DL Jay Tufele’s blocked WSU 38-yard field goal attempt by Blake Mazza to tie the game at 1:41 remaining in the game was the difference.

IMHO – Part 5: And let’s give some applause to the Trojans’ special teams. No getting around it, Coach John Baxter’s units played unquestionably better, and nobody can say that the work in practice this past week to block field goals wasn’t rewarded on Friday night.  New sophomore walk-on placekicker Michael Brown connected on a 26-yard field at the end of the half, and he converted all four PATs. Going back to a single traditional punter, Reid Budrovich had five punts for a 39.4 average (long of 54 yds.). Freshman kickoff artist Alex Stadthaus had a fine night with four touchbacks. On kickoff returns, Stephen Carr (photo above) had a nice 25-yard return, and Velus Jones had a 35-yard jaunt. All in all, it a great appreciated turnaround from the special teams disaster in Texas.

Bottom line: The Trojans still have a long and treacherous road ahead. This big conference win is just that – one conference win – and there are still some glaring holes. The offensive line is still shaky, and the identity of the offense still remains a question mark. Still, the win was critical. The Trojans aren’t in the national playoff picture, but like in Clay Helton’s past teams, they still have a shot at winning the Pac-12 South and getting to the conference title game. How much these Trojans can improve is a huge question. What we do know is that the answers will be forthcoming, and it starts with a South Division battle against Arizona in Tucson next Saturday night.

Tackling the issues: Senior All-Pac-12 linebacker Cameron Smith led the Trojans with 15 tackles.

Sack exchange: Trojans were credited with just one sack, which was provided by linebacker Porter Gustin. For the record, Washington State recorded two sacks.

The infirmary: No injuries reported.

Next Saturday Night: The Trojans continue Pac-12 play next Saturday evening visiting South Division rival Arizona Wildcats. On Saturday, Arizona plays at Oregon State.

The Trojans/Washington State quote book…

Trojans head coach Clay Helton comments: “I’ve always thought that adversity defines who you are and being down two scores defined who they are as men. I can’t tell you how proud I am of them. It was a great football game between two good football teams. We each took blows at each other and at the end of the day we made one more play. I thought we made a stride. This was a big Pac-12 win, a much-needed win and it was great to be home in the Coliseum.”

Clay Helton comments – On JT Daniels performance: “This week in practice you could feel the chemistry coming. I told Tyler (Vaughns) that their chemistry was that far away. You could feel it in practice and I was hoping it was going to show up in the game. Both JT (Daniels) and the wide receivers did a tremendous job with our PO game. When they brought zero pressure, making the right decisions, giving the kids opportunities to make plays. He continues to progress with each game.”

Clay Helton comments – On running the John McKay I-formation with a fullback: “That’s Trojan Football. That’s something we put in this week and practiced a lot. I thought the kids got good at it. To be able to score on that drive and make it 39 with that package and end the game that way, it was a great investment and something we will continue to do.”

Clay Helton comments – On the blocked field goal: “It’s a block that we’ve had in our package a long time. We put it in this week special and credit John Baxter. He had it based on which hash and which gap. The kids knew exactly what to do. Our last meeting, we showed the gap that would be open. Great call by Cam (Smith), he made that call and it was the absolutely perfect call at that time.”

WSU coach Mike Leach comments on the blocked field goal: “It looked like they got a pretty good push and it looked like we struck it low.”

Leach – Part 2 – On the 3rd and 6 call before the field goal attempt: “It was a play. In hindsight, I wish it was a different play, but in hindsight I wish a lot of plays were different.”

Leach – Part 3 – On the success of the WSU offense: “I thought we played pretty good. We played hard across the board. I thought we had chance to win on all 3 sides of the ball. I think our effort is great. But we need to become a more consistent team.”

Leach – Part 4 – On defending the Trojans offense and JT Daniels: “We gave up explosives, and I thought we could’ve affected the QB more.”

JT Daniels speaks – On his evolving success with his receivers against WSU: “I think it’s an increase in productivity between me and Tyler (Vaughns) and me and Pitt (Michael Pittman), me a Velus (Jones). It comes down to more practice time and getting used to each other more and more. Knowing where they want me to put the ball and that they’re going to go up and get it every time it’s there.”

JT speaks – Part 2 – On his performance: Daniels said, “Each game is more experience. Things I can learn from in this game. Personally, I am pretty happy with this one. Things to learn from and things to celebrate.”

An opponent’s view of JT Daniels: WSU nickel back Hunter Dale said, “He’s a very good QB. His team is good around him. They have some athletes, and he trusts his players around him to make plays.”

The reception: Going over his 30-yard TD reception from JT Daniels in the final quarter, true freshman Amon-Ra St. Brown said, “It was an important drive for us, they called the play, and JT threw a great ball and the line protected great. I ran the route and I looked back at JT and thought he didn’t throw it to me. But I heard the crowd go loud and thought the ball must be in the air, so I looked up. The ball was right there, and I caught it at the last second.”

Cameron Smith speaks – On the blocked field goal: “I saw their guard lunging and falling and so I knew that if we ran it right it would work perfectly. It was one of those things we practice and planned it and it worked our way.”

Cameron speaks – Part 2: On being undefeated at home under Clay Helton: “I’m sure there’s known facts that go into it. But we walk out there with a sense of pride because we’re in the Coliseum. We see guys in the tunnel painted on the wall that were there before us. It hits me in right the heart. This is something that we gotta take onto us and play hard. It feels good to be home. We took two on the chin and now we’re moving on. Feels good to get this win and move on from here.”

The blocker: Recalling his game-saving blocked field goal, redshirt freshman defensive tackle Jay Tufele said, “Coach John Baxter said we were going to get one today. He was emphasizing it during the meeting today. Get ready for the ‘B’ move. I said, ‘Got ya, coach, got ya coach.’ When I get my chance, I am going to put my all in it. I got the opportunity to do it. It was great and a whole team effort. When I blocked the kick I said, ‘Hell yeah, game over.’”

Telling it as is it is: Asked about the secondary challenges playing Washington State, senior safety Marvell Tell lll said, “They pass a lot and do a lot of good things. It’s a credit to Mike Leach and his staff. We got the job done tonight and that’s all that matters. For the most part, I think we (secondary) did a pretty good job. We had a couple of tough series, but for the most part, we did okay and got the win.”

The fullback: Asked to play fullback in the I-formation in the fourth quarter, center Brett Neilon, who wore No.99 over his No. 62 jersey, said, “I love it, it’s a lot of fun. The coaches Monday introduced this idea of running a kind of ‘Thor’ idea of playing fullback, and I was super excited waiting for the challenge. It was a great time. I didn’t have to worry about snapping it. I was able to go full speed (at fullback) and hit somebody. I loved it. It’s the first time of getting into that three-point stance and being in the backfield. It was a lot of fun.”

From the press box…

Temperature: The kickoff temperature was a comfortable 70 degrees.

Tunnel leaders: Leading the Trojans out of the Coliseum tunnel prior to kickoff were former quarterback Mark Sanchez and former center Kris O’Dowd.

Cover boy: On the game program cover was Trojans’ senior defensive back Ajene Harris.

Legacy: Holding for Washington State extra points was backup QB Trey Tinsley, son of former USC quarterback Scott Tinsley (1979-82).

Scouting: NFL scouts in attendance included Chargers, Jets, Giants, Dolphins, Bears, Colts, Cowboys, Jaguars, Texans, Buccaneers, Bills, and from the CFL Saskatchewan Roughriders.

Bowls: There were no post-season bowl representatives in attendance.

Halftime time limit: Because this was a Pac-12 Conference Game, under a new conference rule halftime is only 15 minutes.

The post-game show numbers…

Going up: Against WSU, the Trojans scored 39 points. Prior to the Cougars’ game, the Trojans were averaging 20.0 points per game.

Going up: Against WSU, the Trojans allowed 36 points. Prior to the Cougars’ game, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 25.0 points per game.

Going down: Against WSU, the Trojans had 354 yards in total offense. Prior to the Cougars’ game, the Trojans was averaging 383.3 yards in total offense per game.

Going up up: Against WSU, the Trojans defense allowed 435 total yards in offense. Prior to the Cougars’ game, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 380.3 total yards per game.

Slight increase: Against WSU, the Trojans had 113 net yards rushing. Prior to the Cougars’ game, the Trojans were averaging 109.3 rushing yards per game.

Major downer: Against WSU, the Trojans allowed 91 net rushing yards. Prior to the Cougars’ game, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 209.0 net yards rushing per game.

Going slightly down: Against WSU, the Trojans had 241 yards passing yards. Prior to the Cougars’ game, the Trojans were averaging 274.0 passing yards per game.

Going way up up up: Against WSU, the Trojans allowed 344 passing yards. Prior to the Cougars’ game, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 171.33 passing yards per game.

Flag waving: Against WSU, the Trojans had eight penalties for 65 yards while WSU had 11 penalties for 118 yards. Prior to the Cougars’ game, the Trojans were averaging 64.0 yards per game.

The last word: So, for a week at least, the Trojans have achieved a victory, but nothing is a given with Clay Helton’s 2018 team. And at least for a week, the building heat on Clay Helton has lowered considerably. For Trojan fans, hope now springs eternal, and the victory over Washington State couldn’t have come soon enough and amen to that.

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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