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IMHO Saturday: Trojans “Fink” on No. 10 Utah

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

IMHO: If I told you that the Trojans lost their starting true freshman quarterback against No. 10 Utah in the first minuteof play, do you think the Men of Troy could win? If I told you the Trojans rushed for 13 yards in four quarters against Utah, do you think the Men of Troy could win? If I told you the Trojans would be penalized 11 times for 117 yards, do you think they could win? And, if I told you the original third-string Trojan quarterback would throw for 351 yards and three touchdowns against the vaunted Utah defense, would you think that possible? And, if I told you the Trojans scored 30 points and Utah 23 points at the end of the fourth quarter, would you believe it? Of course you would on the last account.  

IMHO – Part 2: The USC Trojans (3-1, 2-0 Pac-12) had lost their true freshman starting quarterback Kedon Slovis in the first minute of play against the physical Utah Utes (3-1, 0-1 Pac-12) and were “forced” to play third string junior quarterback Matt Fink (photo above) the rest of the way, the same Fink that was in the NCAA Transfer Portal back in the summer. Well, who could have ever predicted that this once forgotten quarterback from Glendora High would come off the bench and do the improbable – help upset the Utes, 30-23, before an announced crowd of 55,719 in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum – and did we mention all those also watching on national television. And please feel free to remind the visiting Utes who were 3.5-point favorites coming into Friday night’s contest, that pregame eight-game losing streak in Los Angeles has now grown in size to nine games. And guess what? The Trojans now have the inside track to the Pac-12 South Division title; yet we’re still only in September with a long, long way to go in the 2019 season.

IMHO – Part 3: Of course, you knew the Trojans had Utah right where they wanted them when Kedon Slovis went down – sure you did. When Slovis went down with what appeared to be a “ding” (AKA concussion) and Matt Fink entered the game, didn’t some word that begins with the letter “S” or “F” enter your mind? But the Coliseum is to Utah what Notre Dame Stadium has traditionally been to the Men of Troy, a venue which destroys any thoughts of long-term victory streaks. After the game, it’s been awhile since a Trojans team left the Coliseum floor with grins that stretched from Manhattan Beach to Palm Springs and from Disneyland to Magic Mountain. Although they might not admit it, perhaps some of the Trojans even surprised themselves when the clock vanished to three zeros. And the Utes are still trying to figure out this kid named Matt Fink, who replaced Kedon Slovis. Utah got Finked.  

IMHO offensively: You have to give a large amount of credit to Matt Fink in relief of fallen QB Kedon Slovis. Fink showed that he is one helleva competitor. Yeah, he threw for 351 yards and three TD passes (29, 31, 77 yds.), but he also had one costly interception. But given the circumstances, he was very good, and for the most part very composed. One area the Trojans did not employ was Fink’s ability to run, but that was understandable since Matt was the last scholarship quarterback available. That being said, Fink’s ability to scramble out of trouble was uncanny – a job well done.

The Trojans receivers were nothing short of sensational. Utah’s secondary didn’t have an answer, especially for senior Michael Pittman Jr., who accounted for a whopping 232 yards on 10 receptions. Pittman’s 77-yard TD was a reception of beauty. Sophomore Amon-Ra St. Brown was the perfect complement to Pittman, as St. Brown had 68 receiving yards and a 31-yard TD grab from Fink. No, the Trojans didn’t focus in on the tight ends, which is apparently the norm in this Air-Raid offense.

Trojans’ receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown (photo above – No. 8) hauls in a 31-yard TD reception from Matt Fink in the first quarter against Utah

The running game was – how should I put it – non-existent to be kind. I guess 13 total yards won’t make one remember the days of Garrett, Simpson, Allen, Davis, Bush, and White. Honestly, it was pathetic, but some of the credit goes to the stout Utah defensive front. It should be noted that when the game was on the line, Clay Helton and running backs coach Mike Jinks finally gave the ball in short yardage to redshirt sophomore bull, Markese Stepp, who ran for a critical, late fourth quarter 4-yard TD blast. Stepp also made another critical first down late in the game to seal it. Stepp needs to play more…please.

Redshirt freshman Markese Stepp (photo above) bulls his way through the Utah defensive line.

As for the offensive line, they mostly did the job in pass protection, but left a lot to be desired in the run game. Apparently, this will be the norm against physical defensive fronts as witnessed by games against BYU and Utah. If that’s the way it is, we know it now, but it could be telling in upcoming games against Washington and Notre Dame. It seems like there is a physical limit to this group.      

IMHO defensively: The Trojans defense gave up 457 yards, which in most instances leads to a defeat. One of the keys for the USC defense was Utah’s star running back Zack Moss left the game early with an apparent shoulder injury. Don’t discount what that meant for the Utes in the red zone. It probably changed the complexion of the game to be honest. With both Huntley and Moss in the backfield, Utah has quite a combo. However, give the Trojans credit for trying to contain quarterback Huntley, who is like trying to tackle Jell-O. The Trojans’ defense line gave up 247 yards – not good. However, they did try and contain Huntley by not letting the elusive one outside the pocket. A couple of times, the Trojans’ defense got some good shots in and maybe another quarterback needs to leave the field. Huntley is one tough cookie.

I thought the Trojans linebackers were a mixed bad, although it appeared that sophomore linebacker Palaie Gaoteote may have played one of his better games. He was in on a game-high 14 tackles along with senior John Houston. Trojans true freshman Drake Jackson, who finished with eight tackles, seemed to get more adjusted to the physical nature of the game as the contest went along. By the end fourth quarter, he was the culprit in tackling QB Huntley for a critical safety with 8:51 left in the game. The kid is really something and seems to never make the same mistake twice.

However, the USC defensive player that really stood out was sophomore strong safety Talanoa Hufanga. This kid is a tackling machine. This is a future all-star in the making. When Talanoa hits you, you know who No. 15 is by the pain he causes. The Trojans will need him to step up again next week at Seattle; it will be his physical type of game. Obviously, the Trojans secondary was weakened when sophomore corner Olaijah Griffin went out with a back issue. Afterward, Clay Helton said Griffin was taken out for precautionary concerns. Corner Greg Johnson had an impact on the game with a forced fumble and fumble recovery inside the 5-yard line right before the end of the first half. It was also Greg’s second career fumble recovery, both against Utah.   

IMHO special teams: It was nice to see punter Ben Griffiths live somewhat to what he has shown in practice. Ben averaged 42.2 in four punts. On the positive, big Connor Murphy (6-7, 270) had a field goal block, and that certainly had an effect on the game. Another positive was the kickoffs of Michael Brown, who had four touchbacks in the game.  

Bottom Line: This was a huge win for the Trojans against the preseason Pac-12 South Division pick, Utah, However, it’s still only September, and there is a lot of Pac-12 football left to play. But the Trojans would rather be in the position they are in today than the Utah Utes. One note of concern was the penalty yardage (117 yds). If the Trojans are going to stay in the pole position in the Pac-12 South, they have to dramatically cut down on the flags. Utah, with their 120 yards in penalties, certainly showed the way on how to lose games. So, the Trojans are now 2-0 in the Pac-12 with a major away game at Washington. If they can get a more effective running game, they can pull off another upset. The status of Kedon Slovis will be unknown to later in the week it would appear, but for right now, the Trojans know that Matt Fink can do the job and the moment isn’t too big for him.

By his performance, Trojans quarterback Matt Fink (photo above) was on the FS1 post-game show with Reggie Bush (left), Matt Leinart (center), and Urban Meyer (right)

The infirmary: QB Kedon Slovis (possible concussion), DB Olaijah Griffin (back)

Next up: The Trojans will take to the Great Northwest to play at No. 22 Washington Huskies on Saturday afternoon (12:30 p.m. PDT). On Saturday, the Huskies will play at BYU in Provo at 12:30 (PDT). FYI, when the Trojans play at Washington, it will be the first time playing at UW since 2016 due to the league scheduling rotation.

Next Saturday, the Trojans will travel to Husky Stadium (photo above) to challenge Washington in Seattle.

The Trojans/Utah quote book…

Clay Helton comments: “Glory to God and a bunch of great teammates that are the definition of Fight On and who don’t know how to quit. I’m so proud of this team. I thought it was team effort all the way around. Some guys made big plays, and some guys garnered some opportunities, and we needed every play to beat a good Utah team. I can’t tell you how proud I am of this guy (Matt Fink). In today’s world, things don’t always go your way and you live through adversity and you say, ‘You know what, when the opportunity comes, I’m going to make the most of it.’ In a world where everybody goes different places, this one stayed for his family and waiting for his moment and waiting for his memory. And what a memory it was here tonight. He’s one of the most special people I’ve been around and when his number was called, he made the most of it tonight. It’s a great story and I hope you all tell it. In a world where people go different place this guy fought for his family and I love him for it.”

Clay Helton comments – Part 2: On the mindset of the team now: “I think this is a mentally tough bunch. I know some folks have made fun of me for ‘So what? Now what?’ but that’s our mot- to. Stuff is bad sometimes. And what are you going to do? Are you going to make an excuse or get the job done? They don’t pay you to make excuses, they pay you to find the answers. And to have plan after plan and prepare everybody not just the first string, the second string, the third. Put your kids in every different situation, put them through adverse conditions. And this group did everything together. this offseason. Not everything was perfect tonight, far from it. We have a lot to clean up. But I tell you this team is special and by the end of this season they’re going to be a very special product. You’ll see it. We need some luck, we need to stay healthy, but this team can do some special things and they did it tonight.”

Clay Helton comments – Part 3: On being out-possessed and out-rushed by Utah: “I really got to credit our defense. They were put in situations where they had to play great red-zone defense. Getting the turnover right before the half, to keep it 14-10 coming into halftime, I thought that was a huge play. The field goal block, you’ll go back and look at that and it’s gonna be a huge play. Credit our defense, Utah got some yards. They’ve got some special players over there. I’m glad Huntley is an old person. I don’t want to see him again. He is a special player and he’s going to be playing for a while. We did enough to win a huge ballgame against a very good team.”

Clay Helton comments – Part 4: On the success of the deep ball tonight: “We said coming into training camp, this is the most unique situations I’ve ever been in. The four quarterbacks that went through that competition can play anywhere. We believed in each and every one of them. I told our team, ‘You don’t know God’s plan, you don’t know when you’re going to get your opportunity, you don’t know when it’s coming, just be prepared for it.’ This guy (Fink) trained as hard as anybody, even when he was named the third-string quarterback, he kept being engaged and preparing like a starter. First game, one goes down, now he’s the backup. Now he’s got to be prepared to raise his game up even more. He took advantage of each and every rep and when it was his turn, he made the most of it and I just can’t tell you how proud I am of him.”

Clay Helton comments – Part 4: On the mindset of the team now: “I think this is a mentally tough bunch. I know some folks have made fun of me for ‘So what? Now what?’ but that’s our mot- to. Stuff is bad sometimes. And what are you going to do? Are you going to make an excuse or get the job done? They don’t pay you to make excuses, they pay you to find the answers. And to have plan after plan and prepare everybody not just the first string, the second string, the third. Put your kids in every different situation, put them through adverse conditions. And this group did everything together. this offseason. Not everything was perfect tonight, far from it. We have a lot to clean up. But I tell you this team is special and by the end of this season they’re going to be a very special product. You’ll see it. We need some luck, we need to stay healthy, but this team can do some special things and they did it tonight.”

Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham comments: “Tough loss obviously. Give credit to USC, they played well. We just had too many penalties; we have to play cleaner than that. We got deep in the red zone in the first half and then turned the ball over and came away with nothing. Left some points on the field there. Mostly we just had no answer for their receiving core. Michael Pittman did a number on us. We as coaches have to do a better job of coaching it and allowing our players to be more equipped to deal with a receiving core like that. We have to rethink some things coaching wise. I thought Tyler (Huntley) played well and we ran the ball well. We out-statted them, but that doesn’t mean anything. We did move the ball up and down the field and they couldn’t run the ball on us at all, but those three things cost us. The penalties, inability to score on that last drive in the first half and the deep ball.”

Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham comments – Part 2: On the penalties:“We played pretty clean through the first two games. Tonight, both teams had bad penalties and it almost cancelled each other out, but still, we can’t get penalized 16 times for 120 yards. I firmly believe no one is going undefeated in the (Pac-12) south, and we were in this position last year, so it’s nothing new to us, nothing we can’t handle. It’s just disappointing to come so close but come up short.”

USC QB Matt Fink: On his thoughts when he went into the game: “Just do my job. Simple as that. I don’t think that this moment was too big for me. I’ve been in the era of Sam Darnold and I’ve seen things that were much crazier. But I think getting in today and showing what I can do was what I really wanted to do by staying here.”

On people telling him his time would come: “That’s something that kept me motivated through this whole process. I have a great team of brothers that continue to push me forward.”

On his decision to stay at USC: “Like Coach Clay said, I did some research, I went to some schools. Had some unofficial visits and an official visit with Illinois and met some great coaches and great players and built some good relationships. But this team is stacked. You have the best players in the nation here. I’m saying that SC is on the rise. We have guys that are going to push us to the top here.”

On the receivers: “Shoot, I could show you (Michael) Pittman’s stats tonight. The guy’s a monster. You can’t guard him. And that goes for Amon-Ra (St. Brown), it goes with Tyler Vaughns, it goes with Drake (Jackson). We’re stacked all across the board. With weapons like that, you can’t do anything about it.”

USC DE Drake Jackson: On the safety: “It was just a simple rip move. We really just wanted to keep him (Huntley) in the pocket so we were just rushing at a certain rate to where he couldn’t get out or get around us.”

On the defense tonight: “Really just what we were doing in the offseason. We were all together, grinding it out. Tonight, we had to grind it out again.”

On injuries and adversities: “Exactly what Coach Helton said. It’s just ‘So what? Now what?’ When someone goes down, it’s just the next man up.”

Utah LB Francis Bernard on what is it about the Coli that makes it a hard place to win: “I don’t think it’s anything in particular. I think going into this game USC had momentum coming off the loss from BYU they definitely had a chip on their shoulder coming into this game. It took us a while to adjust and when we finally did adjust it was too late.”

WR Michael Pittman on the play of QB Matt Fink: “It’s great that he’s been waiting and finally got his time. It’s something he’s been waiting for and it’s just really good to see it. Matt is capable as any of our other quarterback are. I think that he showed it.”

Senior wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. (photo above) had a huge day against the Utah secondary with 232 yards in receptions and a touchdown.

DE Christian Rector on keying on Utah QB Tyler Huntley: “He was a very athletic quarterback, and we did a good job of getting him off his spot and forced him to make tough plays. The key to the game was discipline, doing our job, it was a gritty win. Finishing, too, was a big key to the game.”

OC Graham Harrell on Matt Fink:
“I expected him to execute like another of the other quarterbacks. He played pretty well, but there’s lots to clean up going through our reads. We just beat the No. 10 team in the country, so you did something right. They (Utah) didn’t play man a bunch, maybe just two series. If somebody is going to play man against those guys (USC receivers), we expect them to score a lot of points and that’s what they did. After that, I don’t think they played any man. We got them out of their game plan and what they like to do.”

ILB John Houston on the key to the game: “Every just doing their job. If a big play goes by, we have to remember to just keep doing our job. We have to play and stay down. This was a big win and showed that we can do it. We showed the whole offense, defense, and special teams can do this together. It’s big.”

From the press box…  

Recognitions: The main game recognition of the night was a salute to new USC President Carol Folt, who earlier in the day on campus was given her official inauguration.

Carol L. Folt (photo above) is inaugurated as USC’s 11th President on Friday morning and then celebrated with a USC upset victory over Utah later that night in the Coliseum.

Clarification: According to tweet by LA Times reporter Harriet Ryan, she asked Dr. Folt about the recent rumor that she had a recent dinner with former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer. Folt responded by saying, “I have never met Urban Meyer…It is not the President’s job to decide on coaching positions.”

Matt, Reggie, and Urban: And there they were for the FS1 pregame show behind the west end zone – Trojan legends Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, and former Ohio State coaching legend and No. 1 USC coach rumor candidate Urban Meyer. FYI, Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham was once an assistant on Urban Meyer’s Utah staff back in the day. For those you that are already on Meyer watch, Urban got the whole USC Coliseum experience, and you wonder if Leinart and Bush reminded him of the coaching in the Grand Old Lady.

The FS1 pregame show featured (L to R) former Trojans Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart and former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer. Bush was not to pleased with the way the Trojans warmed up before the game.

Bush speaks: On pregame FS1 show Reggie Bush said, “I see too many guys from USC out here warming up with their shirts off, other guys with shirts on their heads. It doesn’t look like a team. The is a team sport. Put your shirt on. You’re not undefeated. Put some clothes on and look like a football team.”

Temperature: The LA kickoff temperature was clear, sunny, and 75 degrees.

Cover Boy: On the cover of Friday night’s game program was senior outside linebacker John Houston Jr. For the record, Houston had nine tackles against the Utes.

Sign of the times: Before the game, a plane was flying overhead carrying a banner, which read “Go Utes.”

Traffic mess: Like many of you, I was part of the Friday rush hour traffic trying to get to the Coliseum on a getaway day.

Oy veh, it was bumper-to-bumper (photo above) on the 91 freeway head to the Coliseum on Friday afternoon.

Music madness: Look, I know I am not hip, and that rap music is not my thing, and I don’t expect the Coliseum to be playing the Rolling Stones, but some of the music couldn’t fire up the dead.

NFL draft: Those NFL scouts in attendance were from the Chargers, Titans, Steelers, Giants, Patriots, Vikings, 49’ers, Cowboys, Texans, and Bills.

Bowling: There were no bowl game representatives in attendance.

Chow time: By popular demand, here was the Coliseum media menu for Friday night’s game: Mexican food (meat, rice, beans), cole slaw, chocolate chip cookies, popcorn, and soft drink assortments.    

Photo above of the Coliseum press box menu for the Utah game. It was a Mexican dining extravaganza.

The post-game show numbers…

Tackling the issues: ILB Palaie Gaoteote and strong safety Talanoa Hufanga led the Trojans with 14 tackles each.

Downward trend: Against Utah the Trojans scored 30 points. Prior to the game with the Utes, the Trojans were averaging 34.33 points per game.

Downward trend: Against Utah, the Trojans allowed 23 points. Prior to the game with the Utes, Trojans’ defense was allowing 24.33 points per game. 

Downward trend: Against Utah, the Trojans had 381 yards in total offense. Prior to the game with the Utes, the Trojans were averaging 463.7 yards in total offense per game.

Upward trend: Against Utah, the Trojans defense allowed 457 total yards in total offense. Prior to the game with the Utes, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 409.0 in total yards per game.

Downward trend: Against Utah, the Trojans had 13 net yards rushing. Prior to the game with the Utes, the Trojans were averaging 153.7 rushing yards per game. 

Upward trend: Against Utah, the Trojans allowed 247 net rushing yards. Prior to the game with the Utes, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 145.0 rushing yards per game.

Upward trend: Against Utah, the Trojans had 368 yards passing yards. Prior to the game with the Utes, Trojans were averaging 310.0 passing yards per game.  

Downward trend: Against Utah, the Trojans allowed 210 passing yards. Prior to the game with the Utes, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 264.0 yards per game.  

Flag waving: Against Utah, the Trojans had 11 penalties for 117 yards while Utah had 16 penalties for 120yards. Prior to the Utah game, the Trojans were averaging 57.33 penalty yards per game while the opposition was averaging 50.0  penalty yards per game.

The post-game call-in show:

Caller No. 1: Well, Katz, after the big victory over Utah, here we now at 3-1 with Washington up next and Notre Dame to follow. What’s going to happen? Well, the Trojans certainly showed character in bouncing back from the BYU overtime loss by upsetting the Utes on Friday night. They are in the early driver seat in the Pac-12 South, but it’s still only September. If I am Clay Helton, I just dodged a major bullet in his job security expectations. Can he survive? He sure can if he can win, win, win.

Caller No. 2: Mr. Katz, with the Utah win, do you think we beat Washington in Seattle next Saturday? After what I saw on Friday night, I certainly wouldn’t count out the Men of Troy. They could still be underdogs, but the game in Seattle will be another benchmark in this team’s growth. We don’t know the status of Kedon Slovis, and we all want to know if the true freshman is able to play, will he start? If you go by past history, it should be no surprise that Kedon gets the nod.   

Caller No. 3: Grego, are you surprised by this season’s offense and defensive lines? No, not really. I was very skeptical about all the off-season hype. In the scrimmages, the defense pretty much had their way with the offensive line, which again some wanted to believe that the D-line was exceptional. Against Utah, the offensive line was able to do enough pass blocking to allow Matt Fink time to throw, although Matt was able to scramble enough to get out of harm’s way. Unfortunately, Kedon Slovis was unable to get out of harm’s way and really go drilled when the pass pro broke down. As for the defense, they seemed to show some punch against Utah, although they didn’t really slow down the Utes because the lads from Utah did a good job of self-destructing on their own. We will learn more about both lines next week against Washington, which is another physical team.

Caller No. 4: Are you impressed or a fan of the Air Raid offense? I thought you’d never ask. I guess the cop-out answer is if the Trojans are winning, who cares what offense they’re running. And on Friday night the Trojans won by rushing for just 13 yards, not normally a recipe for victory. However, you want a straight answer, and I would say at this point I just tolerate it. I find it easy to defense and at least offensively, it doesn’t present a real physical presence to the opponent’s defense. I can’t remember when an Air Raid offense won a major college conference championship – not to be mention a CFP game – can you?

Caller No. 5: Greg, is it harder to write a column after a USC win or a USC loss? No question, it’s lot more fun when the Trojans win like Friday night, but as a professional writer that has followed the Trojans for 57 seasons, you have to tell it like it is – even in a losing effort.

Caller No. 6: With UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero announcing he is stepping down in Westwood, will that have an effect in the Trojans’ search for a new AD? First, let me say I worked for Dan Guerrero at UC Irvine in a limited capacity, and I know him to be a great guy who really cared about UCLA. That being said, I don’t think the opening at UCLA will have an impact in the Trojans’ search for a new AD. The dynamics are quite different at UCLA as opposed to USC. For USC President Carol Folt, the hiring of a new athletic director and the way she goes about will tell you what’s instore for the rest of the University.     

Caller No. 7: Dude, what time do you leave home and road games for the games? I normally try to be at a game between two and three hours before kickoff. I should get home around 2 am after the USC/Utah game.

Caller No. 8: If you had your choice, what music would you play when the Trojans are coming down the Coliseum tunnel to enter the field? I still like Metallica with “Enter the Sandman.”

Caller No. 19: Are you surprised that in the first 3 home games in the Coliseum, there has been no former USC great or celebrity to lead the team onto the field? Actually, I grew to like the “former Trojan football player” angle as each come upon us. While I prefer former Trojans football greats, I can get into a celebrity sighting if it seems timely and there is some USC connection.  

The last word: So, it’s on to Seattle and the Emerald City for a battle with the Washington Huskies in intimidating Husky Stadium. The dogs will be barking, will the Trojans?

Greg Katz
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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