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IMHO Saturday: “We Are The Champions”

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

IMHO – Part 1: After season-long speculation and debate that the 2017 USC Trojans football team had not significantly improved throughout the season, that premise was tempered on Friday night in the Pac-12 Championship Game, as the No. 10 USC Trojans (11-2) captured the Pac-12 Conference championship with a dramatic and emotional 31-28 victory over the No. 12 Stanford Cardinal (9-4) in Levi’s Stadium. Although the Trojans dominated Stanford 42-24 back on Sept. 9, we can all agree before Friday night that beating the Cardinal twice in one season would be a difficult task. A major talking point before Friday night’s game was that the Trojans only could be victorious if they played a near flawless title game. Well, they obviously didn’t play a flawless game and had moments of hair-raising peril, but they showed their championship armor by sealing the deal with a fourth quarter “Goal Line Stand of the Year” and ensuing 99-yard scoring “Drive of the Year.” Clay Helton and his team can now place a well-deserved Pac-12 championship trophy inside Heritage Hall for the first time since 2008.

IMHO – Part 2: So, now the Trojans await their bowl destination but expect to hear the name “USC” mentioned in the prestigious Bowl of Six, probably the Fiesta Bowl against either Ohio State or Wisconsin. With Friday night’s huge championship victory, the Trojan family is reacting, and it’s a euphoric, positive response on the WeAreSC message board. Remember, Trojans’ athletic director Lynn Swann said for publication after the glorious 2017 Rose Bowl win over Penn State that USC’s goals are conference and national championships and those goals had not been met. Well, the conference championship has now been achieved.

IMHO – Part 3: So how big a victory was this championship for Clay Helton and his program in the eyes of Lynn Swann? Swann told reporters afterward, “We want to build for the long term, we’ve got a solid team, a solid organization, we’ve got a head coach that we’re going to keep, OK? He’s not going anywhere, and we’re going to stair-step this up and build our way up to a national championship. My goal is to emulate the success of the Pittsburgh Steelers — they’ve only had three head coaches since the late ’60s, and each one of them has won Super Bowls.”

Bottom line: With a conference championship now in hand, it highly energizes Helton and his program, and, yes, it does to a degree detracts, slows down, or at least neutralizes the momentum of the Chip Kelly hiring at UCLA. Despite some of their glaring flaws, these Trojans have proven on the field of play that they are the champions. No, this is not a perfect team and probably isn’t going to the CFP semi-finals, but given that disappointment, a conference title is a game saver. If the Trojans can win their upcoming bowl game against a quality opponent, they would finish the season at 12-2 and that should be quite an accomplishment in anybody’s book.

IMHO offensively

Quarterback: What can you say, but Captain Clutch, Sam Darnold, did it again with 325 passing yards, two scoring passes, a monster 99-yard killer scoring drive late in the game. There is no argument, he’s one of Troy’s all-time greats and ranks right up there with the greatest clutch performers in school history.

Running backs: Ronald Jones may be the best running back in the history of the school that doesn’t get the total credit he deserves. On Friday night, Jones ran for 141 yards and two huge touchdowns (1 and 8 yds.). I always thought that former All-America tailback Clarence Davis was the least appreciated but great Trojans running back because he followed the great O.J. Simpson. But RoJo has now passed Simpson on the career rushing list and he is without question one of the greats.

Receivers: I guess Stanford now knows who sophomore Michael Pittman Jr. is. “Pitt” was an unknown to the Cardinal when the teams met on Sept. 1, but after 146 yards on seven receptions on Friday night on national television, it’s safe to say the Cardinal know who he is. And his standout performance was supported by killer efforts by Steven Mitchell Jr., Tyler Vaughns, who had a great catch and diving leap on the pylon for a 19-yard score, and tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe.

Offensive line: When starting freshman offensive right guard Andrew Vorhees went down in the first half with a neck injury, it appeared the Trojans’ offense might be in for a rough road ahead. However, as the game wore on, the Trojans got a workmanlike performance from seldom used Jordan Austin, the junior from Claremont (Calif.) High. In fact, the O-line outrushed Stanford 176-151, which speaks volumes of the O-line’s efforts to control the line of scrimmage.

Offensive bottom line: The Trojans rolled up 501 yards, which was enough to win a championship, and nobody was happier than offensive coordinator Tee Martin, who was beaming ear-to-ear afterwards after near flawless play-calling. Okay, so the early reverse to Deontay Burnett wasn’t such a good idea, but who’s counting?

IMHO defensively

The defensive front: The good news is that the Trojans defensive line held Stanford’s future NFL tailback Bryce Love relatively in check (131yds./1 TD). The bad news is that the big Stanford offensive line did not allow the nation’s top sacking team to get to KJ Costello early, but it did manage to apply pressure later and recorded two sacks. Credit goes to nose tackles Josh Fatu and Brandon Pili for stellar efforts in helping control the middle along with DE Rasheem Green. And don’t discount the effort by fellow DT Malik Dorton, as well.  

Linebackers: A good job of containing Bryce Love and some critical stops along the way, especially the 4th and goal at the 1 in the final quarter. What can you say about outside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu other than he’s had a marvelous season, and Friday night’s game was a highlight film. Afterward, there were a number of scribes that felt Uchenna should be the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year.  Credit inside linebacker Cameron Smith for his leadership in helping the Trojans align and adjust to Stanford’s changing formations.

Secondary: The Trojans’ corners were again picked on successfully again as both Jack Jones and Iman Marshall were called for pass interference flags and gave up some big plays. But there were some bright spots, especially when strong safety Chris Hawkins, who lead the Trojans’ defense in tackles, made a touchdown saving tackle of Bryce Love as the Stanford tailback looked like he had yet another long-distance TD run added to his resume.

Defensive bottom line: Clancy Pendergast’s defense allowed a respectable 343 yards in total Stanford offense, but the highlight was obviously the magnificent fourth quarter goal line stand that saved the day. The USC run defense against a Stanford offense that moved the ball on the ground against Notre Dame last week was commendable if not impressive.

IMHO special teams: As it turned out, the Trojans won by three points, and those three points came on a Chase McGrath 24-yard field goal in the second quarter. The Trojans continue to have judgement and penalty issues on punt returns, which was killer during the game. In fact, the Trojans had no punt return yardage and even had an unsportsmanlike penalty called on a fair catch of a punt. Go figure. Chase McGrath handled kickoffs and did a good job, but his leg seemed to tire as the evening wore, although he did have two touchbacks. Punter Reid Budrovich looked like he was still recovering from a previous AC injury and averaged just 32.3 yards per punt. The Trojans had no yardage in kickoff returns, but credit Stanford for some timely touchbacks.

Special teams bottom line: Trojans’ placekicker Chase McGrath showed no ill-effects from a groin injury and kicked a 24-yard field goal midway in the second quarter. Other parts of the special teams and penalties need to be again addressed.

Tackling the issues: Trojans senior strong safety Chris Hawkins led the Trojans with 11 tackles.

The infirmary: OG Andrew Vorhees (neck), DB Jack Jones (sprained right ankle)

The quote book…

Clay Helton comments: “Glory to God and a bunch of great kids. Been an absolute honor to be around this group of men as staff and players for this football family and what it’s accomplished this year. Their 11th win to be back as Pac-12 champs, champs since 2008, I couldn’t be more proud of the group and proud to be associated with them. I thought it was a very, very hard-fought game, a great game by both schools. Credit to Coach Shaw and Stanford. They played their hearts out, absolute hearts out. So proud. This was a team effort, and these guys found a way. We said that failure was not an option when we began today, and to see that defensive stand on the goal line, to see a 99-yard drive to take the lead, these kids win games, players win games.”

Trojans head coach Clay Helton comments on whether this win was a microcosm of the season – Part 2: “We were just talking, and we just find ways to win as a football team. It’s hard to win in the Pac-12. You’ve got nine teams that are bowl eligible, and, you know, Stanford is a class act bunch that wanted a championship just as bad as us. We knew it would be a fourth-quarter game. It would be four quarters. Credit to these guys, you go all the way through the season, how they just finish games is amazing to me. They’re the best finishing bunch I’ve been associated with in my 23 years of college coaching. They just find ways to win, and that’s the name of the game. Nobody will remember the scores ten years from now, but they will remember that these kids were Pac-12 champions.”

Clay Helton comments on whether the fourth quarter goal line stand and the ensuing 99-yard touchdown drives were the plays of the year – Part 3: “I would say no question. I mean, just, it was time to dig deep. It was time to dig deep and win a championship. When you’re trying to win one, those are the plays that are going to define you and define your football team, and that’s these kids. We live in a high-pressure world of great expectations on the brightest stage, brightest lights, only game on in the world tonight. These kids stood up on the goal line stand and decided to go 99 yards to finish the game. That defines who they are. They are the definition of fight on.”

Stanford head coach David Shaw comments: (On going for it on 4th and goal at the 1, Shaw said, “You know, the sequence of 4th and 1 on the 1, to take the lead in the Pac-12 Championship game, I mean, there’s no hesitation at all. That’s what we’re going to do. We’ve got four minutes left. If we don’t get it, we’ve got them backed up, and hopefully the defense can stop them, and we get the ball back in good position for a touchdown and field goal. I mean, there’s no question about it. There’s no hesitation on my part at all. It’s just what you do. Bottom line, we didn’t get to play on offense, and we didn’t get to stop on defense. We came back, fought it, and made it a game, but that’s a pivotal part of the game. Things that we can do better and that we need to do better. But give credit to those guys on the other side, USC made the plays. Sam Darnold stood in there and made unbelievable throws.”

Shaw comments – Part 2: (On Sam Darnold’s performance) “He’s an outstanding quarterback. He’s extremely accurate. What he does I think so well, two things in particular, he operates in a very, very small space in the pocket. The couple times we’re bearing down on him. We’re just about to hit him and he gets the ball out. Second thing, I think he’s the absolute best in the nation and one of the best I’ve seen since Andrew Luck. It’s the time between when he sees it to the time the ball gets out of his hands. That’s one of the things as an NFL scout and NFL coach that you look at as I did for all those years in the NFL. He sees it, and that ball is already in motion getting out. It’s that quickness of his trigger that’s impressive.”

Sam speaks: On his big pass completion following the fourth down defensive stand against the Stanford offense, Trojans QB Sam Darnold said, “Yeah, it was a sluggo scheme concept. I saw Steve (Mitchell Jr.) kind of beat the corner on the sluggo. And he kind of got held up a little bit. Just decided to move up in the pocket and kind of send some guys around me. So, I moved up and found (Michael) Pitt(man) on the field. I was going to move down and run, but kind of flashed in my vision there, and I found him.”

Sam speaks – Part 2: On comparing last season’s dramatic Rose Bowl win and how much this title means to him and his teammates, Darnold said, “Right now this means the most in the world right now. It’s special to see how far we’ve come as a team. This is definitely winning a Pac-12 championship is our goal at the beginning of the year, and we achieved that goal, so I’m really excited for what’s to come. However, where we get ranked is not up to us, but we’re just going to continue to compete, and that’s all we can do.”

The stopper: On his fourth quarter 4th and goal at the 1-yard line stop of the powerful Stanford running game, Trojans linebacker Uchenna Nwosu said, “We saw the offensive line and the tight ends squeeze down, so we knew it was going to be a tight run. So, we told our guys hunker down. This is what Trojan football is. And we were able to make the play for our family and our friends.”

Tee talk: On the huge fourth down pass play in the final quarter to true freshman tight end Josh Falo to shut the door on Stanford, Trojans’ offensive coordinator Tee Martin said, “Obviously in that situation, you want to give a quarterback options. We wanted to get him (Sam Darnold) on the perimeter and a chance to run with it. That was a call I almost took out early in the week. I am glad I didn’t because it came in handy at a critical moment. Sam did a really good job of letting Josh get open and Josh getting the first down.”

The Pitt stop: On winning a Pac-12 title and the Stanford secondary coverage, sophomore wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. said, “This feels good. They played a lot of Cover 3, and we took advantage of those one-on-one matchups. I feel we won most all of them. We said before the game we were going to try and out-physical them. I think we did a good job of that offensively and defensively.”

The captain speaks: Trojans’ inside linebacker Cameron Smith said, “We had a good week of preparation. You know what you’re going to get and what Stanford wants to do. We did what we worked on all week. It ended up paying off tremendously. Being Pac-12 champions is what we wanted and why we came here for. This was our goal, so to be 11-2 is insane.”

The rusher: Nobody was more excited about winning the Pac-12 than tailback Ronald Jones ll. Jones said, “This means everything in the world. I know we were in a 10-year drought and the sanctions and everything. USC is back, but we never left. They tried to knock us out. Being on that (victory) stage was great. I’ve never won anything in my life going back to District (in Texas) and track champions, but I’ve never won a game like this besides the Rose Bowl.”

The designer: On his defense’s performance, Trojans defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said, “It was a very epic goal line stand. You know we hunkered down and played with a lot of heart down there. Stanford had a couple new wrinkles in the running game, but we knew they were going to throw the ball vertically. We worked on it all week, but we made plays and came up on the winning end. I was happy about the goal line stand. The guys worked hard all year and bounced through a lot of adversity, so I am real proud of them. This is exciting, it’s great to bring the Trojans back a championship.”

Falo me: On his big catch near the end of the game to seal it, Trojans freshman tight end Josh Falo said, “Just get the first down, honestly. I just wanted to score, but I tried but got the first down. I wasn’t surprised they called my number. I am ready 24-7. When I caught the ball I said, ‘game over’ or something like that. This is amazing and I am glad I came here (USC). We have a great team and faced a lot of adversity throughout the whole years. We conquered and fight on.”

The Hawk: On being a senior and accomplishing most of his team and personal goals, senior safety Chris Hawkins said, “I’ve won a Pac-12 championship, won a Rose Bowl, and now we can do something special. Hopefully, we can in the playoff. I know they’re considering Ohio State, but they should also consider us. They lost to an unranked Iowa team that got demolished by them. We’ve got more top 40 wins. Our schedule was harder. If you’re going to consider them, why not consider us? Do they like (quarterback) J.T. Barrett more than they like Sam (Darnold)? Do they like Urban Meyer more than they like Clay (Helton)? Why are they being considered and we aren’t?”  

From the press box…

Squeezing the Juice: With his 75- first-half rushing yards, junior TB Ronald Jones moved into fifth place on USC’s career rushing chart, with 3,490, passing former Heisman Trophy winner O.J. Simpson (3,423). How good would this guy be in the I-formation with a lead fullback?

The predictor: Prior to Friday night’s game, the local San Jose Mercury predicted the Trojans would win 27-24.

Mascots a-go-go: All the mascots of the Pac-12 were in attendance. In fact, some appeared rooting for the Trojans.

Star Spangled Banner: Jordan Fisher, known as a winner on Dancing with the Stars and performer in “Hamilton”, sang the national anthem.

Legends: Honorary captains for the championship game were Trojans’ DB legend Ronnie Lott and former Stanford All-America tailback Toby Gerhart.

The turnstiles: Attendance for Friday night’s game was announced at 48,031.

Weather report: Levi’s Stadium weather at kickoff was 55 degrees.

Bowling: Bowl game representatives in attendance were from the Sugar, Orange, Fiesta, Alamo, Holiday, and Sun. Yes, the Tournament of Roses was also represented.

The post-game show numbers…

Surprising decrease: In Friday night’s championship game against Stanford, the Trojans scored 31 points. Prior to the Pac-12 Championship Game, the Trojans were averaging 34.83 points per game. FYI, the first time the Trojans played Stanford, the Men of Troy scored 42 points.

Slight increase: In Friday night’s championship game against Stanford, the Trojans allowed 28 points. Prior to the Pac-12 Championship Game, the Trojans defense was allowing 26.17 points per game. FYI, the last time the Trojans played Stanford, the Men of Troy allowed 24 points.

Numbers game: In Friday night’s championship game against Stanford, the Trojans had 501 yards in total offense. Prior to the Pac-12 Championship Game, the Trojans were averaging 488.6 yards in total offense per game. FYI, the last time the Trojans played Stanford, the Men of Troy had 623 yards in total offense.

Status quo: In Friday night’s championship game against Stanford, the Trojans’ defense allowed 343 offensive yards. Prior to the Pac-12 Championship Game, the Trojans defense was allowing 409.9 total offensive yards per game. FYI, the last time the Trojans played Stanford, the Men of Troy allowed 342 total yards.

Significant decrease: In Friday night’s championship game against Stanford, the Trojans rushed for 176 yards. Prior to the Pac-12 Championship Game, the Trojans were averaging 196.5 rushing yards per game. FYI, the last time the Trojans played Stanford, the Men of Troy rushed for 307 yards.

Impressive decrease: In Friday night’s championship game against Stanford, the Trojans allowed 151 net rushing yards. Prior to the Pac-12 Championship Game, the Trojans defense was allowing 158.9 net yards rushing per game. FYI, the last time the Trojans played Stanford, the Men of Troy allowed 170 net yards rushing.

Noticeable increase: In Friday night’s championship game against Stanford, the Trojans had 325 passing yards. Prior to the Pac-12 Championship Game, the Trojans were averaging 292.08 passing yards per game. FYI, the last time the Trojans played Stanford, the Men of Troy had 316 yards passing.

Impressive reduction: In Friday night’s championship game against Stanford, the Trojans allowed 151 passing yards. Prior to the Pac-12 Championship Game, the Trojans defense was allowing 251.0 passing yards per game. FYI, the last time the Trojans played Stanford, the Men of Troy allowed 172 yards passing.

Flag waving: In Friday night’s championship game against Stanford, the Trojans had nine penalties for 76 yards while Stanford had seven penalties for 73 yards. Prior to the Pac-12 Championship Game, the Trojans were averaging 72.0 penalized yards per game. FYI, the last time the Trojans played Stanford, the Men of Troy had eight penalties for 80 penalty yards.

The last word: Before Friday night’s results, USC season ticket holders were sent out an email: “This Sunday, December 3, selections will be made for the 2017-18 College Football Bowl Games. The selection show will air live on ESPN beginning at 9:00 am PST. Following the show, we will send an email to you detailing which bowl game your Trojans have been selected to participate in, as well as all ticket and deadline information.”

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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