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IMHO Sunday: A questionable victory

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

IMHO: Well, did you enjoy the Trojans’ 24-20 Pac-12 nail biter in victory over the Arizona Wildcats on Saturday night in Tucson? Were you happy the way your cardinal and gold played on offense and defense? Did you like the 169 yards in penalties and being outscored 21-7 in the second half? If you’re are still trying to calm your nerves, you’ll happy to know that if your answer to all the above questions was a resounding “No”, you’re also in agreement with the Trojans’ players and coaches. Yes, all happy for the win, but decidedly unhappy with the performance. The Trojans were not smiling, happy campers leaving their locker room for the team busses with post-game meal in hand. It was far from being a satisfying triumph.   

IMHO – Part 2: After the USC Trojans (3-2 overall, 2-1 Pac-12) nervous South Division victory over the Arizona Wildcats (2-3, 101 Pac-12) – a Trojans second consecutive conference victory by the way – there should still be reasonably tempered enthusiasm despite all the offensive yardage (450 yds.), especially after they nearly squandered a 17-point lead heading into the final quarter and were holding on at the end. The Trojans dominated, despite the whopping 169 yards in penalties in this dry and heated desert community, but they did what they needed to do to stay in the Pac-12 South Division race – win. However, what the Men of Troy will need to do in upcoming games with undefeated Colorado and ASU at home and always tough Utah in Salt Lake City will be to play with way more discipline and smarts. If not, well, let’s not go there.

IMHO – Part 3: If the Trojans are going to advance to the Pac-12 Conference title game as the South Division representative, they’ll have to continue find a way to eliminate needless, pointless, and ill-timed penalties and did we mention silly mistakes? But as they say, a win is a win and the better team did win although not nearly as convincing as it is seemingly capable. The Trojans, to be honest, are living on the edge as they wade deeper into conference play, and you have to wonder when it will cost them not too far down the line. Yes, the Trojans have a 17-game Coliseum winning streak, but that will be put to the test after next week’s much-needed bye. Even the USC players, who looked drained both from the climatic conclusion to the game combined with the heat, all agreed that the bye week couldn’t have come at a better time.

IMHO -Part 4: If you have plenty to say even after a victory, it probably starts with your dissatisfaction even in victory. The WeAreSC message boards figure to be alive and kicking during this bye week if not sooner. One should, however, not downplay there were some not only good plays but fine individual performances on Saturday, but at times the Trojans couldn’t get out of their own way and seemed to be playing defense on themselves. The season is almost half over, and the lingering question will be: Can this team eliminate its mistakes and become markedly better? It really has no choice if it wants to accomplish its remaining realistic goals of a Pac-12 South title, a Pac-12 Conference title, and a trip to the Rose Bowl. To nobody’s disagreement, the talent is there, but is the discipline to win their division there? At this point, it isn’t.

IMHO – Part 5: Offensively, Clay Helton’s offense really put the numbers on the board in terms of total yardage. Individually, what a great night for senior tailback Aca’Cedric Ward (photo above) with 178 rushing yards, two touchdowns – one an exciting 69-yard jaunt. He did the Trojans’ tailback legacy proud. Sophomore tailback Stephen Carr also had a fine night with 80 yards and looks to be regaining the form that was so impressive as a freshman. On the negative, there were holding penalties, procedure calls and the like. It really detracted from the large yardage output. Quarterback JT Daniels, despite a fumble, continues his improvement (16 of 24, 197 yards, 0 interceptions). Then there was the annual snap snafu back to JT Daniels that has become a recent tradition.

IMHO – Part 6: Defensively, that was one helleva goal line stand near the end of the game. Standing down on the goal line, the hitting was ferocious, but the Trojans’ defense was like the proverbial brick wall, even having to go extended plays due to a pass interference call in the end zone. Yes, the Wildcats finally scored, but the effort was “fight on” all the way. The secondary was tested severely, and there were mixed results at best. Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate, who is still suffering from a bum ankle, is still one tough customer to stop. The Trojans secondary had it hands full, and there were too many penalties.

IMHO – Part 7: Special teams again saved the day in the sense of blocking a field goal attempt and putting enough pressure on Arizona kicker Lucas Havrisik on the Wildcats final touchdown under two minutes to play to blow a critical PAT. However, the key special teams play of the game was the recovery on the last gasp Arizona onside kick attempt that failed. It allowed the Trojans’ offense to run out the clock in “victory’ formation. It should be noted that placekicker Michael Brown continues to fill in admirably for injured starter Chase McGrath, out for the season. Michael converted a first quarter 42-yard field goal to help give the Trojans a 10-0 lead.

Bottom line: We don’t know if saying the Trojans “escaped” Tucson with a victory is appropriate, but it would be safe to say the Cardinal and Gold are at the very least fortunate they didn’t suffer one inexplicable defeat that could have sent Clay Helton’s group into a major downward spiral. From here on in, the opponents will be challenging and although the Trojans can beat the remaining conference teams on the schedule, it would be disingenuous not to say they could lose to the remaining opponents as well. Okay, maybe not at Oregon State, but you get the picture.

Tackling the issues: Trojans linebacker Cameron Smith led the Trojans with seven tackles followed by true freshman safety Talanoa Hufanga with five stops.

The infirmary: Linebackers Porter Gustin (ankle) and John Houston (neck).

Free weekend: The Trojans have a bye weekend and return to the Coliseum on Saturday, Oct. 13, hosting the surging Colorado Buffaloes (4-0 overall, 1-0 Pac-12) who on Friday night beat UCLA (0-4 overall, 0-1 Pac-12), 38-16, in Boulder. Colorado hosts ASU next Saturday.

The Trojans/Arizona quote book…

Trojans head coach Clay Helton comments: “We played a good game tonight, but we also know the reality is that we let the other team come back into play and have a chance at the end of the game. I really like how the runners ran today. They weren’t all easy yards, but Aca’Cedric Ware finished up with 173, Stephen Carr with 80 yards, and I can’t say enough about our defense. I thought they did a tremendous job today holding up time in and time out.

“Even though were in some bad situations, we had two turnovers in the second half, we put them in a bad situation and they came up and held for a good job of execution. I thought the two phases on special teams, one block kick before halftime ends up being huge play in the game, and then a perfectly executed onside kick. The guys did their assignment tonight. It was a good win, and we’re looking forward to getting on the plane and getting back home. We have a couple bumps and bruises in this game on a couple of guys. We have a week off and then we get ready for Colorado.”

Clay Helton comments – Part 2 – On the number of penalties: “We had a lot of penalties, and we have to make sure we get a lot fewer. It was frustrating the whole way through. I thought it was a hard game being backed up and then all of a sudden you look up when it’s 1st and 15 or 1st and 20. There was a lot of yellow flags on both sides for both teams, it was one of those nights. Some of the fundamental techniques that we have to get better at are things that I’m going to point out to the team on some of the decision making.”

Clay Helton comments – Part 3 – On the offense: “I thought the running game went well tonight. I was hoping to end it early when we had made the 4th and 1 in the first half. Anytime you’re on the road, I think you need to play aggressive, especially in Pac-12 games. I believe in our kids and I’ll do it again.”

Arizona head coach Kevin Sumlin comments: “I thought USC did a nice job of really challenging us, which is creating singles and challenged us from the perimeter with man coverage. We have to get to an area where we really had to throw the ball and recreate some big plays versus the man coverage. Either we get the deep ball and scored or got a penalty. They were content to do that and live with that and load the box. It made it difficult for us to run with that on the perimeter a couple of times, but because of the man coverage you’re going to get back in the game.”

Arizona head coach Kevin Sumlin comments on the goal line: The big decision was on the fourth down whether we kick a field goal because we needed two scores. I’ll say this, these guys have had a couple of these games where we do not quit and play like crazy at the end. Basically in the huddle, they did not want kick a field goal. It was a little bit frustrating in that situation.”

Aca’Cedric speaks: On his 69-yard touchdown run, Trojans senior tailback Aca’Cedric Ward said, “The whole line did their thing today and I’m proud of those guys. They opened up the big holes and I just ran through them, that’s all it is, ran through untouched.”

Aca’Cedric speaks – Part 2: Reflecting on the game and current state of the Trojans, Ward said, “It was a solid game, but we can always get better and we are going to get better. Like coach said, we just have to take this bye week to fix some things and just keep improving as a team. We just have to continue to practice hard, keep the faith in the coaches and follow their leadership. We have built up two wins now, and we have good momentum and we just need to keep pushing.”

Telling it as it is: Talking about his key interception, senior safety Marvell Tell lll said, “I saw the quarterback scramble, and I know he likes to throw the ball up. I knew the situation, read the play.”

The raw truth: The mood of the team afterwards according to true freshman Amon-Ra St. Brown, “That win was huge for us, our first road win of the season, we needed that one as a big one, and it got kind of shaky at the end. We found a way to finish it and win the game. A couple of turnovers can do that to you, a few fumbles. I think we made the game much closer than we should have.”

The captain speaks: On the game, senior captain and linebacker Cameron Smith said, “I am sick, this doesn’t really feel like a win. I think we have to have our groove and get going fast. I think we’re there and communicating and seeing what’s best for us, but we lost a lot of guys last year. I am not putting that on us, but we’re finding our click and see what works best for us. It’s five game in now and we have to start pushing faster and get that sense of urgency now and start running with it. Clay (Helton) wasn’t pleased. He is always going to look at the bright side. He come up to me after the game and said we have to get going. The next two weeks are big for us. I said, “Coach we have a sense of urgency.’”

From the pit:
The view of the game from Trojans receiver Michael Pittman, “I felt like we let off the gas again. We have to go back and work harder and that’s all it is. I felt like we had the plays there, but we just didn’t execute the plays. I am not too happy because I thought the game should have been way different.”

Tyler on offense: His assessment of the offense, wide receiver Tyler Vaughns said, “Offense did great today. I mean we have to hold the ball coming down to the late quarters of the game. We did our job today moving the ball. I don’t like the close games, but that’s how it is with the teams in our conference. They’re good teams so just have to play ball.”

Clancy on the goal line stand: Reflecting on the late goal line stand, Trojans defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said, “We battled hard. We knew it was going to be this type of game. We told them all week it could come down to the end and it did. I am proud the way they played down the stretch and their effort.”

In the trenches: On the goal line stand, Trojans’ defensive lineman Marlon Tuipulotu commented, “It was good execution by us. Our plan was to get a stop by us. At the end, they came up with it (touchdown), but we came up with the win. It was pretty intense inside (the goal line stand). The coaches got us prepared for that.”

Biggie talk: Asked about the secondary, Trojans senior DB Iman “Biggie” Marshall said, “We came up with a lot of good turnovers and plays. The block by Marvell Tell and the pick by Marvell. At the end of the day, you want to put your foot on somebody’s neck. You want to be dominant in everything you do. You want to be a monster. We kind of got lackadaisical. But at the end of the day, we were blessed to have our day. Everybody is happy going into the bye week and get our bodies refreshed for another game. The secondary played well. We gave up a couple plays, but that’s football. All in all, we didn’t give up too many big plays.”

From the press box…

The exodus: When the Trojans went up 24-0 midway in the third quarter, there was a mass exodus of the Arizona student section. Talk about supporting your team…

Pronunciation challenge: The poor press box public address announcer had all sorts of problems pronouncing the name of Trojans’ tailback Vavae Malepeai. Calling him Mala – pay-pay.

The post-game meal: After the game, the Trojans players were treated to chicken tenders and fries.

Temperature: The Tucson kickoff temperature was clear and 90 degrees.

Turnstiles: Official attendance was 43,573. Arizona Stadium lists a capacity of 57,400.

Scouting and bowls: There were no NFL scouts or bowl representative listed in the press box.

The post-game show numbers…

Even even: Against Arizona, the Trojans scored 24 points. Prior to the Wildcats game, the Trojans were averaging 24.8 points per game.

Going down: Against Arizona, the Trojans allowed 20 points. Prior to the Wildcats game, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 27.8 points per game.

Upward trend: Against Arizona, the Trojans had 450 yards in total offense. Prior to the Wildcats game, the Trojans were averaging 376.0yards in total offense per game.

Downward trend: Against Arizona, the Trojans defense allowed 330 total yards in offense. Prior to the Wildcats game, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 394.0 total yards per game.

Big improvement: Against Arizona, the Trojans had 253 net yards rushing. Prior to the Wildcats game, the Trojans were averaging 110.2 rushing yards per game.

Major improvement: Against Arizona, the Trojans allowed 98 net rushing yards. Prior to the Wildcats game, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 179.5 net yards rushing per game.

Below expectations: Against Arizona, the Trojans had 197 yards passing yards. Prior to the Wildcats game, the Trojans were averaging 265.8 passing yards per game.

Slight increase: Against Arizona, the Trojans allowed 232passing yards. Prior to the Wildcats game, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 214.5 passing yards per game.

Major flag increase: Against Arizona, the Trojans had 18 penalties for 169 yards while the Wildcats had eight penalties for 80 yards. Prior to the Wildcats game, the Trojans were averaging 64.2 penalty yards per game.

The last word: You may exhale now after a long night of USC football. Afterward, it was rumored that Clay Helton’s team will practice just twice next week. Maybe they need as big a break from the first half of the season as the fans. However, with currently undefeated Colorado up next, the moment of truth is on the horizon.

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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