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IMHO Sunday: A roller coaster beginning

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

IMHO evaluation – Part 1: Okay, so Western Michigan – a vastly superior and well-coached team than its 27-point underdog status may have warranted – is not the No. 14 Stanford Cardinal, but you can bet that many loyal Trojans fans came away from the Coliseum with the thought of playing the boys from Palo Alto next Saturday in the Grand Old Lady with some genuine uneasiness and perhaps a little bit of fear thrown in, as well. Okay, how about scary? It’s safe to say in USC’s late fourth quarter, 28-point explosion and ultimate 49-31victory over Western Michigan, the Cardinal and Gold showed poise, strength, and conditioning, but also displayed numerous big-ticket issues on both sides of the ball, including 94 yards in team penalties, against a Broncos team that was coming off a 13-1 record in 2016. The good news is that compared to last season’s opening disaster loss to Alabama, 52-6, in Texas, Clay Helton and his team will gladly take an ugly win over a crushing loss any day. There is, however, much work to be done.

IMHO evaluation – Part 2: First games are always a cross between tightly choreographed game plans and proverbial Chinese fire drills, and how much Clay Helton and his staff elected to stay close to the vest in order not to give the upcoming Stanford Cardinal any insights is a reasonable assumption, but certainly not a good excuse for the lackluster performance for most of Saturday’s game. When the Trojans (1-0, 0-0 Pac-12) were good yesterday – like the opening 75-yard touchdown drive and the late 28-point fourth quarter, they looked arguably like one of the top teams in the country. However, for the majority of the game, the Trojans looked like anything like the No. 4 team in the land and even questionable Top 10 status. Yes, it was horribly hot in L.A., but it was horribly hot for both teams. They real test comes next weekend against undefeated Stanford (1-0, 00 Pac-12).

IMHO evaluation – Part 3:
In a sweltering Coliseum that tested both players and fans resolve, the concerning issues leading into the opening game all came out in glaring fashion. The inexperienced receivers had trouble holding on to the ball, especially early. The offensive line opened some inconsistent holes for the violent and impressive running of tailback Ronald Jones ll and for precocious freshman tailback Stephen Carr, but the O-line gave up two sacks and both starting tackles were called for illegal procedure flags. The defensive line and linebackers were gashed repeatedly on the ground in the first half (161 yards), but order was somewhat restored when starting junior linebacker and co-captain Cameron Smith, who was held out of the first half as punishment for a targeting penalty in the Rose Bowl, started the second half. To the players I talked to after the game, all said that they had underestimated Western Michigan (0-1) and gave the Broncos due respect for their competitiveness and effort. The lone consistently bright spot, surprisingly, was the kicking game on special teams, namely placekicking and punting, but more on that below.

Offensively speaking:
First, the good news. Junior tailback Ronald Jones ll showed the Coliseum throng and a national TV audience that he has taken his game to a completely higher level of physicality and understanding (159 yds., 8.8 avg.,3 TDs). Interestingly, when the chips were down in the final quarter, Clay Helton showed his true cards by throwing away his depth chart and playing true freshman Stephen Carr (69 yds., 9.9 avg., 2 TDs) in crunch time along with Jones. Carr responded with an electrifying 52-yard TD run with 3:49 remaining that showcased all his running skills –power, strength, moves, and speed. As for the rest of the Trojans offense, sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold, who despite an “off day,” still threw for 289 yards, scored on a nifty 11-yard QB keeper, but was sacked twice, threw two interceptions, and recorded no touchdown passes. Of course, it didn’t help that a number of his inexperienced receivers dropped on-target balls. But in the clutch, when it counted, Rose Bowl hero, wide receiver Deontay Burnett (7 recept./142 yds.), came through as did tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe on a critical late 12-yard gain deep in Broncos territory.

Defensively speaking: First the good news. It was confirmed that when inside linebacker Cameron Smith played in the second half, the Trojans were “a little better” in limiting the Broncos run game (101 yds. in second half). However, even with the return of Smith in the second half, Western Michigan still moved the ball. Some might question the toughness of the Trojans inside, but they were playing at times with true freshmen nose tackles and young and inexperienced inside linebackers, but that would be an excuse. The heralded defensive ends, Porter Gustin and Uchenna Nwosu, were at times caught out of position. You could argue that the Trojans defense, minus the special teams TD kickoff return blunder that gave the Broncos a gift touchdown, gave up three touchdowns, but there was also two field goals. By allowing WM to have long drives, it kept the Trojans potentially potent offense off the field and a tiring USC defense on it. And it was difficult to watch some of the Trojans corner play, as WM repeatedly picked on sophomore corner Jack Jones. Then there were unneeded penalties like the second half personal foul by linebacker and co-captain Uchenna Nwosu on quarterback Jon Wassink. It was surprising that a call like that would be attributed to a senior captain. In the end, it was a team effort of inefficiency for much of the game, but to its credit, the Trojans hung in there during a wild fourth quarter.

Special teams speaking: Did anybody not have a lump in their throat and/or a tear in their eyes when sophomore blind snapper Jake Olson came on to the field after Marvel Tell’s late fourth quarter touchdown interception? Jake was ready for his PAT national moment and so were members from both teams, and let’s give tons of credit to Western Michigan and their coaching staff for allowing this great Trojan to make some cardinal and gold history. That Jake Olson moment was a welcome relief to the day’s rollercoaster of a performance by the Trojans and on his perfect snap, Jake drew thunderous Coliseum applause from drenched souls still in attendance. And if you were still dry-eyed, how about after the game when Jake climbed the ladder and led the Trojans Marching Band in “Conquest”? Man, what a memory, and Clay Helton said he would like to do more PAT snapping with Jake in the future. Some things are just bigger than the game.

Special teams speaking – Part 2: The big news prior to the game was the naming of two walk-on players over scholarship players to handle placekicking and punting, respectively. In walk-on true freshman placekicker Chase McGrath, you’d have to say the kid had an excellent debut, considering he was converted all seven of his extra point attempts, although there were no field goal opportunities. As for junior walk-on punter Reid Budrovich, he averaged 51.0 yards per punt on four efforts, another successful debut. And freshman redshirt Michael Brown’s kickoffs had to bring a smile to special teams coach John Baxter, as Brown recorded three valuable touchbacks. One thing that did not bring a smile to Baxter’s face was the near mortal blow of a 100-yard kickoff return by WM’s explosive Darius Phillips midway in the fourth quarter to tie the game at 28-28.

The bottom line IMHO:
The Trojans had better progress pronto and fix their numerous issues this week in practice because if they don’t, they could be in for a rude awakening when Stanford comes to town with their powerful offensive line, skill players, a defense that is highly discipline, and a coaching staff that knows what it’s doing. Add to that mix, the ranked Cardinal have treated the Coliseum in the recently played games like it’s a Stanford home game.

Tackling the issues: Junior defensive tackle Rasheem Green led the Trojans in tackles with nine stops. Green was followed by junior safety Marvel Tell with eight tackles.

The quote book…

Trojans head coach Clay Helton comments:
“Good win for our football team against what I thought was an excellent football team. They came in with a lot of confidence and know how to win; you can tell they won 13 games last season. Some of the concerns I had showed up early. Their running game showed up. Defensively, they gave us some fits. Special teams showed up with dynamic returner in (Darius) Philips. We played sloppy offensively in the first half, but I love the poise the offense showed down the stretch. We leaned on the running game, not only Ronald (Jones) but a host of backs and the offensive line. They won us this game. I commend No. 7 (Marvell Tell lll) to make plays we needed at the end of the game.”

Western Michigan head coach Tom Lester comments: “I’m proud of the guys and how they played. We came in here knowing we had to worry about us. It was unique to play with new coordinators and a new head coach, and we were really just focusing on executing one play at a time. We had some ups and downs. They landed some punches and we landed some punches and the guys kept swinging. You come here to win, so it’s frustrating we didn’t. But we learned a lot. So, it’s tough, we have to finish. We have to handle the heat better. We ran out of juice a bit and have to make sure that doesn’t happen again. Whoo, their (USC) running backs are special and we knew that. We knew we had to stop the run. That was frustrating thing at the end. They’re gonna score and move the ball. They’ve got a really good quarterback who made good throws. But our job is to stop the run. We need to do a better job stopping the run in the last four minutes. That’s what we have to get better at.”

Sam speaks: Reflecting on the struggle to beat Western Michigan, Trojans quarterback Sam Darnold said, “Not to knock Western Michigan, we knew they were a great team and what kind of team they were, a hardnose team coming off 13 wins last year with a tough loss in the Cotton Bowl. We knew what we were in for, but I think our guys showed a lot of poise out there, and it really showed the kind of the conditioning we did throughout summer and the spring to finish them off like that. I thought we played pretty well honestly. We just made some dumb mistakes and that kind of stuff. Hey, a win is a win and we’re going to take it and learn from it and watch the film.”

Safety speaks: Trojans senior safety and co-captain Chris Hawkins said, “A ‘W’ is a ‘W’ and this was the first game with this team. This was the first time getting our feet wet and some young guys first game. We’ve got to go back to the drawing board with Stanford coming up. We need a good week of preparation and we’ll be ready. We were humble from the beginning (the No. 4 ranking), and we knew this team (Western Michigan) was good, but we didn’t know they were that good. I now understand how they won 13 games last year. I really do.”

Superman: Talking about his newfound physical style of running to compliment his explosive speed, Trojans tailback Ronald Jones ll said, “I felt strong after gaining weight in the off season. The offensive line did a great job and with the receivers blocking, they make your job easy.”

Chuma conversation: Asked how the offensive line did against Western Michigan, junior right tackle Chuma Edoga said, “I thought we did great today for (tailbacks) RoJo (Ronald Jones) and Stephen Carr and Vavae (Malepeai), and we were just trying to open up holes. Nothing surprised us. They were a great team and went undefeated last year (regular season). We knew they were going to give us a fight. We saw them on film and knew they were a good bunch. If we see RoJo hot, we’ve got to keep giving him the ball, but we have to spread the field, too, and stuff like that. Against Stanford, we have to communicate better with no mess-ups.”

Receiving thoughts: After the game, junior wide receiver Deontay Burnett said his teammate receivers were aware of some of the criticism of inconsistent practices and scrimmages. Burnett said, “Yes, we are aware of the noise regarding the receivers. I think that everybody in the receiving room knows that they are good and came to SC to be great. Time will tell, but I think every receiver will be great. We hear (people) say we’re young, but honestly, we have great ball catchers. It’s gonna take reps and the more reps they get, I feel good about the receiving corps.”

Biggie speaks:
Asked about the defense and the secondary in particular, junior defensive back Iman “Biggie” Marshall said, “We came out a little slow and sluggish. I thought it was really challenging, but I thought we beat ourselves. That’s a great team and I feel like they’re going to be a special team in the long haul. They came out striking hard and very physical. But in the end of the day, we came out victorious. We learned that we have to start off fast. We really didn’t start off fast and play our football until the second (quarter) and the second half, so as a team we have to start off more fast. Our thought our secondary held our own. It was just our first game, so we are still looking to improve every week.”

The gifted one: On being used late in the game by Clay Helton and running back coach Deland McCullough, true freshman tailback Stephen Carr said, “It honestly means a lot to me. It shows that coaches really have a lot of trust in me.”
The infirmary: The lone injury reported was to true freshman free safety Bubba Bolden, who suffered an apparent sprained knee.

From the press box…

Counting the house: The announced attendance for Saturday’s game was 61,125, which was Troy’s smallest season opener since 2001 and the lowest of any game since 2002.
The thermometer: Temperature at kickoff in the Coliseum was a hot 98 degrees with sunny skies. The temp was one degree less than the record of 99 degrees when the Trojans played Purdue in 1998.

Heat Wave: During a first quarter timeout, Trojans wide receiver Jalen Greene introduced a Coliseum weather report on the videoboard with the old song, “Heat Wave” by Martha and the Vandellas playing underneath during the report.

Tunnel vision: Leading the Trojans out of the Coliseum players tunnel prior to kickoff was legendary USC All-America tackle, lone Outland Trophy winner (1967), and a member of both the Pro Football and College Hall of Fames, Ron Yary.

Matted entrance: A new cardinal and gold “mat/carpet” entrance leading from the mouth of the Coliseum players’ tunnel to the field was on display. The new mat had cardinal and gold arrows point players towards the direction of the field and at the end of the map was, of course, “Fight On” and an interlocking “SC”. Accompanying each side of the mat was the fairly new Greek designs that you see on the Trojans uniforms and merchandise.

New covering: With the two new video/scoreboards, which were placed amongst the top level seats in the peristyle end, the Trojans covered the empty seats below and behind the scoreboards with frontal advertising. It actually, IMHO, looked appropriate.

New pregame warmup: For as long as I can remember, the Trojans finished pregame warm-ups by throwing a long pass into the end zone and then running off the field. On Saturday, the Trojans ended pregame warm-ups with true freshman placekicker Chase McGrath attempting a medium range field goal. Before the final field goal attempt by McGrath, the Trojans also did something with new walk-on punter Reid Budrovich getting one last punting opportunity. Both players probably benefited somewhat with the new ending to pregame warmups.

Cover boy: On the cover of the official USC/WM game program was Trojans junior corner Iman Marshall. The program this season is 224 pages and sells for $7.
Bowling time: Although it’s admittedly early, Rose Bowl reps were in attendance, and it’s worth noting the Grand Daddy of Them All will host one of the CFP semi-final games on New Year’s Day.
Scouting the talent: NFL representatives in attendance included the Rams, Chargers, Chiefs, Saints, Bills, Jets, and Lions. Wonder whom they were there to see? Hmmm.

The post-game show numbers…

Rising points:In 2016, the Trojans averaged 34.4 points per game. Against Western Michigan on Saturday afternoon, the Trojans scored 49 points.

Way too much: In 2016, the Trojans defense allowed 24.2 points per game. Against Western Michigan on Saturday afternoon, the Trojans allowed 31 points.

A solid increase: In 2016, the Trojans averaged 477.1 yards in total offense. Against Western Michigan on Saturday afternoon, the Trojans had 521 yards in total offense.

Decreasing numbers: In 2016, the Trojans defense allowed a total of 367.2 total offensive yards per game. Against Western Michigan on Saturday afternoon, the Trojans allowed 357 offensive yards.

On the rush: In 2016, the Trojans rushed for an average of 200.7 yards per game. Against Western Michigan on Saturday afternoon, the Trojans rushed for 232 yards.

In a rush: In 2016, the Trojans defense allowed 139.6 net yards rushing per game. Against Western Michigan on Saturday afternoon, the Trojans allowed 263 net rushing yards.

Slightly better:In 2016, the Trojans passed for 276.4 yards per game. Against Western Michigan on Saturday afternoon, the Trojans had 289 passing yards.

The right direction: In 2016, the Trojans defense allowed 227.5 passing yards per game. Against Western Michigan on Saturday afternoon, the Trojans allowed 94 passing yards.

Still flagging: In 2016, the Trojans were penalized 67.2 yards per game. Against Western Michigan on Saturday afternoon, the Trojans had nine penalties for 94 yards.

The Call-In Show…

IMHO: It certainly didn’t help the Trojans strength of schedule when Texas lost its home opener on Saturday in embarrassing fashion to visiting Maryland, 51-41, ruining new Longhorns’ head coach Tom Herman’s debut. The loss won’t matter Coliseum crowd wise when the Trojans host the Horns on Sept. 16. The game is reportedly very close to a sellout. FYI, Texas will host San Jose State next Saturday, so it would figure the boys from Austin will be 1-1 when they arrive in Los Angeles.

Swann song: Lynn Swann said in his monthly email release, “I sat down with Clay Helton and I talked about my expectations for the program and he has his expectations for the program, which he communicates to the players. We are on the same page. We understand what the goals are. Everybody wants to win a national championship, but it all begins with small steps on a road trying to get to the end and have a chance to play in that final game. We have to win against Western Michigan. We have not won a Pac-12 championship since 2008, so that’s our first and foremost goal. Do that and everything moves the way it should.”

USCHOF Congrats: Eighteen Trojan luminaries have been selected to the 12th class of USC’s Athletic Hall of Fame. Those to be honored include Wayne Black (tennis), Chris Claiborne (football), Sam Clancy (basketball), Kim Clark Jennings (soccer/basketball), Mike Gillespie (baseball coach/player), J.K. McKay (Spirit Award), Ous Mellouli (swimming), Mikaela Parmlid (golf), Troy Polamalu (football), April Ross (volleyball), Felix Sanchez (track and field), Rod Sherman (football), Kevin Stadler (golf), Tim Tessalone (media), Traveler (Spirit Award), Charlie Weaver (football), Lauren Wenger Trapani (water polo) and Barry Zito (baseball).

USCHOF Congrats – Part 2: The new 18 USC Hall of Famers will be introduced during this year’s USC-Arizona football game on Nov. 4 in the Coliseum and then honored at an induction dinner on May 19, 2018, at USC’s Galen Center.

IMHO: I still don’t understand why two-time All-America offensive tackle Marvin Powell is not in the Trojans Hall of Fame but is in the College Football Hall of Fame. Did he do a cardinal and gold wrong that I am not aware?

The last word: So, the Trojans won their first game over a determined Western Michigan team. Now comes the early acid test in the Pac-12 opener against Stanford, who had a bye this weekend. For an early season game and considering how the Trojans played against Western Michigan, this is about as big as it gets with Pac-12 and CFP implications. Fasten your seatbelts!

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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