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IMHO Sunday: A “Titanic” collapse and maybe more

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

IMHO: Were you still pinching yourself late into Saturday night after the Trojans (5-5 overall, 4-4 Pac-12 South) 15-14 collapse to the California Bears (6-4 overall, 3-4 Pac-12 North) in a stunned Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum? After all, just when you thought the Trojans’ season couldn’t be any more disappointing, deflating, and humiliating, it has gotten worse, much worse. Saturday night’s loss was so bad that fans lining the famed Coliseum tunnel leading up to the locker rooms poured out their emotions with a crescendo of boos directed at Trojans’ head coach Clay Helton as he headed up the tunnel. It was sad, it was ugly, and it brought back painful memories of the final days of the Paul Hackett era. With heated rivals UCLA and Notre Dame about to help usher in the final two regular season games of 2018, you shudder to think what those two adversaries must be thinking: Cardinal and Gold blood is in the water. And by the way, the Trojans are still not bowl eligible. It figures that beating UCLA is the best opportunity to win six games and be bowl eligible.  Better hide the women and children and call out “Mayday, Mayday!”

IMHO – Part 2: So, while Trojans’ athletic director Lynn Swann has more or less given the dreaded vote of confidence to head coach Clay Helton, what happens to Helton if the Trojans drop their next two games or even spilt with their heated rivals? They’re now on a two-game Coliseum losing streak and with Notre Dame coming to town in two weeks, it could easily be a three-game home losing streak. Yeah, we’ve all heard that through the grapevine that unless there is a catastrophic end to the season – like three losses in a row to conclude the season – Helton will be back in 2019. Well, guess what, in the year of the impossible, the improbable might just happen. It’s probable now that the Trojans wasted away the Cal game, somehow or somewhere Lynn Swann has to be hearing louder than ever the intense displeasure of the Trojan faithful and his former teammates and football alumni. It’s almost like the Cal loss was the doorway to disaster, and that’s not just hyperbole.

IMHO – Part 3: Clay Helton was his usual gentlemanly self after the game, but he tried to point out that other programs have had their ups and downs without referencing Notre Dame directly. He even referenced his own program without saying it, as he illustrated there have been teams that have won the Pac-12 title and won Rose Bowl games and were able to reconstitute themselves when given the opportunity. It’s unlikely that Trojans fans are ready to give Helton the same vote of confidence that his athletic director has. In fact, the thought of losing to the Bruins and/or the Irish to end the season after Saturday’s Cal loss brought into debate whether a 6-6 USC team should even attend a post-season bowl game if they can win a sixth game. Helton says the ship isn’t sinking. Okay, but what’s that water seeping through the floor?    

IMHO – Part 4: After watching UCLA (2-8 overall, 2-5 Pac-12 South) hang in there at ASU (6-4, overall, 4-3 Pac-12 South), any Trojan fan that thinks next week’s game against the Westwooders is a wipeout waiting to happen needs to get that out of their mind like immediately. You might not like hearing this, but this is an improving UCLA team under Chip Kelly and a dangerous opponent for the Men of Troy. UCLA will be ready for USC and who knows whether the Helton’s team will have a post-Cal hangover knowing their South Division title hopes have expired. In perspective, the Bruins were a few mistakes from taking down an ASU in Tempe, and we know the long history of UCLA upsets of the Trojans in their storied intercity rivalry. Some food for thought: USC lost to ASU 38-35 while the ASU edged the Bruins 31-28 on Saturday.

IMHO – Part 5: They say the Trojans play the regular season in three phases. Phase 1 is the non-conference games. Phase 2 is the prerequisite Pac-12 conference games. And Phase 3 is the rivalry games against UCLA and Notre Dame, especially in those seasons when the games are back-to-back like this season. For Trojans’ head coach Clay Helton, this final phase could be a final verdict whether he comes back in 2018 or is looking for future employment, and, yes, I know what Lynn Swann said recently. That was then; we’re talking now. While word was out there that Helton’s chances for returning were looking positive prior to the Cal game, nothing is set in stone, especially if the Trojans lose to the Bruins and/or the Irish, respectively. A twin loss to UCLA and Notre Dame would cause a gridiron firestorm amongst the Trojan masses not seen since the Paul Hackett and Lane Kiffin eras.

The bottom line: What could be worse than losing to Cal and ending all hopes for a South Division championship? How about playing your two biggest rivals in UCLA and No. 3 Notre Dame (10-0), both of whom see a wounded Trojans and will be ready to administer the final lethal blow. Yes, these are the times that try the souls of cardinal and gold fans everywhere, but what about Clay Helton and his beleaguered band of Trojans? Will they be ready for the twin rivalry spotlight?

IMHO – The offense: A Trojans’ bad snap by center Toa Lobendahn that resulted in an instant safety in the third quarter was all it took for Cal’s moribund offense to wake up long enough in the second half to change the game. The Trojans moved the ball against the Bears vaunted defense in the first half and you had to admit the play calling by Clay Helton was looking much better in his second game on the job. The offense had 237 yards and 14 points. However, in the second half, the Trojans gained just 40 yards, were shutout, and there was no Tee Martin to be held accountable. This one was on Clay Helton; he owned it. The offensive line saw a new right tackle in redshirt freshman Jalen McKenzie who replaced senior Chuma Edoga, who didn’t dress due to a knee issue. During the game, backup offensive guard Alijah Vera-Tucker saw extended action at right guard. It’s obvious that new O-line coach Tim Drevno is not shy about making changes. However, at center, Toa Lobendahn continues to make poor snaps, one which was turned into a safety that became the margin of victory for the Bears. Individually, quarterback JT Daniels (21 of 34 for 180 yards, two TDs, 1 PI) had some good moments, especially in the first half, but he also looked like a true freshman on his interception and some of his reads. Wide receiver Tyler Vaughns had a good night with eight catches for 91 yards and two TD receptions (2 and 23 yards). Vaughns two first half touchdowns were the only scores of the night for the stymie USC offense. In terms of running the ball individually, senior Aca’Cedric Ware (photo above) had a productive night with 103 yards rushing (6.4 avg.).

IMHO – The defense: The Trojans asserted themselves on defense against what could best be described as an anemic Cal offense. The Trojans’ defense allowed just 207 yards, but they did give up two third quarter TD Cal drives of 50 and 40 yards, which included a 29-yard TD pass to Vic Wharton lll and a 5-yard run by Bears’ QB Chase Garbers. The Trojans’ defense sprung a leak in the third quarter when senior CB Iman Marshall left the game and was replaced by true freshman Olaijah Griffin who was first flagged for an interference and then burned on the 29-yard TD reception to Wharton. The Trojans continue to be plagued by pass interference calls; it’s like Groundhog Day. One of the additional issues was the fact the pass rush could sack Garbers just one time for seven yards. Now think about this, anytime a defense gives up 13 points that team’s offense should provide enough points to win the game, but not if you’re the USC Trojans. Unfortunately, the Bears got two third quarter touchdowns and combined with the safety, that’s all the tough Cal defense needed to secure the victory.

IMHO – The special teams: The Trojans failed on a fake field goal in the first quarter. Other than that snafu, there was really no real special teams moments of consequence.

Tackling the issues: Safety Marvell Tell lll led the Trojans with eight tackles.

The infirmary: RB Vavae Malepeai (leg)

Next Saturday: The Trojans will travel to the Rose Bowl to play arch-rival UCLA (2-8 overall, 2-5 Pac-12 South). Kickoff time is 12:30 p.m. PT and the game will be shown on FOX.

The Trojans/Cal quote book…

Trojans head coach Clay Helton comments: “Obviously a tough loss for our team overall. Like I told them, it wasn’t one person who lost the game; it was a collective effort. We win together, we lose together. Two really good defenses battling out there tonight, and we came out one point short. I commend our players for their effort. We made too many mistakes across the board against a good defense and came up short tonight.”

Clay Helton comments – Part 2: On what needs to happen to change the direction of the program, “We’re in Pac-12 play, sitting here at 5-5 and lost a close ballgame tonight. We’re not going to get over-emotional and say the ship is sinking. We have two games left in the regular season with the opportunity to compete for the Victory Bell (vs. UCLA) and the Shillelagh (vs. Notre Dame). Between myself and this staff and this football team, I challenged them to make sure we put our best effort forward for these seniors and try to win both of those prizes. Obviously for us right now we are making too many mistakes in the game. We’ll watch the tape, but we made too many mistakes across the board.”

Clay Helton comments – Part 3: On if the program is going to change course, “Yes I believe this is going to change; I’m sorry for the 5-5 season right now. But better days are to come. Programs I’ve seen across the country, win a Rose Bowl, win a Pac-12 Championship and then have an off-season and then come right back. As a matter of a fact, we’re going to compete against one of them in about two weeks (Notre Dame). Sometimes you have a season that just doesn’t go your way. I believe in his coaching staff, I believe in the leadership and in the players most of all I believe there are better days ahead.”

Clay Helton comments – Part 4: Regarding the keys to the game, “For me, I thought the turnovers in the second half were critical. I don’t know if our defense can play any better than they did. Offensively, we were in a flow in the first half, then they come up with two turnovers in the second half and that flow kind of stopped. We were making fourth downs in the first half and just didn’t make them in that third quarter especially. Like I told our guys, any failures they have are my responsibility. That’s on me. It’s not one specific play or one specific player, we made enough to lose a football game against a good football team. And that’s my responsibility.”

Clay Helton comments – Part 5: On his thoughts regarding the consistent bad center snaps, “(Center)Toa Lobendahn is a man of honor and great football player. I’m sorry that the snap went over our head. I know he’s worked tirelessly on it. He’s our best center; he’s our best man at that position. It is something that has plagued us throughout the year… Toa is one of the loves of my life and he will be our center.”

Cal coach Justin Wilcox comments: On what he told his team at halftime when they were down 14-0, “To boil it down, it was something in effect of we played as bad as we could play. And we were down two scores. So, let’s play as good as we can play and go win the game. No magic speech. We couldn’t get out of our own way in first half. The offense couldn’t stay on the field and the defense couldn’t get off the field.”

Wilcox comments – Part 2: On the key to the Bears’ defense, “Our faith in each other. Guys wanted to go out there. They were talking, this is how we want it. They know we’re going against a talented team with a good scheme. They want to line up, and they’re not afraid to go out there. You know you’ll get beat sometimes, but they’ll line up again and that’s what it takes.”

The captain speaks: Asked about getting up for next week’s game against UCLA, Trojans captain and senior linebacker Cameron Smith said, “I think something I’ve been saying all year is we can’t play based on our record or based on the scoreboard or what’s happening in the game, because that doesn’t make us professional. We have to go out there and continue to make plays. The game of football is fun. And that rivalry is fun. It’s about us going out there and when we’re having fun and making plays it’s all working out for us. For me, it’s not about what our record is. We have to go out there and play our game of football. I think we’re better than what we played tonight. There’s not going to be falloff from me at this stage. Two games to look forward to and that’s the last for a lot of us. Every game is important and we’re just going out there and we gotta have a great week of practice and look forward for UCLA.”

The quarterback speaks: Asked what happened to the offense in general and the second half specifically, Trojans’ QB JT Daniels said, “I think as an offense, especially in the first half, we did a lot of really good things. We keep falling into the similar problem where one guy messes up on one play and that kills a drive for us. We need to manage mess-ups better as a team. We have to make our plays when the opportunities are there.”

The quarterback speaks – Part 2: “I don’t think the safety changed things. It wasn’t like the safety got us all out of the groove. We weren’t fighting on the sidelines because we had one bad snap… It goes back to one of us messing up and we don’t manage it well as an offense.”

A meaningful win: Reflecting on beating the Trojans, Cal linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk said, “It’s awesome. We’ve gone through a lot of adversity this year and haven’t flinched. It feels real good to go on the road at USC to secure our sixth win … It’s awesome. I’m so happy for the program and the guys and the coaches. It’s a huge step to get our sixth win and secure our bowl.”

The need to focus: Asked about what his team should have done differently, Trojans’ CB Isaiah Langley said, “We should have come out and played better in the second half. Whatever happened on the sidelines (alleged arguing) and the penalties, we could have played better.”

The turnovers:
Asked about the turnovers on offense, Trojans’ freshman receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown said, “It’s unfortunate and it’s never good, but we have to move on. I don’t think there was an exact turning point tonight. I feel like it happened slowly. We have to execute. We have to look at the film and make corrections. We have to stick together and focus on UCLA. We stick together and we’ll be fine.”

Tyler talks: Asked about the difference in the Trojans offense in the first half compared to the second half, Trojans wide receiver Tyler Vaughns said, “It was the mental mistakes we were making.”

From the press box…

Broken record: The Cal victory was its first over USC since defeating the Trojans, 34-31, in triple overtime in 2003 in Berkeley.

Broken record – Part 2: Cal’s last win at the LA Coliseum was a 28-16 decision in 2000.

Temperature: The Los Angeles kickoff temperature was 61 degrees.

Turnstiles: Saturday’s attendance was announced as 56,721.

Tunnel leader: Former Trojans’ quarterback John David Booty led the Trojans out of the Coliseum tunnel prior to kickoff.

Cover boy: On the game program cover was senior outside linebacker Porter Gustin, who is out with a season-ending ankle injury.

Line adjustment: Redshirt freshman offensive right tackle Jalen McKenzie started the game in place of senior Chuma Edoga (knee), who was on the sideline in a red hoodie.

Celebrity watch: Former Trojans tailback great LenDale White was on the USC sideline.

The right note:
On Saturday night, the Trojans Marching Band celebrated its 400th consecutive USC football game, home or away.

Scouting: NFL scouts in attendance included the Raiders, Cardinals, Falcons, and Jets.

Bowling: There were no bowl representatives in attendance.

The post-game show numbers…

Major downward trend: Against Cal, the Trojans scored 14 points. Prior to the Bears game, the Trojans were averaging 28.33 points per game.

Major downward trend: Against Cal, the Trojans allowed 15 points. Prior to the Bears game, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 28.89 points per game.

Major downward trend: Against Cal, the Trojans had 277 yards in total offense. Prior to the Bears game, the Trojans was averaging 380.2 yards in total offense per game.

Major downward trend: Against Cal, the Trojans defense allowed 207 total yards in offense. Prior to the Bears game, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 388.1 total yards per game.

Significant downward trend: Against Cal, the Trojans had 97 net yards rushing. Prior to the Bears game, the Trojans were averaging 144.3 rushing yards per game.

 Significant trend: Against Cal, the Trojans allowed 114 net rushing yards. Prior to the Bears game, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 158.3 net yards rushing per game.

Major downward trend: Against Cal, the Trojans had 180 yards passing yards. Prior to the Bears game, the Trojans were averaging 235.89 passing yards per game.

Major downward trend: Against Cal, the Trojans allowed 93 passing yards. Prior to the Bears game, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 229.78 passing yards per game.

Flag waving: Against Cal, the Trojans had five penalties for 55 yards while the Bears had four penalties for 35 yards. Prior to the Cal game, the Trojans were averaging 77.11 penalty yards per game while the opposition was averaging 61.67 penalty yards per game.

The last word: Fan attendance is a reflection of the attitude toward a team and/or a program, so it will be interesting to see the attendance count at next week’s UCLA game at the Rose Bowl. Depending on that outcome, while it figures that the Notre Dame game figures to be a Coliseum sellout, how many of those fans will be waving the Irish flag and filling Coliseum seats? Lynn Swann may be asking the same question.

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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