In my humble opinion, cardinal and gold thoughts on what I see, what I hear, and what I think from Los Angeles.
IMHO: After learning of Utah’s unexpected upset of Colorado, 38-21, by noon on Saturday, the No. 16 USC Trojans (5-0, overall, 5-0 Pac-12 South) knew they were in the Pac-12 Championship Game next Friday night in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum (5 p.m./FOX) against the Washington Huskies (3-1 overall, 3-1 Pac-12 North), unless COVID-19 steps and forces the Huskies to give way to Oregon, the original preseason pick. Of course, nothing can be be considered unexpected in this crazed COVID season.
Yet, despite being informed of the earlier Colorado upset, it certainly didn’t stop the Men of Troy from a tremendous 43-38 “Fight On” comeback over a determined UCLA team (3-3, 3-3, Pac-12 South) on Saturday night in the Rose Bowl. So, a victory next Friday night over Washington would mean a second conference championship for Clay Helton in his tumultuous five-year tenure as head coach of one of college football’s most storied programs.
IMHO – Part 2: If ever there was a schedule made for a road to a division title, a conference championship, and an overall spotless record, the 2020 USC were given every possible opportunity to win it all. It all started with the original opening game against No. 1 Alabama being cancelled, followed by the cancellation of the game against No. 2 Notre Dame, then the dramatic redo of a redo of the Pac-12 schedule, which removed North Division strongman Oregon (in Eugene) and always physical Washington (in L.A) being replaced with a visit from Washington State and its first-year coach.
IMHO – Part 3: Don’t blame Clay Helton, who won his first conference title in 2017, or his resilient team for the redo schedule. With the third comeback game in the final drive, these Trojans have a lot of fight in them. The Trojans should be expected to win Friday’s title game, especially in the friendly confines of the Coli. If the Trojans can defeat Washington, IMHO, they will have proved they truly deserve the conference title and a featured bowl game. Maybe the Fiesta Bowl with former QB JT Daniels? Objectively, the Trojans played with the deck of schedule cards dealt, in spite of that deck seemingly be changed on the weekly fly. You can debate how good they are, but they have thus far accomplished what they have been asked to do.
IMHO – Part 4: To be honest, this entire Pac-12 season has been a weekly hold-your-breath proposition. One never knew from week-to-week if games were either going to be cancelled or rescheduled. For the Trojans, they were also given another break when their closest Pac-12 South Division competitor at the time, the undefeated Colorado Buffaloes, found that game was being cancelled and not rescheduled. Looking back, whoever thought the Trojans would actually play a Sunday afternoon game against Washington State, two teams that were struggling with returning COVID -19 players? It’s been that type of a season, and one could deduce that the championship might find itself in COVID jeopardy, at least the Oregon Ducks are hoping.
IMHO – Part 5: All the above should not supersede the Trojans being on the verge of another conference championship. Yes, there will be pressure to finish the deal, and it won’t be easy against Washington or Oregon, teams that play physical, have balanced offenses, and have the talent to come down to Los Angeles and ruin the Trojans conference title dreams.The Pac-12 Championship Game should be battle royal. Certainly, the Huskies or the Ducks won’t be intimidated coming into the Coliseum, especially with no fans sitting in the Grand Old Lady. No doubt, it should be a real challenge for these Trojans, who actually have to prepare for two potential opponents on a short week.
IMHO offensively against UCLA: Getting back to the UCLA game, the Trojans offense scored more points than the UCLA defense had given up all season to any one team. Trojans quarterback Kedon Slovis is now 2-0 against the Bruins, and, no doubt, the boys from Westwood will be more than happy to see him go after the 2021 season. Slovis (30 of 47 for 344 yards, five touchdowns, and one interception) again gave notice that if you’re the opposition, you don’t want him in a position for comeback late in the game. As two previous “miracles” (ASU and Arizona) have shown, Kedon is nails in crunch time. Especially in the final minutes when behind, and the Air Raid offense seems to be an advantage.
The Trojans ran the ball for an even 100 yards, and nobody did it better than senior RB Vavae Malepeai, who had 110 yards on the ground on 19 carries, which also included a 10-yard physical touchdown run. Malepeai ran possessed in the tradition of old-school, physical USC tailbacks. John McKay would have been proud.
The Trojans wide receivers did what was expected, and you have to recognize the tremendous work of perhaps overlooked senior Tyler Vaughns (8 catches for 128 yards, a long of 38 yards, and 1 TD). The Trojans couldn’t have made the comeback without Vaughn’s dramatic contributions. You also can’t continue to say enough about sophomore Drake London (5 catches for 92 yards, a long of 65 yards, and 2 TDs). He will play on Sundays one day. He is a super athlete. All of which brings us to junior Amon-Ra St. Brown with a game-high 10 receptions for 73 yards and two scoring receptions, the last being the winning 8-yard TD with just 16 seconds left. He is the ultimate warrior, and the Trojans rely on him for first down yardage and critical dramatic moments. He comes through in the clutch, a real winner.
The Trojans offensive line started off slow, but they eventually really kicked it into gear, especially when Malepeai was carrying the ball. The Trojans ran well at various points in the game to finish with 100 yards net rushing in 33 attempts (3.0 avg.). No, they’re not a Pete Carroll offensive line, but they did their job and kept Slovis vertical for most of the game. The O-line wasn’t flawless, as they did allow three sacks. I thought they’d give up more sacks, and I am more than happy to be proven wrong.
IMHO defensively against UCLA: Judging by the fact the Trojans’ defense gave up more points to any team this season (38), you’d think the defense was hammered. UCLA’s total offensive production a whopping 549 yards while the Trojans’ offense had 444 yards. However, the defense came through when they had to and strong safety Talanoa Hufanga was a man possessed. However, a star was born when true freshman defensive tackle Tuli Tuipulotu played well beyond his years and recorded nine tackles and the Trojans lone sack of the evening. And certainly sophomore Drake Jackson was more than a thorn in the UCLA side. Every game he is getting better and better and could be a future All-American.
Playing against a tremendous athlete in Bruins quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson (30 of 36 passing for 364 yards, 4 TDs, 58 yards rushing), the Trojans were really challenged by the best offense they had faced up to now. The real problem with Trojans defense was their unsuccessful attempt to contain UCLA tight end Greg Dulcich (8 receptions for 167 yards, and 1 TD). It seemed every time the Bruins needed a big play, Dulcich, who also will play someday in the NFL, was there to provide it.
The big feather in the Trojans cap, however, was containing UCLA running back Demetric Felton, who finished the game with “just” 90 net yards on 21 carries. However, Felton did burn the Trojans defense with two TD receptions (21 and 12 yards).
I am sure that Trojans defensive coordinator Todd Orlando will learn a lot after watching the dreaded film, and even Orlando would probably say that UCLA offensive guru Chip Kelly gave him and his defense a run for their money. They say that turnovers are the difference in many football games, and Saturday night’s Trojans victory was helped greatly by three critical UCLA turnovers that led to 18 points. And another major point, UCLA was 0 for 3 on fourth-down conversion attempts, so credit to Orlando and his attacking defense.
IMHO special teams against UCLA: For the most part, Trojans special teams made a difference during points of the game, but no contribution was bigger than true freshman Gary Bryant Jr.’s kickoff return of 56 yards that set up the fateful drive to victory. I can’t figure why UCLA just didn’t kick it out of the end zone. Punter Ben Griffiths average 51.0 yards per punt (3 punts) with a long of 57 yards. It made a difference. As for freshman placekicker Parker Lewis, he was 1 of 2 on field goal attempts in his first taste of the crosstown rivalry. He missed on a 45-yard attempt in the second quarter but converted a 42-yarder near the end of the half. In all, Parker had eight kickoffs, averaging 52-yards per kick, which included four touchbacks.
Bottom Line: So, the Trojans finished Goal 1: Winning the Pac-12 South Division title and Goal 2: Beating UCLA. Now comes Goal 3: Beating Washington or Oregon in the Conference title game next Friday night in the Coli. Yes, there were still missed tackle and some costly penalties but fewer than the average, and the clock management of timeouts left a lot to be desired on Saturday. However, the Trojans are now 5-0 with a better than good shot at being 6-0 after next weekend. One thing you can take to the bank, don’t ask Washington or Oregon if they want Kedon Slovis to have the ball in his hands for a potential winning score as the clock is winding down. I think we can all agree, Slovis and his array of future NFL receivers can make life miserable for any team on the schedule, especially with the game on the line.
Infirmary: None reported
Game video highlights: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5MRzswzxkwU
Next Friday: The Trojans are tentatively set to host Washington in the Pac-12 Championship Game. Kickoff time is set for 5 p.m. PST on FOX.
Clay Helton comments: “I wanted to start off by thanking a bunch of great kids for being the definition of fight on. The entire second half, I never saw one kid quit the fight, and just down the stretch just make play after play after play. Great college football game. A lot of appreciation to coach (Chip) Kelly and the job that he’s doing with his team. That’s a very well-coached team, and they played their hearts out tonight.”
On the Trojans improved run game: “Yeah, (Vavae) Malepeai, I thought stepped up huge with 19 carries and 110 yards, averaging 5.8 against a really good defense – a defense that we thought was extremely much improved from last year. I thought he made the tough yards, especially in the red zone. I thought he did, and the offensive line did a terrific job. Offensive line wise also I have to say did a nice job of holding up. We threw the ball a lot tonight, 47 times, and I thought they gave the time Kedon (Slovis) needed to be successful.”
On what Helton learned about the fight in his team:“I knew that if we just had one more opportunity, that they would make something happen. It’s who this team is. As soon as we called timeout after that third down of UCLA and there were 52 seconds left, I thought to myself it doesn’t matter if they make this or not, there’s an opportunity there for our guys. And it started with Gary Bryant, to be honest with you. We finally got it going in the kickoff return game, and what a big play that was to get it across the 50 yard line. What an unbelievable check by Kedon on the next play to (Tyler Vaughns). It made me nervous, but he’s got the courage. It was fun to watch. That’s how we played. What a terrific job by the guys to get our third game this year that was won on the last drive.”
On Gary Bryant’s kickoff return: “Yeah. It was the first time the ball didn’t go over his head. I mean as soon as he kicked it, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re going to have a shot here.’ We were in a situation where we needed to take every shot we could, so Gary was bringing it out, and did a fabulous job. Our kickoff returns, our special teams have just been phenomenal this year. That return really set up that drive and made it a lot easier to call plays. If you start at the 25-yard line with 52 seconds, that’s a lot different than already being past 50. So, we were able to get aggressive and dial up some man coverage because of that. For the last 25 yards, you’re seeing a ton of zone, but after getting across 50, they went ahead and played man, and so Kedon and TV were able to connect.”
On sloppy USC defense in first half and adjustments made in the second half: “I thought we calmed down a little bit. One of the things I really admire about coach Kelly is his creativity. Every game, you’re going to get some sort of option. You just don’t know what sort of formation it’s going to be out of and how he’s going to run it. The first four or five series of the game, he kind of had us on our heels. I credit Todd Orlando. He came in very calmly at halftime and said to the guys, ‘This is what we have to do, and these are our adjustments.’ We missed some tackles against some talented players. In the second half, there were some huge plays, a huge momentum play on the pick that allowed us to set up another score. I thought we came in at halftime knowing we’re not playing great ball right now, let’s flip the switch, let’s play our brand of football, and fight for another 30 minutes and see what happens. And it took all 30 to get it done.”
UCLA head coach Chip Kelly comments on the decision to have Keegan Jones in the backfield on a late fourth down: “Yeah, he was the back that was in the game at that time. I thought we needed a yard. Keegan is a good, solid back for us, and he just came up a little bit short.”
Kelly’s thoughts on the one-on-one coverage against USC’s receivers: “I mean, it was a back and forth deal. Our kids on defense played really well. We knew going into the game, the talented receiver corps that they had and that it was going to be a difficult matchup. I thought that our kids competed. But they just made one more play than we did.”
Kelly on a pair of special teams mistakes for UCLA: “Yeah, in a close game like this, we knew going into it that [special] teams would be a big factor. I thought that RJ [Lopez] did a great job on kickoffs all day long. He didn’t even allow them to get a return. He was really smashing the ball, but we have to be able to cover a kick, and we didn’t – especially in that situation because it was a field goal game. You’ve got to prevent them from getting over midfield, because it was inside of three. We have got to get that fixed.”
Kelly on what adjustments he saw that USC’s offense had made in the second half: “I think that Kedon Slovis is one of the top quarterbacks in the nation. I don’t think anybody thought that we’d come in here and shut them out. But, it was kind of a heavyweight fight and you are just trading blows. They hit one and we hit one, and then we hit one and then they hit one. We had a shot at the end. We had the ball at the end.”
Kelly on USC’s pass protection picking up some pressure from UCLA and if that was true:
“I thought they obviously have a system that they run and they have been very successful against everybody they’ve played. In their game against Washington State, they threw four touchdowns in the first quarter. You have someone as talented as Kedon and that group of receivers, they did a good job with their offensive line and you talk to Clay, they finally got everybody back and had a chance to practice this week. I thought they did a nice job. Otito [Ogbonnia] did a nice job and split them once for a sack, and then I thought Mo [Osling] had one. I don’t have the numbers in front of me for the other ones, but we knew going into it like I said earlier that we knew we wouldn’t shut them out. They’d get theirs, in terms of what they do. We just had to match them.”
USC QB Kedon Slovis on his mindset during the winning final drive: “We started out with great field position. Obviously, with no timeouts, you have to just be wary of the clock. But coach said on the sidelines that if you see man, chuck it. So, we chucked a shot to Tyler first. Obviously, I overthrew him earlier in the game, so I just wanted to give him the chance to make a spectacular catch. And then on the goal line, we saw man again, we had a wrong call, but I chucked it over to (Amon-Ra St. Brown). It probably gave coach Helton a bit of a tough time. Sorry about that coach, but it worked out for us.”
Slovis on Drake London’s touchdown and how it gave the team life: “I felt like offensively, we weren’t playing terribly, but we just didn’t have any juice to us. So, at that point, I thought at halftime too, after we gave up a score, I think that was the turning point for us offensively. Even though we got a score against us afterward, the pressure kind of got us going a little bit.”
Slovis on experiences from Arizona and Arizona State games helping tonight: “I feel like at this point, we’ve gone through situations like these so many times, I feel like everyone kind of has their cool, and so the experience from those other games, it really helps. This was probably one of the most difficult situations we’ve had time-wise, but none of the guys seemed fazed of that, so it definitely helps when you’ve been in that type of pressure and situation.”
Trojans strong safety Talanoa Hufanga on experiences from Arizona and Arizona State games helping tonight: “Definitely just got to stay patient. Time’s running out and you have to understand that you have to have confidence. We had confidence in our offense. We just had to get a stop and force a field goal in that last series. At the end of the day, we just have to make things happen, and so as a defense, we came together, we had to make adjustments. But at the end of the day, great offense made plays in the very last series to get the win. So just wanted to do our best out there and get the W.”
Hufanga on playing the rivalry game without fans: “I think the energy from the sidelines really helped us. Even I haven’t played here in a stadium full of fans. I’ve been here but wasn’t able to contribute at the time. This time, we just had to stay focused. We knew what our task was at hand. We needed to make our plays and make sure we get the win at the end of the day.”
Hufanga on the Trojans’ defense in the first half and when the switch flipped: “We just had to come in and make adjustments. Our coaches preach, ‘No excuses, just adjustments, come out here and make plays.’ We had a rough first half and we have to give credit to a great UCLA offense that comes out here and does a lot of different things. We kind of call it an exotic thing because they line up with all of these different formations. I give a lot of credit to them because they had a great first half, but we had to come out in the second half to make adjustments and make these key simple fixes so that it could help us win this game, and ultimately just give our offense a chance. When you put the ball in the hands of guys like number 9 and 2 and 8, great things will happen.”
UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson on how hard it is to take this loss:“This isn’t a normal game and this isn’t a normal loss so this one hurts, but the good thing is we get to go back on Monday and we’ve got one more game, so we can put this one to rest after watching film and move onto next week.”
UCLA defensive back Quentin Lake on whether the USC offense changed things in the second half or if the UCLA defense just did not make the plays that they needed to do: “At the end of the day, we’re the players out there, so we’ve got to make the plays. There wasn’t really anything in terms of their scheme. They thought their athletes were better than ours and that was it. I didn’t see any scheme change in terms of what they were doing.”
Lake on what he will take away from this game going forward: “We were making a lot of plays in the first half and I think sometimes that can get to your head and you think you’ve got the game in the palm of your hand but obviously that wasn’t the case. It’s unfortunate the outcome, but there was a lot of good things that came out of it. But I think the main thing is just don’t get complacent. We’ve got to finish. That game should have been ours, point-blank, period. It’s tough, but we’ve got to prepare for the next one.”
From the press box…
Pac-12 Weekend Results
Friday, Dec. 11
ASU 70, at Arizona 7
Saturday, Dec. 12
Utah 38, at Colorado 21
Washington at Oregon (canceled)
USC 43, at UCLA 38
Cal at WSU (canceled)
At Stanford 27, Oregon State 24
Pac-12 Standings (Final Regular Season)
Temperature: Rose Bowl temperature at kickoff was clear and 62 degrees.
Experienced: Combined as a USC assistant and head coach, this was Clay Helton’s 11th USC/UCLA game in which he has participated, and he now has a two-game winning streak against the Bruins (2-1). That will help with job security.
Preparation: Will somebody please tell ABC analyst Greg McElroy that it’s Tyler Vaughns not Taylor Vaughns. Maybe it’s just his accent. And please pronounce Amon-Ra St. Brown’s name correctly. It’s not A-mon.
The edge: Looking to fire up his troops for the big game, UCLA head coach Chip Kelly had New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, a longtime buddy of Kelly, speak to the Bruins at Tuesday’s practice. Judging by the final score, it didn’t work.
Cancelled: Another blow to the rivalry game besides no fans, neither band was in attendance or cheerleaders/song girls.
Cancelled – Part 2: A big tradition in the USC/UCLA rivalry has been the “Blood Bowl”, which pitted the school newspaper staffs against each other in a flag football game. Like almost everything else, it was canceled due to COVID.
Cancelled – Part 3: Obviously, due to COVID, there were no traditional Friday night pep rallies.
The post-game show numbers…
Tackling the issue: Against UCLA, junior strong safety Talanoa Hufanga led the Trojans with 17 total tackles, 11 unassisted. Corner Chris Steele had 10 tackles, six unassisted.
Upward trend: Against UCLA, the Trojans scored 43 points. Prior to the UCLA game, the Trojans were averaging 33.25 points per game.
Upward trend: Against UCLA, the Trojans allowed 38 points. Prior to the UCLA game, the Trojans were allowing 21.75 points per game.
Upward trend: Against UCLA, the Trojans had 444 yards in total offense. Prior to the UCLA game, the Trojans were averaging 424.5 yards on offense.
Upward trend: Against UCLA, the Trojans defense allowed 549 total yards in total offense. Prior to the UCLA game, the Trojans were allowing 356.5 yards in total offensive yards per game.
Downward trend: Against UCLA, the Trojans had 100 net yards rushing. Prior to the UCLA game, the Trojans were averaging 111.5 rushing yards per game.
Upward trend: Against UCLA, the Trojans allowed 185 net rushing yards. Prior to the UCLA game, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 150.0 rushing yards per game.
Upward trend: Against UCLA, the Trojans had 344 yards passing yards. Prior to the UCLA game, the Trojans were averaging 313.0 passing yards per game.
Upward trend: Against UCLA, the Trojans allowed 364 passing yards. Prior to the UCLA game, Trojans were allowing 206.50 passing yards per game.
Time of possession: The Trojans had the ball for 31:40 minutes while UCLA had the ball for 28:20 minutes.
Downward flag waving: Against UCLA,the Trojans had five penalties for 60 yards while UCLA had six penalties for 45 yards. Prior to the UCLA game,the Trojans were averaging 67.00 penalty yards per game while Trojans opponents are averaging 45.25 penalty yardage per game.
The post-game call-in show…
Caller No. 1: G-Kat, with no fans in the stands at the Rose Bowl, what did you miss most on Saturday.
Caller No. 1, for me it was the bands and cheerleaders from both schools. College football is all about bands, cheerleaders, and celebrities on the sidelines. Obviously, that wasn’t going to be the case on Saturday afternoon. Although I will take the Trojans win over UCLA if that means no band or cheerleaders.
Caller No. 2: Katzie, were you shocked with the Trojans’ heart-pounding comeback win on Saturday night against the Bruins?
Caller No. 2, why should I be surprised? They did the first two games with miracle finishes against ASU and Arizona, respectively. I am more surprised that the Men of Troy actually scored in the third quarter and finally scored in a fourth quarter after not doing so the previous two games. Credit to the Cardinal and Gold.
Caller No. 3: Sir, with the win over UCLA, do you think that Clay Helton’s job is safe?
Caller No. 3, so we’re back to that question. Let me say this, losing to UCLA is never a good thing, but if Helton loses in the Pac-12 title game and in whatever bowl game they play, that will cause scrutiny as it usually does. I fully expect Helton to return in 2021, but I doubt I would be saying that if the original pre-COVID season had played out. Imagine starting the season with Alabama and ending with Notre Dame. Avoiding Alabama is the best thing that could have happened this season. A crushing by the Crimson Tide could have been devastating given the team’s preseason confidence level.
Caller No. 4: Greg, how long do you think that Graham Harrell will remain the Trojans’ offensive coordinator?
Caller No. 4, I am under no illusion that unless Harrell thinks he’s going to be the future USC head coach, I don’t expect him to be the OC in two years. Harrell either wants to be an OC in the NFL or a college head coach, probably somewhere in his beloved Texas. Right now, I think Clay Helton doesn’t want to think about Harrell leaving because it will force him to decide if the Air Raid is a long-term investment. Trojans’ athletic director Mike Bohn will likely have a significant input into Harrell’s successor if and when that time comes.
Caller No. 5: GK, a drive-in movie or a movie theatre?
Caller No. 5, I think I’ve answered this one before, but given the fix we are in with COVID-19, I will fantasize and say both have their pluses and minuses. Of course, you don’t see many drive-in movies anymore like the Rosemead Drive-in. When I was a teenager, a drive-in movie was a passion pit. Although I must say, I saw most of the great movies in a movie theatre. With the way that the chairs in a movie theatre are like a leather family room chair, it is hard not to admit a movie theatre is more comfortable than a drive-in.
The last word: I was also somewhat surprised that so many people I know didn’t even know that USC was playing UCLA on Saturday. They might have missed a helleva game. Beat the Huskies…or the Ducks!