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IMHO Sunday: Back to the Future

By Greg Katz – WeAreSC.com

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

The evaluation: This time there was no second half collapse. This time, there was no being physical dominated in the second half. This time, despite missing two starting members of its offensive line, there was no disintegration. No, this time the USC Trojans (4-3 overall, 2-2 Pac-12) played like the Back to the Future USC Trojans in their 42-24 dominance of No. 3 Utah (6-1 overall, 3-1 Pac-12) before a rejuvenated and aroused Coliseum on Saturday.

The evaluation – Part 2: Let’s start with the defense, shall we? Okay, they still aren’t the second coming of the 1969 Wild Bunch, but they stood up to the Utah offensive line, which was considered the most physical bunch outside of the Stanford and UCLA O-lines. It was a collective defensive effort by Troy, which allowed 353 total yards, and it certainly helped that the Trojans offense, through points, helped put pressure on Utah’s ball control style of play.

The Trojans defensive front helped make life hectic (3 sacks) for Utah quarterback Travis Wilson, the former San Clemente High signal caller. Of course, the Player of the Game on defense was true freshman inside linebacker Cameron Smith (photo above), who played like an upperclassman and recorded three interceptions.

The evaluation – Part 3: The most impressive aspect of the Trojans 42 points against the vaunted defense of the Utes was the ball control scoring drives of 88, 76, ad 92 yards. In this particular game against the No. 3 team in the country, the Trojans lived up to its preseason billing, combining big plays yet making long drives across hallowed Coliseum turf. Perhaps the light went on or probably more to the point, Clay Helton is establishing his own identity on the offense.

Yes, the Trojans offense had an identity against the Utes. It was a balanced offense, ball control with big plays, and, yes, even fullback Soma Vainuku finally found the end zone from scrimmage (1-yard TD plunge). Hallelujah and welcome back, No. 31.

The bottom line: This was unquestionably the best win of the season for the Trojans, and they did it with a throwback style of physicality on both sides of the ball. Whether they can keep it up the rest of the season remains to be seen, but certainly they are capable of being physical. It becomes a matter of consistency and “want to.” The road will not be easy, but they are capable.

Magic numbers: Because the Trojans already have two Pac-12 losses, they’ll need Utah to lose another Pac-12 game to control their own destiny in the Pac-12 South. Compared to Utah’s remaining games (Oregon State, at Washington, at Arizona, UCLA, Colorado), the reality is that the Trojans have the tougher remaining schedule (At Cal, Arizona, at Colorado, At Oregon, UCLA).

The game changer: No doubt about it, it was true freshman inside linebacker Cameron Smith’s three huge interceptions that changed the course of the game, one of which was a 54-yard, second quarter TD return of an errant pass by Utah senior quarterback Travis Wilson. Smith’s three interceptions gained a total of 122 yards.

Trojans head coach Clay Helton comments: On his team’s sudden emergence of physicality, Helton said, “ Believe me, we thank you all (the media) for that. We’ve been reading it and addressed it in the meeting. These guys want to prove to everyone what kind of team they are. Cody’s (Kessler) quarterback sneak and Soma (Vainuku) going in there (1-yard touchdown), if that’s not physical, what is?”

Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham comments: On his overall picture of the loss, Whittingham said, “In my opinion, that’s the best team we’ve played all year long – certainly from a personnel standpoint. Give them credit. It was tough to give them essentially three touchdowns on turnover and hope to have a chance to win against a team of that caliber. One was a pick six, another ended on the five. And to get no takeaways of our own. That was the difference in the game. Credit to them, good athletes and good players.”

USC perspective: Trojans senior quarterback Cody Kessler said afterward, “The offensive line did great, the defensive line did great, but the momentum changed and what Cam (Smith) did tonight won us the game. Especially as a true freshman, He’s awesome, he does it all the time. He picks me off all the time in practice.”

Utah perspective: According to talented Utah linebacker Gionni Paul, “Wow, give them credit, they came to play today. We didn’t expect to get punched in the mouth like that. We knew USC was a great team with great talent. We knew they had faced adversity the last couple of weeks, but they played a good game against Notre Dame. We knew they would be ready tonight.”

Ronald runner: For the time being, the Trojans seem to have a productive running back combo in junior Justin Davis and true freshman Ronald Jones ll. However, it seems like just a matter of time or production before Clay Helton will have to seriously look at starting Jones, who averaged 8.0 yards per carry against the mighty Utah defense.

Tackling the issue: Linebacker Cameron Smith led the Men of Troy in tackles with nine followed by linebacker Anthony Sarao and corner Iman Marshall with eight apiece.

IMHO: With Kyle Whittingham’s name being prominently mentioned as a candidate for the permanent USC coach job, you have to wonder how the Utah loss played in the minds of the USC brass…if at all at this point.

IMHO – Part 2: There is something about the way Clay Helton is slowly molding his team into his image that may give him a dark horse shot at the job. He’s still way out in the periphery, but what if he could ace the schedule it the rest of the way? If he does, he should be considered by Trojans Athletic Director Pat Haden. The players absolutely love him.

IMHO – Part 3: According to Trojans linebacker coach Peter Sirmon regarding the Trojans strong and physical play, it lead back to Clay Helton. Sirmon said afterward, “Clay (Helton) has changed our practice format, and we’re able to work on technique.”

From the press box…

The barometer: On Saturday, the Trojans scored 42 points against Utah. The Trojans entered Saturday’s game averaging 38.3 points per game.

The barometer – Part 2: On Saturday, the Trojans defense gave up 24 points to Utah. The Trojans entered Saturday’s game allowing 21.3 points per game.

The flag is coming down: The Trojans were penalized five times for 49 yards. The Trojans coming into Saturday’s game were averaging 72.8 yards in penalties per game.

Tunnel runner: Leading the Trojans out of the Coliseum tunnel prior to kickoff was legendary fullback Sam “Bam” Cunningham, so it was appropriate that Trojans fullback Soma Vainuku dove over the top for his 1-yard touchdown against Utah.

Pulling rank: The Trojans are now 11-2 all-time against AP no. 3 teams (7-0 in bowl games, 4-1 at home, and 0-1 on the road).

Cover boys: Saturday’s official program cover featured offensive linemen Zach Banner, Max Tuerk, and Chad Wheeler. Ironically, Tuerk (out for the season) and Wheeler (concussion) didn’t perform on Saturday. Banner, who is normally a starter at right tackle but was moved to left tackle to replace Wheeler, was also ironically pictured in the upper left of the program cover.

History maker: Trojans interim head coach Clay Helton is the eighth consecutive USC head coach to win his first game at the Coliseum. The victory is also the first time an AP unranked USC team beat an AP top-3 ranked team since the Trojans defeated No. 2 Texas A&M, 20-0, in the 1975 Liberty Bowl, John McKay’s last season as the Trojans head coach.

Scouts honor: NFL scouts in attendance on Saturday included the Panthers, Buccaneers, Vikings, Colts, and Chiefs.

Bowling for dollars: There were no representatives from any bowl affiliations on Saturday.

Counting bodies: Attendance for Saturday’s game against Utah in the Coliseum was 73,435. The last time the Utes played in the Coli (2013), the attendance was 64,715.

The post-game show…

Southern California connection: If you were wondering about Utah coach Kyle Whittingham and his roots, it should be noted he was born in San Luis Obispo, California, and his late father, Fred, who played and coached at the college and NFL level, began his coaching career in 1972 as the head coach of the Alhambra (Calif.) High Moors, your humble scribe’s alma mater. Fred took moribund Moors program and turned it into an 8-1 team that went to the CIF playoffs.

Could he: As reported by the Los Angeles Times earlier this week, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham didn’t say he would or wouldn’t be interested in the USC coaching position. Whittingham said, “I don’t speculate on speculation.”

Could he – Part 2: Until I hear the word “no” as in “I am not interested in the Trojans job,” I thought the comment spoke for itself. If I were a Utah fan and wanted to keep Kyle Whittingham around, I think I’d be a little nervous by the response.

Could he – Part 3: One potential roadblock if the Trojans are interested in Kyle Whittingham as their next head coach. Kyle’s son, Alex Whittingham, is a sophomore linebacker for the Utes, and that might be enough for dad to stay as the head coach of the Utes.

For Pete’s sake: It was neither a shocker nor just plain no-brainer that former Trojans coach Pete Carroll said in a polite way he was not interested in returning to USC as the head coach. Carroll had a College Football Hall of Fame career, but quite frankly, I am pleased at this stage of his coaching career he is staying put in Seattle. It’s time to move on from Pete Carroll and his era.

In memory: Trojans hearts are hurting over the loss of “Mr. Trojan,” Nick Pappas, who passed on Friday at 99-years-old. Pappas was 59 years a Trojans and was instrumental as a player, coach, and athletic department administrator. Nick will also be remembered for building USC’s Trojan Club donor group into the most successful organization of its type in the country.

In memory – Part 2: Ironically, Mr. Trojan, Nick Pappas, will also be remembered for doubling for actor Pat O’Brien as Knute Rockne in the football scenes of the 1940 movie, “Knute Rockne—All-American,” which told the story of the legendary Notre Dame football coach.

Golden throat: Yes, that’s Trojans play-by-play radio voice Pete Arbogast doing some sports update work on The Beast 980, the Southland’s new sports-talk radio station.

The last word:
Next weekend, the Trojans travel to the Berkeley to play the Cal Bears (5-2 overall, 2-2 Pac-12), and it’ll be The Bay Area Weekender. Game time is 12:00 p.m., and when was the last time the Trojans had that kickoff time?

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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