17 min Read

IMHO Sunday: Celebration or relief?

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

IMHO – Part 1: So, just when did you get that sick feeling in your cardinal and gold stomach? The middle of the third quarter? Early in the fourth quarter? And at what point did you say, “I am too old to watch another underdog UCLA team pull the unthinkable.” But then it suddenly dawned upon you…again, your team was the one with Sam Darnold at quarterback, and as quickly as you can say “90-yard scoring drive in 10 plays,” Captain Clutch did it again at the 5:10 mark in the final quarter to spearhead a narrow 28-23 victory over an inspired UCLA team, which put up quite a fought before a near Coliseum sellout on Saturday night.

IMHO – Part 2: The trick to beating UCLA, a 14-point underdog, on Saturday evening turned out to be…well… a trick play. Don’t tell me you weren’t faked out by the Trojans’ dynamic punt return illusion call. Just when you thought that Trojans’ punt returner Ajene Harris was about to receive UCLA’s Stefan Flintoft’s punt with 9:12 left in the first quarter, the ball seemingly and magically disappeared, and yet there was Troy’s Michael Pittman (photo above) racing down the far sideline with a key block by true freshman Bubba Bolden, as millions on ABC television and in person didn’t know what the heck was happening. Turned out that this was a planned call by Trojans special teams coach John Baxter after spotting a flaw on film of the UCLA punt coverage. It put the Trojans up 7-0 and was arguably the play of the game that eventually cost the Bruins a shot at victory.

IMHO – Part 3: Yes, UCLA (3-5 Pac-12, 5-6 overall) outscored the Trojans (8-1 Pac-12, 10-2 overall) in the second half 16-14, and they outgained the Trojans decidedly in total yardage 501-417. And it also could be argued that UCLA QB Josh Rosen had a better passing evening than Sam Darnold in yardage (421-264) and touchdown passes (3-0). But it’s all about the “W” and the Trojans secured that and thanks to a defense that wouldn’t totally come unglued defending the red zone. So, most of the Trojans players said they were more relieved with the victory than celebratory. To a man, they were giddy about receiving a bye week and preparing for the Pac-12 title game on Dec. 1, Friday night, at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara against either Washington State or Stanford, depending on whether Washington State can beat Washington next Saturday night in Seattle. A Washington State win and it’s a rematch with the Cougars. A WSU loss, and it’s a rematch with the Cardinal.

Bottom line: UCLA’s Josh Rosen may have won the quarterback battle, but Sam Darnold won the war, scoreboard, baby. The Trojans make it three straight against the Bruins, are undisputed Pac-12 South Division champions, and reach a 10-win season with 12 a possibility. It was also announced on Sunday morning that the Trojans third consecutive triumph over the Bruins also cost Bruins’ head coach Jim Mora his coaching job, being fired by UCLA AD Dan Guerrero.

IMHO offensively

Quarterback: While Josh Rosen had the better passing numbers, Sam Darnold did his trademark, playing lethal in the clutch. UCLA found out first-hand what many before the Bruins have learned: don’t let No. 14 have the ball late in a tight game.

Running backs: Despite playing against a statistically very poor UCLA run defense, Trojans tailback Ronald Jones was “held” to 124 yards and two touchdowns. Don’t blame RoJo for the lower than expected rushing yards, he still needs holes to run through.

Receivers: For the most part, the Trojans’ receivers were consistent in catching the ball and even made some spectacular sidelines grabs. While none caught a touchdown pass, Darnold threw to eight different receivers with Steven Mitchell and Deontay Burnett accounting for 56 and 55 yards, respectively.

Offensive line: Not a stellar evening for the O-line, although they gave up but just one sack. They continue to have the inability to be consistent, and their physical push still leaves much to be desired. Considering season-long UCLA’s ineptness in defensing the run, the Trojans could rush for only a disappointing 153 yards. Penalties were again an issue, especially of the personal foul variety.   

Offensive bottom line: At best, it was an uneven overall offensive performance that left fans believing there should have been more points on the board, a lot more. While the Bruins’ secondary played tough, their front 7 played better than they should have been allowed. Thank goodness for Sam Darnold, the determined running of tailback Ronald Jones ll, and receivers that continued to improve.

IMHO defensively

The defensive front: Without DL Rasheem Green in the second half due to a shoulder injury, the Trojans were forced to work with second unit players. Give credit to NT Josh Fatu and freshman backup Brandon Pili and Green’s replacement Malik Dorton (2 tackles), who played an inspired second half.

Linebackers: While both inside backers Cameron Smith and John Houston Jr. had their moments and b outside linebacker Jordan Isosefa has found a home, senior Uchenna Nwosu was the major pain in the backside of Josh Rosen. When not batting balls down, Nwosu (8 tackles, 1 sack, 1 TFL) was constantly in the Bruins’ backfield. The MVP of the Trojans’ defense through 12 games, Nwosu is definitely a strong candidate for All-Pac-12 post-season honors.

Secondary: Once again, another offensive coordinator targeted Trojans’ sophomore corner Jack Jones, who had, to be kind, another challenging evening. Bruins’ receiver Jordon Lasley (204 yds./3 TDs) took Jones behind the woodshed a number of times. However, there was a bright side play of safeties Chris Hawkins and especially Marvell Tell lll. Tell had a major interception of Josh Rosen in the end zone early in the third quarter to thwart a long UCLA drive. Again, there were too many holes in the secondary and the Trojans could be facing some killer quarterbacking in the Pac-12 title game and the bowl game.

Defensive bottom line: While the defense gave up a whopping 501 yards in total offense – the most given up on defense in the Clay Helton era – it didn’t break in the red zone (UCA was 3 of 5), which is all that counts. The Bruins offense was held to one touchdown in the first half, although throughout the game quarterback Josh Rosen had them on the edge of taking the lead but could never get over the hump. In all fairness, the Trojans pass rush got to Josh Rosen (four sacks), and it was mainly accomplished without the push of all-star candidate DL Rasheem Green.

IMHO special teams:

Special teams bottom line: The trick play punt return turned out to be the key to victory. I know I was fooled because I had my binoculars on Ajene Harris, who was signaling for a fair catch and being nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Punt Return Actor. There was also a kickoff return rarity, a big return by Velus Jones, who brought one back 59 yards. One precautionary note, punter and kickoff performer Reid Budrovich, who was his efficient self, will be examined for a left AC injury.

Tackling the issues: Senior safety Chris Hawkins led the Trojans with 10 tackles followed by safety Ajene Harris and corner Iman Marshall with 9 tackles, respectively.

The infirmary: DT Rasheem Green (shoulder), WR Velus Jones (ankle), LG Chris Brown (lower back), P/KO Reid Budrovich (left AC).

The quote book…

Clay Helton comments: “It was a great night to honor our seniors. I can’t tell you what an honor it has been to be around those men for their time here, and it pleased me so much to watch them walk away from the Coliseum with the accomplishments that they have. The guys are unbelievable, honorable men, and I can’t tell you what it’s like to be surrounded by them each and every day and how proud I am of them. Also, a lot of credit to UCLA. I thought that was as hard-fought a game as it comes. It was neat to see those kids and the coaches come together (after the game) out of just pure respect for a really hard-fought game.”     

Trojans head coach Clay Helton comments on the trick punt return – Part 2: “Yeah, it’s something that we practice each and every year. I thought Coach Baxter and our punt return team had it set up perfectly, and all we needed was a good kick. It was executed well, and that gave us an early spark in the game. Really well done by Michael Pittman.”

Clay Helton comments on whether he was surprised by the UCLA effort – Part 3: “No, they’re a good football team, and we thought their offensive skill was phenomenal. You’re talking about a bunch of great athletes out there with Theo Howard, Jordan Lasley, and Josh Rosen. Those are all great recruits that came to UCLA and are doing great things there. We went into the game saying that we had to play our best to win and that it was going to be an emotional game. I thought our defense did a great job bending but not breaking and creating some huge turnovers in the game that created separation for us.”

UCLA head coach Jim Mora comments: “We knew we had to play our best to have a chance to win. They played hard and fought to the bitter end. I’m very proud of them. Unfortunately, we made some mistakes and they made some plays that prohibited us from winning. Obviously, there were special teams issues. Not be able to convert the field goal. Certainly, the punt return where they fooled us. And the onside kick there, that was supposed to be a bloop 20 yards over. J.J. (Molson) knew what he was supposed to do, but hit his toe and missed it. It’s nothing I’m pinning on any one. And we didn’t protect the ball well enough and uncharacteristically of us we didn’t not do well in the red zone (3-5).”

Mora comments – Part 2: “Everyone has a responsibility on punt returns, and we’ve been good on it this year, but we picked the wrong time to not be good on it. You could see it setting up on the sideline, but unfortunately you couldn’t convey it to the players as it developed. Great play by the them, very well executed by them.”

Sam says: On winning 10 games, Sam Darnold said, “Being able to win 10 games and then for the second straight year being undefeated in the Coliseum really means a lot, especially with it being Senior Day and wanting to send the senior outs on a high note. Beating UCLA and keeping the Victory Bell here and staying undefeated at home for the last two years, it’s a huge accomplishment. It’s nice to go 10-2 this year. We’re going to keep preparing for whoever we have to play in the Pac-12 Championship Game. We’re going to be looking forward to it.”

Rosen report: On his feelings after the game, UCLA QB Josh Rosen said, “Not great all. I really thought we were going to win this game. We executed how we wanted, but we couldn’t get it done in the red zone. We missed a field goal, had two turnovers. We lost by 5. Another TD called back. It’s just really frustrating.”

Captain Defense: On assessing the Trojans’ defensive performance against UCLA and Bruins’ quarterback Josh Rosen, Trojans junior linebacker Cameron Smith said, “I think when the going gets tough, our defense stands up. We’ve proven all year we’re a great red zone team. When we get some pressure on a guy, we’re coming at all angles and it’s tough for any quarterback. Without watching the film, I’m very excited with how we got to him (Rosen). And in some key situations, we stepped up and made a play when we needed to.”

The punter: On the Trojans’ scoring trick punt return, UCLA punter Stefan Flintoft said “That was a directional right punt at that field position, but they ran a trick play and they executed it. I think Oregon ran it two or three years ago. Everyone goes left and one guy goes back. I hit it, looked up, and out of the corner of my eye I saw a sea of red and blue going left, and I knew what was going on. An inch more to the right and it goes out of bounds. But props to them, they executed it.”

The Pittman report: On his 72-yard trick play punt really return, sophomore Michael Pittman said, “We have it and decided to run it and it worked. I was thinking all I needed to do was just trot to the end zone. It was like a free six points. This was one of Coach Baxter’s tools that he has, and this was the time to call it.”

The faker: On being the decoy on Michael Pittman’s trick punt return, junior Ajene Harris said, “It was a great scheme drawn up by coach Baxter. It was exciting. When the ball dropped in Michael Pittman’s hands, I was looking around and the ball is over there (with Pittman). I am just trying to make the same action (punt returning) as I always do. I wasn’t allowed to make a fair catch sign or the play would have been dead.”

Baxter banter: On calling the trick punt return, special teams coach John Baxter said, “We practice this all the time. I saw it (UCLA’s punt coverage) on the film; I didn’t get it (the inside information) from a crystal ball. This is a team sport and everybody has their role and everybody did it. All eleven guys did what they were supposed to do. The first time I saw this play was the coach of the Rams, coach (John) Fassel. He did it. It’s been done before. It’s fun when it works.”

The newcomer: On playing in his first USC-UCLA game, true freshman defensive nose tackle Brandon Pili said, “It was a great environment. Both teams were extra competitive, crosstown rivals. It was just a great to play in. There was a lot of trash talking (in the pit), but in the end of the day, you have to go across the field and shake them up. It is what it is. This lived up to what I thought it would be; it was a tough game. We just focused on getting Josh Rosen down.”

Telling it like it is: On his key third quarter interception of Josh Rosen in the end zone, junior safety Marvell Tell lll said, “I read the quarterback, made a play on the ball, and that was it. I ran it out (of the end zone), and I honestly thought I was going to score, but I’ll take the pick. This is another step in what we’re trying to achieve, a Pac-12 championship. We’re never really satisfied and we have a lot to work on.”    

Edoga dictates: On trying to keep his emotions under control during a tense rivalry game, Trojans junior offensive right tackle Chuma Edoga, who had another personal foul, said, “It gets tough because everybody is jawing back and forth. Everybody knows everybody out here in L.A., so it gets a little chippy, but I thought we controlled our emotions pretty well. Afterwards, everybody is friends, but during the game it’s like a war.”

From the press box…

After game party: Following the conclusion of this bitter rivalry game on the Coliseum turf, I’ve never seen so much love and peace between both teams, players and coaches. It seemed there were smiles everywhere and plenty of selfies and group photos taken. All that was needed was the Beatles playing “All you need is love.”

The turnstiles: Attendance for Saturday’s game was announced at 82,407.

Weather report: Coliseum weather at kickoff was 67 degrees.

Cover boy: On the cover of the game program was Trojans’ junior tailback Ronald Jones ll.

Tunnel celebrity: After the Trojans seniors ran through the Heritage Tunnel before kickoff, Los Angeles Dodgers’ outfielder Joc Pederson led the balance of the Trojans’ roster onto the field. Although he never attended Troy, Joc did sign a letter of intent to play baseball for the Trojans. With all due respect, there wasn’t a past USC gridiron hero from this classic rivalry with UCLA that wouldn’t have been a more appropriate choice?

Bowling: The lone bowl game representative in attendance was from the Alamo Bowl.

NFL scouting: NFL scouting representatives in attendance included the Patriots, Saints, Jets, Giants, Dolphins, Cardinals, Jaguars, Lions, Cowboys, Bears, Falcons, Colts, Ravens, Browns, Bills, Redskins, Eagles, and Chargers.

Pac-12 South Division Standings

  1. USC (8-1 Pac-12, 10-2 overall)
  2. Arizona (5-3, Pac-12, 7-4 overall)
  3. ASU (5-3 Pac-12, 6-5 overall)
  4. UCLA (3-5 Pac-12, 5-6 overall)
  5. Colorado (2-6 Pac-12, 5-6 overall)
  6. Utah (2-6 Pac-12, 5-6 overall)

Pac-12 North Division Standings

  1. Stanford (7-2 Pac-12, 8-3 overall)
  2. Washington (6-2 Pac-12, 9-2 overall)
  3. Washington State (6-2 Pac-12, 9-2 overall)
  4. Oregon (3-5 Pac-12, 6-5 overall)
  5. Cal (2-6 Pac-12, 5-6 overall)
  6. Oregon State (0-8 Pac-12, 1-10 overall

The post-game show numbers…

Surprising decrease: Against UCLA, the Trojans scored 28 points. Prior to the UCLA game, the Trojans were averaging 35.45 points per game.

Slight decrease: Against UCLA, the Trojans allowed 23 points. Prior to the UCLA game, the Trojans defense was allowing 26.45 points per game.

Modest reduction: Against UCLA, the Trojans had 417 yards in total offense. Prior to the UCLA game, the Trojans were averaging 495.1 yards in total offense per game.

Major increase: Against UCLA, the Trojans’ defense allowed 501 offensive yards. Prior to the UCLA game, the Trojans defense was allowing 401.6 total offensive yards per game.

Significant decrease: Against UCLA, the Trojans rushed for 153 yards. Prior to the UCLA game, the Trojans were averaging 200.5 rushing yards per game.

Major decrease: Against UCLA, the Trojans allowed 80 net rushing yards. Prior to the UCLA game, the Trojans defense was allowing 166.1 net yards rushing per game.

Modest decrease: Against UCLA, the Trojans had 264 passing yards. Prior to the UCLA game, the Trojans were averaging 294.64 passing yards per game.

Whopping increase: Against UCLA, the Trojans allowed 421 passing yards. Prior to the UCLA game, the Trojans defense was allowing 235.55 passing yards per game.

Major flags increase: Against UCLA, the Trojans had 11 penalties for 115 yards while UCLA had 12 penalties for 100 yards. Prior to the UCLA game, the Trojans were averaging 68.09 penalized yards per game.

The last word: So, now the Trojans have a bye week before preparing for the Pac-12 title game in two weeks, and it’s safe to say that Clay Helton, his team and staff, and the Trojans’ fan base can use the time for rest and relaxation before the final two games of the 2017 season. Yes, it’s been quite a ride up to now.

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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