29 min Read

IMHO Sunday: Comeback Trojans survive ASU…barely

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

IMHO: Tossing aside obstacles like a deadly worldwide pandemic, local COVID-19 testing and restrictions, a 9 a.m. kickoff, and their own 56 minutes of general turnover ineptness, Clay Helton’s No. 20 USC Trojans (1-0 overall, 1-0 Pac-12 South) survived Arizona State through a successive chain of miracles, defeating the Sun Devils (0-0 overall, Pac-12 South 0-1), 28-27, in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, which featured a sellout of fans disguised as empty seats.

IMHO – Part 2: A late fourth quarter tipped TD pass in the end zone, a successful onside kick, and a fourth down needle-threading scoring pass, all within 90 seconds turned a Trojans defeat into a remarkable comeback victory. It was an ugly USC victory, a miracle triumph, but a win is a win. For now, let’s cool all this College Football Playoff contender noise. That being said, it was still a huge victory for the Men of Troy, a game in which gave Clay Helton’s team the inside track to the Pac-12 South Division title. Prior to those precious couple of minutes, the 2020 Trojans looked a helleva lot like the 2019 Trojans. You could just hear USC President Carol Folt and athletic director Mike Bohn screaming their collective heads off, “Clay, don’t do this to us again, please don’t!”

IMHO – Part 3: No question about it, with just five more games to play – two at home and three on the road – there is no margin for error. Other than the victory itself, the win over the Sun Devils gives the Trojans the head-to-head competition insurance policy if the two clubs finished tied for the Pac-12 South. Now the Trojans must confront back-to-back road games (Arizona and Utah) and all the protocol that accompanies the Pac-12 rules and regulations for road games during COVID. 

Next weekend, the Trojans will travel to Tucson to play the Arizona Wildcats (photo above).

IMHO – Part 4: So, coming off a two-year 13-12 record and back-to-back bowl loss blowouts, nobody could be more relieved with the Trojans victory over ASU in the season-opener than USC head coach Clay Helton. Having made the necessary staff changes on defense and the year before on offense, all eyes are focused on the Trojans beleaguered head coach and 2020. Certainly, the ramifications of Saturday’s victory also extend to the live national television audience, which probably included both local and national recruits. No doubt, perception generally trumps reality, and with the Trojans comeback victory on Saturday, the coach can sleep a bit easier.

IMHO offensively: On Saturday, the Trojans’ offense rolled up 556 yards (381 yards passing and 175 yards rushing). That’s the good news. However, for 56 minutes of the game, the Trojans offense scored just 14 points. They had four turnovers and three times they penetrated the red zone and put zilch on the scoreboard. Not exactly the kind of stuff for a College Football Playoff resume. Okay, delete the “exactly” word. As for Trojans’ offensive coordinator Graham Harrell, he certainly was tested strongly by ASU first-year co-defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis of NFL fame and former star NFL linebacker Antonio Pierce. Lewis and Pierce used essentially the same defenses as BYU and Notre Dame from last season in those Trojan losses – rushing three and dropping eight – to thwart the Trojans’ passing game for a good part of Saturday’s game. Basically, ASU was begging the Trojans to run the ball. No screens, no draws, and no misdirection plays.

However, the other good news is that the offense came through in crunch time and kudos to quarterback Kedon Slovis (40 of 55 for 381 yds./ 2 TDs/1 PI) and wide receivers Drake London (8C/125 yds/1 TD), Amon-Ra St. Brown (7C/100 yds.), Tyler Vaughns (7C/53 yds.) and Bru McCoy (5C/51 yds./1 TD. The Trojan running backs ran hard and were led by Vavae Malepeai (8C/60 yds.), Markese Stepp (14C/54 yds./1 TD), and Stephen Carr (10C/46 yds./1 TD). However, both Malepeai and Stepp had critical fumbles that would have been scrutinized if the Trojans had lost. The one by Malepeai was heading into the goal line early in the game.

Super sophomore wide receiver Drake London (photo above – No. 15) led the Trojans in receptions against Arizona State on Saturday morning. (Jose Marin / MarinMedia Pool for USC Athletics)

As for the Trojans offensive line, while the Trojans had 175 yards rushing, Kedon Slovis was sacked three times and was roughed up other times. In short yardage situations, this O-line couldn’t gain a yard on consecutive third-on-1 and fourth-and-1. Until they can prove they can get a yard in critical situations, they will continue to sew doubt. And by the way, the Trojans’ tight ends? After saying they would be more involved in the offense this season, only two passes were caught by the tight ends against ASU – both by redshirt freshman Jude Wolfe.     

IMHO defensively: There was so much anticipation of first-year defensive coordinator Todd Orlando’s attacking defense. As some had said, Orlando’s defense gives a feast or famine result. However, Orlando’s defense did hold ASU’s dangerous QB Jayden Daniels to 134 yards passing but gave up 111 yards rushing to the elusive Daniels. ASU lost its best receiver, Frank Darby, early in the game, which meant the Sun Devils’ offense was dealing with young, inexperienced receivers, who dropped passes repeatedly. As for the Trojans defending the rush, the Sun Devils dented the Trojans defense to the tune of 258 yards (6.8 avg.) and two scores (25 and 17 yds) by Chip Trayanum.

Trojans defensive coordinator Todd Orlando (photo above) saw his defense do some good things and other areas that need some work. (Jose Marin / MarinMedia Pool for USC Athletics)

The Trojans’ tackling was inconsistent at best, and it was a reminder of 2019’s defense. For sure, the Trojans missed All-Pac-12 defensive tackle Jay Tufele, but junior Marlon Tuipulotu filled in nicely with the only sack of Jayden Daniels. In spite of missed tackles, Trojans’ strong safeties Talanoa Hufanga and Isaiah Pola-Mao were tough, and the defense did flow strongly to the ball and were aggressive. A negative would be the Trojans’ pass interference calls early, especially two consecutively by sophomore DB Chris Steele, who was temporarily pulled from the game.    

IMHO special teams: Many eyes were focused on new special teams coach Sean Snyder, and the coach’s special teams were a mixed bag. Certainly, the highlight was the execution of the onside kick by Trojans’ true freshman Parker Lewis late in the fourth quarter that put the Trojans in a position to win the game. Another plus was punter Ben Griffiths, who boomed three points for a 46.0 average (long of 50 yds.). Getting back to Parker Lewis, the young freshman also converted on all four PAT attempts and had two touchbacks on his four kickoffs. Parker had no field goal attempts. There was nothing really positive to say regarding kickoff and punt returns, so it will be interesting to see if Coach Snyder makes some changes in short order.

All the practice time Trojans’ punter Ben Griffiths (photo above) put in with new special teams coach Sean Snyder paid off against ASU on Saturday. (John McGillen via USC Athletics)

Bottom Line: It was a typical first game with some good and bad execution. Some will call the Trojans comeback victory lucky, and some will say that a win is a win. Given the alternative to winning, the Trojans will be more than happy to head to Arizona next weekend with a 1-0 record and their title hopes still very much alive.

Game highlights: https://usctrojans.com/news/2020/11/6/usc-ripsit-blog-2020-game-1-usc-vs-arizona-state.aspx  

The Trojans/ASU quotebook…

Clay Helton comments: “I commend our team. A year ago, we may not have won this game. But a year older, a year more experience, I did not see panic, just poise and kids saying they want to get to the next opportunity. We made some big plays down the stretch. We know that Arizona State is one of the tougher teams on our schedule. We knew it was going to be a huge game for the south, and the first game. I come away from this tonight saying we just beat a good football team and have the opportunity to really grow as our football team. I think this can be an excellent football team, I really do. How about the play down the stretch of No. 9 (Kedon Slovis) and Drake London? Unbelievable throw and catch to end the game.”

Trojans’ head coach Clay Helton (photo above) enjoys flashing the “Fight On” hand sign, especially after the win over Arizona State.

Clay Helton comments – Part 2: “Starting with Bru (McCoy), he’s had a wonderful camp and really felt confident with him going and playing today. He made some big plays in the game, including that touchdown. But you look at his five catches and 51 yards, and we needed every yard today, and he was a part of that. In that last three minutes I thought it was great situational mastery of football. From down two scores, really treating it like a 2:00 drive. Terrific job by Graham (Harrell) drawing offsides. Terrific job by Kedon (Slovis) giving his guys a chance to make a play on that touchdown.”

Clay Helton comments – Part 3: “I thought Coach Snyder did a wonderful job with the special teams today and a huge play with the onside kick. We go down, call a couple runs, get it down there and then as good a pitch and catch as I’ve seen on a fourth down with Drake and 9. Just being a year older, that’s one of those that you gotta pull the trigger. If you hesitate at all it’s not going to be a touchdown. And Kedon got that ball in there with perfect timing and perfect accuracy.”

Clay Helton had special praise for first-year special teams coach Sean Snyder (photo above) after the Trojans executed a vital late fourth quarter onside kick.

Clay Helton comments – Part 4: “Really, I thought we held a really good QB (Jayden Daniels) to 134 yards passing. There were some really good things here. What sticks out to me is we all made mistakes, we all took turns, it wasn’t just one guy. You get down to the 1-yard line and you fumble; an interception inside the 20, an out-on-downs at fourth-and-1 inside the 15. This team can be really good, and yes there was a lot of rust. We shook it off. The thing that makes this team special is their mindset and how they deal with adversity and the playmakers. I look around and you got eight catches by Drake London for 125, Amon-Ra (St. Brown) with 100-yard game, Tyler Vaughns seven catches, you got four back that created 177 yards. So, there’s a lot of playmakers around.”

Clay Helton comments – Part 5: “Defensively if we can eliminate the big plays — a lot of them came from the quarterback getting out of the pocket — if we can eliminate those this has got a chance to be a big team. A really good team. That was a major hurdle for us today. We knew how big it was. To get this today is huge.”

ASU head coach Herm Edwards comments: “We had an opportunity to finish the game in the fourth quarter. We didn’t finish the game; you have to give them credit. They made the plays they needed to make. WE did not, whether it was on offense, defense or special teams so I got to give those guys credit. I think going forward I told our football team we got to grow from this moment because when you get an opportunity like this, they are very difficult to find and put yourself in this position. You got what three or four minutes left in the game, and you couldn’t close it out.”

ASU head coach Herm Edwards (photo above) was disappointed his team couldn’t finish against the Trojans.

ASU head coach Herm Edwards comments – Part 2: “We got off the field, able to pressure the quarterback some. We got one tipped ball in the endzone, and they caught it. The last touchdown we had pretty good coverage and we didn’t make the play. I think there were multiple opportunities where we had opportunities to close out the game defensively. We just fell a little short.”

QB Kedon Slovis (on the final TD to Drake London): “That play is one we work on all the time. We ran it a lot down the stretch there, too. To be honest they dropped a lot of guys most of the time we ran it and didn’t give us a chance to get off those down-the-field shots. But when they gave us the look they did, it’s something we rep a lot in practice.”

ASU QB Jayden Daniels: “USC did very good job defensively taking away the pass; that’s why we went to the run so much. At the end of the day we just got to execute there are times when we could have executed a play that we had on a third down. It’s just going back and watching film.”

SS Isiah Pola-Mao (defending ASU QB Jayden Daniels): “Jayden (Daniels) is a great player. We definitely struggled getting started going here in this game. I think we need get start-ed a little bit faster. But he’s just a great player and I think we stepped up to the challenge.”

The Trojans had high praise for ASU quarterback Jayden Daniels (photo above), who almost led his Sun Devils to an upset win over the Trojans. (John McGillen via USC Athletics)

WR Drake London (on USC’s success late in the game): “I think it was some first game jitters. It was more getting the kinks out, focusing on getting the ball down the field. Once we get into our groove on offense, it’s a pretty scary sight.”

ASU DB Evan Fields (on covering Drake London and Amon-Ra St. Brown): “I mean I didn’t have any problem with them but those are very good players. London is big, he uses his body to his advantage. Amon-Ra does a good job after the catch, so we tried to bottle him up.”

WR Bru McCoy (on defected TD catch): “We called a freeze play, so we didn’t have a play call at the time, but they jumped offsides, and then we just ran. Amon-Ra (St. Brown) did a great job of just being aware, knowing it’s a free play and might as well give an opportunity to somebody, so he tipped the ball up and I was able to make the play.”

Most think of Trojans Bru McCoy as a gifted receiver, but on Saturday against ASU he not only caught a tipped touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter but also recovered the ensuing onside kick that set up the winning score. (John McGillen via USC Athletics)

WR Bru McCoy (on the onside kick): “We had never rapped one before and they told me on the sideline that I was going to be the one coming down. I honestly thought I messed up and could’ve attacked the ball. I was waiting for that big one hop so I could come down on it and it stayed low, fell inside and we were able to come up with it.”

From the press box…

Pac-12 Weekend Results

Saturday, Nov. 7 – Week 1

USC 28, ASU 27
Colorado 48, UCLA 42
Oregon 35, Stanford 14
Washington State 38, Oregon State 28
Arizona at Utah (cancelled due to COVID)
Washington at Cal (cancelled due to COVID)

Pac-12 Standings

South Division

USC……………..1-0
Colorado……..1-0
Arizona……….0-0
Utah…………….0-0
Arizona St…….0-1
UCLA……………0-1

North Division

Oregon……………..1-0
Washington St…..1-0
Washington………0-0
California…………0-0
Oregon St…………..0-1
Stanford……………0-1

Temperature: Coliseum’s 9 a.m. kickoff temperature was cloudy with drizzle and 55 degrees.

Fire up: A little different Coliseum tunnel entrance for the Trojans when they ran onto the field for kickoff. There were two giant lit torches that the players ran between.  

The Trojans ran onto the field with two tall columns of fire posts (photo above). (Photo Credit: by Jose Marin / Marin Media Pool for USC Athletics)

Virtual halftime: Dr. Arthur C Bartner and the Trojans Marching Band performed an online musical halftime show.

Cover boys: Kedon Slovis, Drake London, Tyler Vaughns, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Erik Krommenhoek, Vavae Malepeai, and Stephen Carr were on the cover of the digital official game program.

Although there were not any fans in the Coliseum, the Trojans still had a digital program (photo above).

Digital official program – Part -2: In the Trojans’ official game program, there is a story on the return of former Trojans All-America tailback Reggie Bush entitled “Reggie is back! Reggie Bush is welcomed back into the Trojan Family.”

The cutouts: Although there weren’t a great many of them, the Coliseum had some “socially distanced” fan cutouts in the stands.

The Cutout- Part 2: Some of the celebrity cutouts in attendance were Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, Mookie Betts, Clay Kershaw, Joc Pederson, Justin Turner, LeBron James, and Anthony Davis (the basketball one), although the Trojans could have used their own “AD” on Saturday morning. Even former Trojan Jake Olson was “standing” on the sidelines.  

Dodgers all-star outfielder Mookie Betts (photo above) was part of the celebrity fan cutouts at Saturday’s USC/ASU game.

Hotel perk: Because of the pandemic, each player on the team had his own Friday night hotel room.

Wake Up Call: The Trojans wakeup call for Saturday’s game was at 5:45 a.m.

Breakfast anyone: The Trojans received their breakfast in their room at the time of the wakeup call.

The arrival: The Trojans buses arrived at the Coliseum around 7 a.m.

Half and half: Half the Trojans team dressed prior to the game at the John McKay Center, and the other half of the team dressed in the Coliseum.

As part of the COVID protection, half the Trojans team dressed at the John McKay Center (photo above) and the other half of the team dressed at the Coliseum.

The post-game show numbers…

Tackling the issues: Safety Talanoa Hufanga led the Trojans with 10 tackles followed by defensive lineman Marlon Tuipulotu with 8 tackles.

Downward trend: Against ASU, the Trojans scored 28 points. Last season, the Trojans averaged 32.4 points per game.

Downward trend: Against ASU, the Trojans allowed 27 points. Last season, the Trojans’ defense allowed 29.3 points per game. 

The Trojans’ defense (photo above) came to hit on Saturday morning against ASU. (Photo Credit: Jose Marin / Marin Media Pool for USC Athletics)

Upward trend: Against ASU, the Trojans had 556 yards in total offense. Last season, the Trojans were averaged 455.4 yards in total offense per game.

Downward trend: Against ASU the Trojans defense allowed 392 total yards in total offense. Last season, the Trojans’ defense allowed 408.7 in total yards per game.

Upward trend: Against ASU, the Trojans had 175 net yards rushing. Last season, the Trojans averaged 119.6 rushing yards per game. 

Trojans’ senior running back Stephen Carr (photo above) was part of a group of running backs that combined for 175 rushing yards against Arizona State. ( Photo Credit: Jose Marin / MarinMedia Pool for USC Athletics)Jose Marin / MarinMedia Pool for USC Athletics)

Upward trend: Against ASU, the Trojans allowed 258 net rushing yards. Last season, the Trojans’ defense allowed 162.5 rushing yards per game.

Upward trend: Against ASU, the Trojans had 381 yards passing yards. Last season, the Trojans averaged 335.8 passing yards per game.  

Downward trend: Against ASU, the Trojans allowed 134 passing yards. Last season, the Trojans’ defense allowed 246.2 passing yards per game.

Trojans corner Olaijah Griffin (photo above) is frustrated that he just missed on an interception. (Photo Credit: Jose Marin / MarinMedia Pool for USC Athletics

Time of possession: The Trojans had the ball 34:38 minutes while ASU had the pigskin for 25:22 minutes.  

Downward flag waving: Against ASU, the Trojans had five penalties for 59 yards while ASU had four penalties for 34 yards. Last season, the Trojans averaged 67.4 penalty yards per game.

The post-game call-in show:

Caller No. 1: Were you surprised with Friday’s released depth chart?

Caller No. 1, given that the media was not allowed to view practices and scrimmages, I found it surprising that Parker Lewis had beaten out veteran placekicker Chase McGrath. Another big item was how the Trojans now have a “B” (Vavae Malepeai OR Markese Stepp) and a “R” (Stephen Carr OR Kenan Christon) running back on offense instead of the traditional USC “tailback.” Frankly, the Trojans haven’t used a true tailback formation consistently for years, and calling the Trojans running backs “tailback” is more wishful thinking. Long live the Heisman Trophy “tailbacks.” One other surprise was expected defensive line starter Brandon Pili was behind Marlon Tuipulotu at nose tackle, but that was as much a change of scheme to fit the talent at hand.  

Friday’s released depth chart no longer lists Trojan running backs like Markese Stepp (photo above) as tailbacks but simply as “B” or “R” backs. (photo by John McGillen via USC Athletics)

Caller No. 2: Coach Katz, any thoughts on former Trojans quarterback Jack Sears and his outstanding debut against Air Force last week on the road?

Caller No. 2, I am not shocked whatsoever. Jack, IMHO, is an excellent quarterback and proved as a Trojan against Arizona State two seasons ago that he could do the job. Of course, the irony of it all is that at the time he was competing against JT Daniels, and now both are gone. JT has yet to play at Georgia. As an update, Sears was knocked out of the BYU game early on Friday night and didn’t return to action. BYU crushed Boise St. 51-17.     

Caller No. 3: Mr. GK, now that it’s history, do you still dislike the 9 a.m. kickoff time against ASU?

Caller No. 3, yes, I still think it was a stupid idea. Do you think that Urban Meyer would have given his okay to kick off at that time? Do you think that John McKay would have given his blessing? I am sure the Trojans players enjoyed that 5:45 a.m. wake-up call. All so the East Coast could “maybe” watch Pac-12 football. I have my doubts that there would have even been a 9 a.m. kickoff if fans were allowed into the Coliseum to watch the game. I don’t know too many SC fans who would be thrilled to watch a 9 a.m. game from the Coli. Even FOX calling the Pac-12 9 a.m. games “Big Noon Saturday” is moronic. It isn’t noon on the West Coast. It’s all done for East Coast ratings.   

The 9 a.m. kickoff had a backdrop of a fan-less Coliseum (photo above by John McGillen via USC Athletics)

Caller No. 4: Mr. Katz, if Larry Scott is fired as Pac-12 commissioner, is there a name you would nominate as his replacement?

Caller No. 4, that’s an easy one for me. I would immediately call Dave Baker, who runs the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Dave, whose son, Sam, was a three-time Trojans’ All-America offensive tackle, would check off all the boxes. Heck, if it was up to me at the time, I would have gone after Mr. Baker when there was an opening for the Trojans’ AD job.  

Caller No. 5: Grego, I think I read that you graduated high school in 1968 from Alhambra High. Were the 1960s that crazy and exciting?

Caller No. 5, it certainly was a crazy time- both good and bad. The music was outstanding with the Beatles, Stones, Beach Boys, and Motown. Politically, it was a real roller coaster ride beginning with the assassinations of John Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, and Martin Luther King. Both Bobby and Martin were killed my senior year at good old AHS. Throw in the Civil Right Movement, Viet Nam, protest rioting, and the sexual revolution, and it was quite an E-ticket of life. Would I like to go back? No, not really, although it would be great to be young again. That time period had its place in my life, although I wish our country today was more unified idealistically in dealing with social issues and getting things done. Based on where our country is today, I yearn for the togetherness of cultures, religious tolerance, and the shunning of social intolerance. It feels right now that what goes around comes around. 

Growing up in the 1960s was filled with the shock of assassinations of President John F. Kennedy (photo above), Bobby Kennedy, and Dr. Martin Luther King. Conversely, it was also the dawn of such musical landmarks as the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and the Beach Boys.

The last word: Unlike Cal/Washington and Utah/Arizona, which had their games cancelled due to COVID-19 positives, the Trojans and ASU were able to play their game despite the elements and no fans. So we should all be grateful to have actually seen the Men of Troy play this weekend. Of course, there is no guarantee the game at Arizona will kickoff, and there lies the intrigue.



Greg Katz
Author
Greg Katz

Now in his 58th 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 staff writer 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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