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IMHO Sunday: Day(s) of reckoning approaches

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

IMHO evaluation: The No. 13 USC Trojans (5-1, 3-1 Pac-12) were more than happy and relieved to right the ship from last week’s disappointing upset loss at No. 9 Washington State with Saturday’s rather unimpressive 38-10 win over lowly Oregon State (1-5, 0-3 Pac-12). However, the Trojans’ Days of Reckoning are approaching with upcoming back-to-back games with the Utah Utes (4-1, 1-1 Pac-12) and the No. 16 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (5-1). We’ll see in short order just how improved, stationary, or regressed the Trojans have become at the halfway point in this season. The Men of Troy, who statistically are off to their best first half of a season in five seasons, will need to dramatically up their game – both physically and emotionally – if they expect to triumph in the next two weekends.

IMHO evaluation – Part 2: I don’t know if you could classify Oregon State as a synonym for a “bye week,” but the Trojans certainly invalidated that comparison, as they struggled at times before finally pulling away from the Beavers late before 60,314 hot and sundrenched fans at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The final score doesn’t reflect the Trojans’ frustrations with an offense that continues to have an inconsistent flow and a defense that is stretched to the limits at times to overcome costly offensive turnovers and mistakes. Despite it all and with No. 25 Stanford’s narrow 23-20 victory at Utah on Saturday night, the Trojans have now taken sole possession atop the Pac-12 South Division.

IMHO offensively speaking: Despite the offensive inconsistencies, there were certainly welcomed bright spots like redshirt freshman QB Matt Fink’s 51-yard TD run (photo above), redshirt freshman wide receiver Tyler Vaughns and true freshman tight end Josh Falo executing their first touchdown receptions, junior tailback Ronald Jones ll running hard, and another heartwarming, late extra point snap by blind snapper Jake Olson. But the offense, in general, found it hard to find a rhythm and again didn’t appear physical along the offensive line. At times, the offense looked a lot like the old Lane Kiffin offense. Right now, there is no deep passing game execution, the running game isn’t punishing enough up front – a Trojans’ O-line that surely will be severely tested by the Utah and Notre Dame defensive fronts, respectively, and Sam Darnold remains, by his own admission, making mistakes not seen in 2016.

IMHO defensively speaking: On Saturday, the Trojans defense faced the worst offense in the Pac-12, but it was encouraging to note that the secondary didn’t give up many big plays, and there were no pass interference penalties. Let’s give a big shout-out to corners Jack Jones and Iman Marshal. It didn’t hurt that Oregon State’s star running back, Ryan Naul, did not play due to a previous injury, but the Beavers did find enough running room (122 yds.) to make it interesting. More and more, teams are running away from Trojans’ inside linebacker Cameron Smith, thus putting fellow inside linebacker John Houston Jr. on notice and in the crosshairs. DE Christian Rector continues to rise with another standout performance, and safety Chris Hawkins and OLB Uchenna Nwosu were also engaged in the action.

IMHO special teams speaking: True freshman walk-on Chase McGrath continued his streak of field goals (8 in a row and 8 of 9). However, there was the Ajene Harris fumbled punt in first quarter. On the bright side, sophomore Jack Jones and senior DL Kenny Bigelow combined to block an Oregon State goal attempt by Jordan Choukair in the first quarter. In the second quarter, walk-on punter Reid Budrovich was the unhappy recipient of a roughing the kicker penalty, showed poise the rest of the way.  

IMHO -The bottom line: A win is a win and they all count as the worn-out cliché goes. Now comes the meat of the middle portion of their schedule, which will probably define Clay Helton’s team. Although Oregon State obviously isn’t Washington or Washington State, the Beavers came along at the right time, and the Trojans took advantage of the situation. Now it’s on to Utah and Notre Dame with the foreseeable future on the line.

Tackling the issues: Safety Marvell Tell lll led the Trojans in tackles with 10 stops. Safety Chris Hawkins and defensive end Christian Rector followed with seven tackles each.

The quote book…

Trojans head coach Clay Helton comments: “We’re nowhere near a finished product. There’s going to be things we see on this tape that frustrate you as a coach and things that say, ‘Wow, we’re progressing.’ It is October and that’s our hallmark here has been to improve in the month of October and take big leaps. We have two major competitors coming up (Utah and Notre Dame). Utah is leading the south right now (said prior to Stanford’s late-night win at Utah), and we sit right behind them. So, obviously it’s going to be a huge game for us.”

OSU head coach Gary Andersen comments: “Congrats to USC. They are obviously a very good team. They proved it and did a nice job. Offensively, we had many opportunities that we had to take advantage of. We left a lot of points out there and many opportunities to score and be right in that football game, but we weren’t. The kids battled and played hard, but obviously we didn’t play good enough to make it a close game.”

Building confidence: On how the new right side of the Trojans offensive played against Oregon State, senior starting center Nico Falah said, “They (guard Andrew Vorhees and tackle Clayton Johnston) did really good. One (Vorhees) is a freshman and one is a sophomore (Johnston), so every week they build confidence. It really helps them, and it showed today. Like the whole team, it’s a building process and today was a building process for them (the young right side of the offensive line).”

The weather man: Reflecting on the heat in the Coliseum and his rebuilt offensive line’s performance, Trojans junior tailback Ronald Jones ll said, “It was pretty hot, but we practice in the middle of the day, so the heat and our conditioning is not really a factor.” (On his offensive line) “I’ve been practicing with those guys all week. I felt comfortable trusting the guys and the reads.”

Sam’s assessment: After the game on whether he is satisfied on where the offensive is at, , Sam Darnold said, “Not satisfied. As an offense, we have to have the mindset we’re never satisfied. We played pretty well today. We need to keep up the pace a little bit, speed it up a little bit. Use this (game) as momentum going into next week. I have to stop turning the ball over. I need to check the down if I need to and not force the throws.”

The first one: On the first USC touchdown of his career, a 30-yard TD pass from Sam Darnold, true freshman tight end Josh Falo said, “It was great. It felt like a high school game, honestly. I honestly knew I was getting the ball, and I knew the play would happen by the way their defense was set up. I knew it was coming to me, and all I had to do was score. The only thing on my mind was scoring. When I turned around (with the ball), all I saw was green.”

The first one – Part 2: On the first touchdown of his Trojan career, a 37-yard TD reception, redshirt freshman Tyler Vaughns (5 for 68 yds.) said, “It felt great. All the hard work paid off. We scored and I’ll take it. The simple concept that we used, I can’t say it, it’s a concept we use every day in practice. I am very confident in my playing and my coaches, too.”

The first one – Part 3: On his 51-yard touchdown run, the first of his USC career, backup quarterback Matt Fink said, “I saw the end zone and said, ‘I am scoring.’ I made sure nobody was going to touch me, so when I saw nothing between me and the end zone, I said, ‘I am going to get there.’”

A key blocker: On helping block an Oregon State field goal attempt, senior defensive lineman Kenny Bigelow said, “I have to be honest, Jack Jones got a piece of it first, but I got a bigger piece. (On blocking field goals) “Coach Baxter is very adamant on stuff like this. Our special teams are something that sets apart USC and other schools. This is a play we’ve worked on and sooner or later we knew it would hit home. We saw something on film where they (Oregon State) get higher and we could get lower.”

The hawk speaks: On his team at this point of the season, senior captain and safety Chris Hawkins said, “The scores say we’re playing well, the stats say we’re playing well. I think we’ve got a lot to go and get better. We’re not satisfied, but I think it was a good win for us. We’ve got to start dominating teams. It seems like college football takes us lightly no matter if we win by little or a lot.”

Sour grapes: Evaluating Trojans quarterback Sam Darnold, Oregon State defensive back Kyle White said, “Nothing special. He’s a normal Pac-12 QB. I didn’t see anything special. He made his throws, made his reads. He fumbled twice. He had one picked off. Should’ve been three. He’s okay. A lot of the plays he made is because we shot ourselves in the foot.”

The infirmary: There were no official reported injuries against Oregon State.

From the press box…

The South Division: With Pac-12 South Division teams Utah and Colorado losing on Saturday night, Pac-12 South Division race reads as follows: 1. USC (3-1), 2. Utah, Arizona, UCLA, Arizona State all are 1-1, but the order of listing is based overall records. Colorado is now 0-3 in conference play. Obviously, the Trojans’ game with Utah next Saturday is huge in the Pac-12 South.

The heater: The official temperature at kickoff was 96 degrees and hazy. You know it’s really hot in the Coliseum when the open-air but covered press box is like sitting in the Mojave Desert.

The heater – Part 2: Perhaps it was the heat, the game was on television, or a natural letdown from the upset loss at Washington State, but Saturday’s announced attendance of 60,314 was the lowest for a game at the Coliseum since Oct. 19, 2002. Pick your poison.

Shhhh: I don’t think I’ve ever heard the Coliseum as quiet as it was when Trojans’ blind snapper Jake Olson executed cleanly his second extra point snap of the season. Jake’s snap occurred the final quarter after quarterback Matt Fink’s 51-yard touchdown run with 6:19 remaining.

Tunnel entrance: Surprisingly, there was no former celebrity Trojan football player or USC athlete of notoriety that led the team onto the field prior to kickoff. It was just Clay Helton and his team.

Cover boy irony: Trojans senior offensive right guard Viane Talamaivao, who was recently declared done for the season and his USC football career due to impending pectoral muscle surgery, was on the cover of Saturday’s game program.

Scouting the talent: NFL representatives in attendance included the Chargers, Raiders, Jets, Jaguars, Giants, Falcons, and Titans.

The post-game show numbers…

On the increase: Against Oregon State, the Trojans scored 38 points. Prior to the Oregon State game, the Trojans were averaging 35.0 points per game.

On the decrease: Against Oregon State, the Trojans allowed 10 points. Prior to the ­­­­­­ Oregon State game, the Trojans defense was allowing 25.8 points per game.

Increasing yardage: Against Oregon State, the Trojans had 512 yards in total offense. Prior to the Oregon State game, the Trojans were averaging 459.0 yards in total offense per game.

Decreasing numbers: Against Oregon State, the Trojans’ defense allowed 319 offensive yards. Prior to the Oregon State game, the Trojans defense was allowing 388.6 total offensive yards per game.

Status quo rush hour: Against Oregon State, the Trojans rushed for 184 yards. Prior to the Oregon State game, the Trojans were averaging 181.2 rushing yards per game.

No rushing it: Against Oregon State, the Trojans allowed 122 net rushing yards. Prior to the Oregon State game, the Trojans defense was allowing 147.2 net yards rushing per game.

Respectable increase: Against Oregon State, the Trojans had 328 passing yards. Prior to the Oregon State game, the Trojans were averaging 277.8 passing yards per game.

Significant decline: Against Oregon State, the Trojans allowed 197passing yards. Prior to the Oregon State game, the Trojans defense was allowing 241.4 passing yards per game.

The flag is going down: Against Oregon State, the Trojans had four penalties for 46 yards. Prior to the Oregon State game, the Trojans were averaging 73.2 penalized yards per game.

The last word: If you’ve ever met Trojans former senior starting right guard Viane Talmaivao, you couldn’t help but like him and root for him. Unfortunately, Viane’s USC career has come to an end, no thanks to a pectoral muscle injury suffered in the Washington State game that will require season-ending surgery. Once a commit to Alabama, Viane changed his mind to become a Trojan, and he developed into a valued member of the offensive line and will be deeply missed. A great kid, we wish him the best of luck in his future.  

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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