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IMHO Sunday: Evaluations, opinions, numbers, call-in

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

IMHO: Everywhere I seem to go these days in the world of USC Trojans football, I get confronted with the same question: “When is Clay Helton (photo above) going to be fired?” It’s a question that never seems to have “if” as part of the interrogative, but “when.” My response is that due to the Utah win, Helton probably has bought enough time to make to November, which will give the coach a chance to salvage his cardinal and gold ship, but it won’t be easy. In order for Helton to be dismissed at some point during the second half of the season, the Trojans would need to go on an extended conference losing streak and be eliminated from South Division contention.

IMHO – Part 2: A big loss at Notre Dame (4-1) will not bring immediate dismissal although the optics would certainly raise the hot seat temperature considerably. There’s no question here that interim athletic director Dave Roberts is monitoring the USC players and their attitude towards their head coach and their motivation to continue to play hard. In other words, as long as Helton has not lost his team, he’s temporarily safe. There’s also no question here that if Helton does lose his team, Dr. Folt would have no choice but to consent removal of her football coach’s tenure before the season is concluded.

IMHO – Part 3: What seems a long time ago, Dr. Folt began turning the wheels of athletic department change with the surprisingly quick early September hook of Lynn Swann as athletic director – by Swann’s request or Folt’s demand. As far as future coaching hires, Folt is on record in saying that her athletic director hires head coaches. All of which means to me is that a Helton dismissal would not come with any strings attached but selecting a new head football coach will come only when a new AD is already in place. It figures the Trojans will have a its new athletic director in late October or early November. It’s possible that “feelers” may have already gone out to agents of potential high-profile coaches that might have substantial interest in the storied Trojans football program. And, BTW, USC has retained Turnkey Search, a highly regarded intercollegiate athletics search firm in its pursuit of highly qualified athletic director candidates. It certainly appears that Dr. Folt is going about the AD search the right way and isn’t that refreshing change.

IMHO – Part 3: With the head football coach dominoes effect probably at the ready, Dr. Folt will continue to educate herself to the importance of all aspects of the football program and what football dramatically means to USC and its fan base. When Folt eventually gives her consent on a new coach, she will understand more fully that a new head football coaching selection will have to be in the best interest of long-term success, and knowing that the Trojans’ fan base has little patience to finish this football decade with mediocrity unbefitting a storied college football program. Folt should be aware the “her” Trojans’ football stands with historically elite programs like Alabama, Ohio State, and Notre Dame.    

IMHO offensively: Has Graham Harrell’s version of his Air Raid offense been a revelation or a disappointment? I think at this point in the season, Harrell’s version of the Air Raid has not been a resounding success nor a complete failure…it’s probably been more disappointing than successful. In fairness, Harrell has been forced to play the first 5 games with three different quarterbacks. However, opposing teams with talent and/or well-coached have an idea how to slow down Harrell’s Air Raid and prevent the big play. One way to stop the Trojans talented receivers, which has been the most positive aspect of the offense, from doing damage is by playing zone coverage and daring Harrell to run the ball. Thus far, that’s where Harrell has been a mixed bag. You could argue that Harrell is still a young coach who was used to calling playing against Mid-Major talent. Although the Pac-12 defenses are not those of the elite SEC, no question the talent that Harrell sees defensively and the upgrade in coaching has been challenging his core philosophies. The Air Raid, like any “unique” offense, defensive coaches learn how to defend it like the University of Washington and BYU.

USC fans have given mixed reviews to Graham Harrell’s (photo above) version of the Air Raid offense.

Defensive coordinators are challenging Graham Harrell’s coaching flexibility or stubbornness to adjust. Like many of you, I am surprised we have not seen the up-tempo game that was promised. And, BTW, where have been the screens or draws, misdirection running plays, or some consistent play to the tight ends? Perhaps it has to do with the makeup of the offensive line or Harrell is too stubborn to call the aforementioned plays. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of adjustments the Trojans make the rest of the way, but you can bet the USC coaching response will be something along the lines of “we just have to execute and do what we do better,” which is a good answers but not the complete answer. As for the Trojans’ wide receivers, they have been impressive, and, no, the tight ends aren’t a factor, and, yes, the offensive line is a roller coaster of execution despite the glowing comments from both Helton and Harrell. As for the running backs, they all bring something to the table, and it should be interesting which back steps up against Notre Dame next Saturday night.          

IMHO defensively: There have been some good and bad thus far on defense. Trojans defenders fly to the ball, which is good, but they don’t always make the first tackle or the second, which isn’t good. The defensive line is physical but not necessarily effective in getting sacks. This isn’t exactly a secret for a unit that is considered by some as perhaps one of the better units on the team. There are still issues to the consistency of the inside linebackers, and one could argue that both starting linebackers, John Houston Jr. and Palaie Gaoteote, are out of position for their body type and/or skill set.

As for the secondary, it has literally taken some hits in terms of its health. I said before the season that I thought this could be a presentable secondary because it has talented athletes, but it was still woefully inexperienced. Considering how the season has played out thus far and with the secondary injuries that have occurred, this unit has not been a total embarrassment and have actually shown signs of progress when healthy. Of course, all eyes for the remaining of the season will be on Trojans’ defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, who has drawn scrutiny and much of it deserved. It seems like the USC defense – depending on the call – are sort of a hit or miss group. One area that deserves scrutiny is the Trojans’ inability to contain a quarterback in the pocket and discipline on the edges or lack of. There have been too many breakdowns, and offensive coordinators from other teams have taken advantage at various points in a game (reverses, trick plays, option football) to test the Trojans inconsistent mental discipline.     

Trojans’ defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast (photo above) will be under scrutiny in the final seven games of USC’s regular 2019 season.

IMHO special teams: What to make of John Baxter and his special teams. The Trojans spend a great deal of time on special teams; there is no dispute about that. However, there has been this sense that Baxter overcoaches, especially in dealing with gifted punter Ben Griffiths. The Griffiths we saw in practice is not the same punter we see in games, and there is the perception – right or wrong – that Baxter has told Griffiths what to do with distance and direction during a game.Placekicker Chase McGrath looks good thus far in the season, and kickoffs have been pretty well executed. However, there have been substitution number headscratchers during the season that give the appearance of disorganization, which is odd given the time spend in practice that not to get such painful penalties. Obviously, other than the long TD kickoff return by Velus Jones against Fresno State, the kickoff return production has been modest, and the same goes for punt returns. The Trojans aren’t getting much from their punt returners.   

Special teams coach John Baxter (photo above) has been held under the spotlight the last couple of season as it pertains to the punting game and punt return production.

Bottom Line: It all falls back onto the shoulders of head coach Clay Helton, who said this season he would be responsible for team discipline (e.g.: penalties). As of the bye week, the Trojans rank No.116 out of 130 universities in penalty yards per game, according to 2019 NCAA statistics. This isn’t a great reduction from the miserable number of flags thrown in 2018, and it suggests again there is a lack of team discipline. Sad to say, this is not living up to Helton’s promise to clean up the flags. Since Fresno State, the Trojans’ penalty yardage has grown. It was the hope that bringing in an entirely new offensive system and play caller, there would suddenly be a magic offensive bullet, but it certainly hasn’t yet made a major difference.  

Trojans’ head coach Clay Helton said he would be responsible for team discipline, especially as it pertained to penalties during a game. Game officials (photo above) are again playing a part in the Trojans 2019 season as they did back in the 2018 season. The mounting penalty yardage in 2019 is placing scrutiny back on Helton for his team discipline.

As far as the defense, Helton kept Clancy Pendergast, and Clancy has been, well, Clancy. As for Baxter, Helton remains a firm supporter of his special teams coach to a fault. Whether all these scrutinized issues come back to haunt Gentleman Clay remains to be seen. Helton has remained steadfast in his positive public comments and even his predictions that much better days are ahead. Those old enough to remember, you heard these same Helton type comments from former USC head football coach Paul Hackett in his final season as the Trojans’ head coach. Look, Clay Helton is paid millions of dollars a year to continue the great USC football tradition and his words have been ringing hallow for a while. As they say, you can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time.    

Including next Saturday’s game at Notre Dame, the final seven games will decide the fate of Trojans’ head football coach Clay Helton (photo above in middle).

From the press box…

Homecoming: After the Trojans play at Notre Dame next Saturday night, the ensuing week will be USC’s Homecoming Game with the Arizona Wildcats (4-1, 2-0 Pac-12 South), who defeated Colorado, 35-30, in Boulder. No matter the outcome with the Irish, Homecoming should help with attendance. If the Trojans get trounced by the Irish, it could hurt enthusiasm, which would be an attendance factor. Another deciding factor could be kickoff time, which has yet to be announced. FYI, Arizona will host Washington next Saturday in Tucson.

He cares:
Quarterback Matt Fink probably didn’t have the type of game at Washington that he wanted but give the kid credit after the game in front of media when he took full ownership of his performance. Fink wears his emotions on his sleeve, and you can’t fault his effort or caring for his team and teammates.

Quarterback Matt Fink (photo above) received a lot of respect after taking full ownership for his uneven performance in the loss at Washington.

Get well: Here’s wishing QB JT Daniels a full and speedy recovery from his recent knee surgery.  

Decisions, decisions:
For those that will be traveling back to the Midwest for the Notre Dame Weekender, how many of you will be staying in the general vicinity of Notre Dame? I know many folks will be taking a chartered bus or the South Shore train to and from South Bend, avoiding the long ride home back to Chicago after the 7:30 pm kickoff (EST). As for me, I’ll spend Thursday night in Chicago, attend the Friday noon at the Navy Pier Pep Rally, quickly depart afterward for South Bend to cover the Notre Dame Pep Rally, and will spend Friday and Saturday night in Niles, Michigan, which sounds far from the Golden Dome but actually is only about 20-25 minutes on surface streets. After writing the IMHO Sunday column after the game with the Irish, no way am I going to attempt to drive back to Chicago at 2 a.m.

A number of Trojan fans will attend the Notre Dame game by using the South Shore train line (photo above) to go from Chicago to and from South Bend.

Decisions, decisions – Part 2: For me,one way to make the return to Chicago on Sunday a bit shorter and avoid the downtown Chicago freeway traffic and the even longer trip to O’Hare Airport on the North Side. It was our decision to fly into Chicago Midway Airport (South Side), which can cut off as much as 45 minutes from going the distance to O’Hare Airport.   

The best part:
When people ask me the best part of my Notre Dame Weekender, it’s the mostly beautiful ride on the Indiana Toll Road out to South Bend. Although the game is being played one week earlier in October to accommodate ACC scheduling, I find the drive totally relaxing and especially gorgeous if the leaves are turning into the colors of autumn. It’s quite a sight to behold.

In memory: The recent passing of Trojans’ all-star lineman Bill Fisk reminds that time on this earth is so temporary and precious. As a youth, I remember Fisk as a key member of the Trojans teams of the early and mid-60s under John McKay. Bill was a tremendous player – a 1964 All-American and team captain – and a fantastic Trojan. He will be missed.

The Trojan family remembers the late Bill Fisk (photo above), a 1964 All-America guard and team captain.

The bye week show numbers…

Five points ahead: As of the bye week, the Trojans are averaging 29.40 points per game while the Trojans’ defense is allowing 24.80 points per game. 

Eighteen yards ahead: As of the bye week, the Trojans are averaging 429.4 yards in total offense per game while opponents are averaging 411.4 total offensive yards per game.

Trojans’ wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr.(photo above) has helped the Trojans’ offense average 429.4 yards per game in total offense.

Thirty-seven yards behind: As of the bye week, the Trojans are averaging 137.2 rushing yards per game while the Trojans are allowing 175.0 rushing yards per game.

Fifty-five point. 8 yards ahead: As of the bye week, the Trojans are averaging 292.20 passing yards per game while the defense is allowing 236.40 yards per game.

True freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis (photo above) and backup quarterback Matt Fink have combined for the Trojans to average 292.2 passing yards per game in the Trojans version of the Air Raid offense.

Four minutes time of possession behind: As of the bye week, the Trojans average 28.00 minutes while the opponents have had the ball for an average of 32.00 minutes.  

Eleven yards flag waving ahead: As of the bye week, the Trojans are averaging 73.80 penalty yards per game while the opposition is averaging 62.80 penalty yards per game.

The post-game call-in show:

Caller No. 1: Mr. Katz, I have read your prediction about the team and your view of Clay Helton’s future, but kind of forecast what you see for Helton the rest of the way? Thank, Caller No. 1, for the question. As I mentioned in the opening to this week’s IMHO Sunday, Gentleman Clay will likely remain the head coach through the balance of the season, pending his team is still in contention for a South Division title in November. I don’t think that Helton is safe unless he wins the Pac-12 title in Santa Clara. Let me add that if the Trojans are eliminated from South Division contention as early as late October, all bets are off.  

Caller No. 2: G-Katz, when do you think that Dr. Folt will name the new athletic director? I would think a new AD will be named no later than late this month (October) or sometime before mid-November. Certainly, before the end of the current regular football season for the obvious reason. There is a probable timeline due to the uncertainty of the Clay Helton situation.

Dr. Folt (photo above) has hired one of the nation’s best firms to come up with the best candidates for the open USC athletic director position. Folt has also said for the record that the new AD will name all new coaches as needed.

Caller No. 3: Mr. Katz, is it possible that Clay Helton could be dismissed in season without a permanent athletic director in place? Sure, Caller No. 3, it’s possible. Dr. Folt had no problem dismissing Lynn Swann as athletic director with no permanent replacement ready to go. Interim AD Dave Roberts could relieve Helton if things began to look hopeless, and somebody from the current staff could be named the “interim” head coach. We’ve seen this USC scenario before. IMHO, if an interim head coach is selected, I wouldn’t expect the “interim” would be given any serious consideration for the permanent position.

Caller No. 4: Sir, do you think that the recruiting Class of 2020 is in the dumpster and a lost cause after QB Bryce Young defected to Alabama? No, I don’t if USC works swiftly to secure a top-tier coach in place, and that coach has time to assemble a core staff before the early signing period is upon us. For arguments sake, if Urban Meyer was named the head coach, one would think that this recruiting class would be saved almost in days, and perhaps some decommits to other schools would come back into play. However, it’s conceivable that Dr. Folt and the new athletic director will go in a different direction than Meyer – assuming Urban isn’t interested in returning to coaching and/or Meyer is not Dr. Folt or the new athletic director’s vision. The head football decision by Folt and the new AD might be their long-range vision of what they want to see the next four years.

Caller No. 5: Greg, if both Kedon Slovis and Matt Fink are available to play against Notre Dame, who would you pick as the starter? Nice question. I think that if he is well, Slovis will start against the Irish because I don’t think Fink made a compelling enough case against Washington to warrant Slovis playing behind him. I will say this, the Notre Dame defense is big, physical, and athletic enough and the Trojans offensive line is average at best, which means no matter the starting quarterback for the Trojans, Slovis or Fink will be wearing a target, although I think that Fink is the more mobile quarterback to avoid the Irish rushing onslaught.

Caller No. 6: Mr. G, you really made a big deal after the Washington/USC game regarding how cold it was in the Husky Stadium press box. After the game, did they put the windows down to keep the cold out? Ha, ha, Caller No. 6. The truth was when the media returned to the press box to write their stories after doing post-game interviews from the locker room area downstairs, the windows were shut. That was the good news. However, somebody must have cranked up the air conditioning because it was really cold even with the windows shut. A number of writers were actually wearing sweat clothes “hoodies” because it was so cold. It was amazing, to say the least, how cold the press box was after the game. The last time I felt this cold after a game was covering the Holiday Bowl in San Diego, which has an open-air press box. Now, that was really cold!

With a South Bend local kickoff time of 7:30 p.m., it will again be a late night for the media covering the game in historic Notre Dame Stadium (photo above).

Caller No. 7: Greg, what’s it like when you have a late-night kickoff (7:30 pm) and you have to write a game story later in the evening? Well, imagine beginning to write a college term paper near midnight, trying to stay focused, and not finishing until around 2 am, especially after having been at the stadium since 4:30 pm. I love it, but it is challenging.   

Caller No. 8: Grego, do you prefer covering home games or road games? Obviously, I like doing both. Each has its pros and cons. Home games are fine because you don’t have to worry about flights being delayed or cancelled and going through airport security, the rental car process, and hotel reservations. Recently, I received TSA clearance after applying at my local airport. That really helped in getting past those sometimes long airport lines and not having to take off one’s shoes, belts, etc. I like to travel, but it is quite a process to get to your plane, but it’s fun to meet USC fans, especially those that are loyal WeAreSC readers.     

Caller No. 9: Mr. Katz, since you are an admitted senior citizen, do you think that college football has changed all that much since you were “young”? Formations and new innovations keep the game interesting and fresh and so does the constant roster changes. However, the great teams in college football from both the past and the present all have the same qualities: They are physical, the blocking and tackling are crisp, and the elite college coaches are top shelf in any era. I guess the best way to sum it up is that the more the game changes, the more it stays the same.  

The game of college football can change the types of offenses, but the more the game changes the more it stays the same. A running back like USC’s legendary Jon Arnett (ohoto above) would still be great today if he could play again in his prime.

Caller No. 10: Sir, a little off topic I know, but other than covering USC football year-round on WeAreSC, what do you do for fun? I thought you’d never ask. I am a huge Dodgers fan, love going to both Disneyland and Disney World, and still attend “oldies” rock and roll concerts. I recently attended the Rolling Stones at the Rose Bowl in July. Oh, and by the way, along with our late publisher Garry Paskwietz, I am a big Elvis fan. In fact, Garry and I would always talk about seeing “The King” live in Las Vegas back in the early 70s and would play Elvis CDs on our way to practice.

The last word: It’s quite a conundrum for a USC fans these days: Do you hope the Trojans win their remaining seven games, win the Pac-12 title, and go to the Rose Bowl, or do you hope this is the last season of the Clay Helton era?  

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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