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IMHO Holiday Bowl Friday: For Folt and Bohn, storm clouds gathering again after Trojans lopsided 49-24 loss to Iowa in the SDCCU Holiday Bowl

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

IMHO: In No. 22 USC Trojans 49-24 “you’ve-seen-it-all-before” defeat to No. 16 Iowa Hawkeyes in the 42nd SDCCU Holiday Bowl, one can logically assume that the only two people more distraught than the USC football program had to be USC President Dr. Carol Folt and her athletic director, Mike Bohn. Both of USC’s high-ranking administrators knew beforehand if the Trojans (8-5) lost to the Hawkeyes (10-3), fans wearing cardinal and gold and those watching on national television would immediately begin pointing their finger of wrath in the direction of the two beleaguered USC decision-makers.

For Folt, who was not visibly seen at the game, and Bohn, who was seen on the USC sideline, who put their necks – not to mention their reputations – on the line by unpopularly retaining Clay Helton (cover photo after the Holiday Bowl) for the 2020 season, it must have been the loneliest walk or maybe sprint back to the charter bus or private car for one or both administrators in their budding USC tenure.

There was no visible sighting of USC President Carol Folt (photo above) at the SDCCU Holiday Bowl, but Trojans’ athletic director Mike Bohn was in attendance at SDCCU Stadium.

IMHO – Part 2: At this point in time, nobody could be more aware that the football season has come to a thud conclusion than Dr. Folt and AD Mike Bohn, but they won’t be able to catch their collective breaths and take a brief timeout anytime soon. Whatever tension or stress is weighing on the Trojans top two visible administrators after the Holiday Bowl loss, they’ll get a short “winter break” before they must endure the February final letter of intent signing day for college football, which is just about five weeks away. Coming on the tails of December’s classic recruiting fall, a February downer signing would spell a rather rough off-season for head coach Clay Helton and his staff until the Trojans open the 2020 season on Sept. 5 with mighty Alabama, a game in which the Tide will probably be ranked within the preseason top 5. And let’s face it – like it or not and don’t kill the messenger – the potential for a two-game losing streak before heading into the 2020 home opener on Sept. 12 against “mighty” New Mexico gives pause to what the attendance will be like for that game against the Lobos. A silver lining, however, will be the probability the Trojans will be the pick to win the Pac-12 South Division and potentially the conference, as well.

Although it was not confirmed that USC President Dr. Carol Folt was at the SDCCU Holiday Bowl, Trojans athletic director Mike Bohn (photo above) was at the game, and he had a look of grave concern during the final moments of the Trojans 49-24 loss to the Iowa Hawkeyes in the SDCCU Holiday Bowl on Friday night.

IMHO – Part 3: As for the downer loss to Iowa, the Trojans “pimples” were all exposed to reflect the season. The Trojans were undisciplined in assignments, lacking physicality on both sides of the ball, special teams malfunctions, and the Men of Troy met a team that was checking off all the boxes of a solid, physical, and well-coached college football team in direct contrast to the Trojans. And to think that Iowa was basically the sixth best team in the Big Ten. Oy veh. In defense of the Trojans, they were hurt badly offensively when starting quarterback Kedon Slovis left the game early in the third quarter with an apparent elbow injury. The Trojans were beaten on Friday night by a superior team on both sides of the line of scrimmage – physicality, baby – and we can’t say it enough, so help me John McKay, John Robinson, and Pete Carroll.

If the Trojans are to get back to a championship level, they will have to be physical like a Pete Carroll (photo above) team.

Until the Trojans can change their approach to physicality and what that means, they’ll have problems in 2020 winning at the highest level, which is what Trojans head coach Clay Helton emphasized in his post-game press conference – the expectations of winning championships. Expect changes to be made on the defensive side of the ball and soon, and we’re talking about coaching changes. Although they didn’t possess the skill players of the 2017 Ohio State Buckeyes in the Cotton Bowl, Iowa really took it to the Trojans like did the Buckeyes. Clay Helton, Dr. Folt, and AD Bohn can talk about national championships, but it’s not likely to happen until the Trojans change their tune in their approach to being a physical and disciplined team. And by the way, Clay Helton’s bowl record is now 2-3, which translates into a two-game losing streak or three losses out of his last four bowl games.    

IMHO – Part 4: Lost in the game’s outcome was this was the last football game for Dr. Arthur C Bartner, director of the famed USC Marching Band. He will be greatly missed, no doubt. Another aspect of the game was the overall attendance, 50,123, which lived up to the prediction that SDSCCU Stadium was basically turned into an Iowa home game with its support of fans that came to root for their Hawkeyes. As for the Trojans fan support – a big question leading into the game, one could describe it as surprisingly effective and well attended. Trojans fans gave it their best until Kedon Slovis left the game in the third quarter and the air was let out of their cardinal and gold balloon of enthusiasm.  

The Trojans Marching Band (photo above) at halftime of the SDCCU Holiday Bowl was the last halftime show in the fabled career of TMB director Dr. Arthur C. Bartner, who is retiring at the end of this academic year.

IMHO offensively: Plain and simple, the Trojans offense went kaput when QB Kedon Slovis went down with an elbow injury. With all due respect to backup Matt Fink 12 of 18/74 yds./1 PI), the Trojans were never the same team after Slovis went out (22 of 30/260 yds./2 TDs). Running ball was well, a meager production unless you think that 22 yards on the ground is now the norm. In terms of receptions, WE Amon-Ra St. Brown had a great night with 163 yards in receptions with a beautiful 55-yard reception as part of his stats. As for the Trojans’ offensive line, it was not a good night and the Trojans’ quarterbacks paid the price with being sacked four times – one which knocked Slovis out of the game. Iowa All-America DE AJ Eperesa was a terror and easily won his ballyhooed matchup with Trojans All-Pac-12k offensive left tackle Austin Jackson. If pro scouts were watching, they might advise Austin to come back for his senior season to work on his game. In total offense, the Trojans outdid Hawkeyes 356-328, but the only numbers that count was 49-24 on the SDCCU Stadium scoreboard.

Trojans’ quarterback Kedon Slovis (photo above) was having an excellent passing evening in the SDCCU Holiday Bowl until he was knocked out of the game with an elbow injury in the third quarter. (Photo by Jordon Kelly)

IMHO defensively: Iowa was outgained by the Trojans offensively 356-328, but the Trojans defense had difficulty dealing with the physicality of the Iowa offensive line. The Hawkeyes were 4 of 4 in the red zone and won the time of possession 33:24-26:36. The word balanced comes to mind when describing the Hawkeyes’ ball-control offense -115 rushing and 213 passing – just enough to keep the Trojans’ defense off balance. The Hawkeyes seemed to overpower the Trojans at times, especially with quarterback sneaks by quarterback Nate Stanley (6-4, 234). The Trojans also had major issues with all-purpose performer junior Ihmir Smith-Marsette, who had a 6-yard TD run and a 12-yard TD reception. For the record, the Trojans allowed – in the Clay Helton era – now twice having given up 49 points (Penn State besides Iowa). Certainly, all eyes are now turning to the future of current DC Clancy Pendergast.    

Trojans sophomore strong safety Talanoa Hufanga (photo above – No. 15 ) takes dead aim on Iowa running back Tyler Goodson. Hufanga led the Trojans in tackles with 14. (Photo by Jordon Kelly)

IMHO special teams: A long season for special teams coach John Baxter got longer when Iowa’s Ihmir Smith-Marsette from Newark, New Jersey, ran a kick off back 98 yards in the second quarter right after the Trojans had scored a TD on a 16-yard pass play from Kedon Slovis to running back Vavae Malepeai. The kickoff return put the Hawkeyes ahead for good at 21-14. Trojans’ reliable placekicker Chase McGrath converted a 32-yard attempt in the second quarter but missed on a 39-attempt in the final quarter. The Trojans punt coverage was excellent. Trojans’ punter Ben Griffiths had four punts for a 38.2 average. The big question on special teams is the future of coach John Baxter.

Bottom Line: It was the type of bowl loss that might have gotten Clay Helton fired had he not been saved by USC President Carol Folt and athletic director Mike Bohn prior to the early December recruiting signing period. They say that timing is everything, and that might have been the case given the results of the SDCCU Holiday Bowl. As for the game, remember that Iowa was a 2-point favorite and won the game by 25 points. What can be said is that both Iowa and USC played to who they were during the regular season.

The infirmary: QB Kedon Slovis (arm), Isaac Taylor-Stuart (knee)  

Next up: The Trojans open the 2020 season on Saturday, Sept. 5, against Alabama in Arlington, Texas.

The Trojans/Hawkeyes quotebook

Clay Helton comments: “Thank you to the Holiday Bowl, to all the redcoats, the city of San Diego for putting on a tremendous bowl game. The experience that we had. Very well-played game by Iowa tonight. They played better than us, that was a simple fact. When we look at it, we’ll look back at this tape, it will be a first half story of them being really good on third down efficiency, us not really getting off the field. Then the second half, having some critical errors as far as turnovers in the red zone, and the special teams touchdown. That created separation.

“Credit to Coach Ferentz and his staff and his team. They came and played a great game. Again, thank you to our Trojan family and the Iowa Hawkeye family. I thought it was an unbelievably well attended game. The electricity you could feel from the field was awesome. We’re thankful to our fan base as well as Iowa’s fan base. It made for a very, very exciting atmosphere for our student-athletes. So thank you.”

It was a tough night in San Diego for Trojans’ head coach Clay Helton (photo above), who is now 2-3 bowl games as the USC head football coach. (Photo by Jordon Kelly)

Clay Helton comments – Part 2 – On the Kedon Slovis injury: “He suffered an elbow injury. We’ll see a little bit more. We’ll get an MRI. It is an elbow injury right now, possible sprain hopefully. That’s what we’re hoping.”

Clay Helton comments – Part 3 – On the effect of losing QB Slovis: “I’ll be honest with you, I thought we put ourselves right in that position after the on-side kick. It was exciting. It was really neat to see our fans when Matty took the field, the support that was around him, around the guys. We just didn’t get it done.”

Clay Helton comments – Part 4 – The Trojans’ defensive struggle against Iowa – “They’re a start-fast football team. We put ourselves in some third-and-long situations, which we wanted. They caught us. They beat us in man coverage a couple of times that ended up creating first downs and keeping drives alive. I think they were perfect in the first half.

“That limited us to only four possessions in the first half, which we scored three out of the four times. That’s their MO. If you are not successful with them on third down, it can be long drives. There were some 15-, 14-play drives that really took the wind out of our sails.”

Clay Helton comments – Part 5 – This was the 12th loss over the past two years for a Clay Helton team. What does he think has to change for the program to get back to that Rose Bowl, Pac-12 title?: “We’re 8-5 now. We were ranked 22 coming in. We’re in a situation I said earlier, we got to go from good to great. That’s a big step against some teams like this we’re going to face next year. I feel we’ll face six top-25 teams next year, talking about Alabama, Notre Dame, nine conference opponents. A pretty challenging schedule.

In the post-game SDCCU Holiday Bowl press conference, Trojans’ head coach Clay Helton (photo above in middle) says his teams’ future needs to go from good to great.

“The biggest thing is these type of experiences for our freshmen and sophomore group I think are important for them to dive into and understand that you can’t make the critical error, you can’t make the critical error on the minus side of the field, that when you get your opportunity after getting a surprise on-side, hopefully finishing those drives. Those lessons will be invaluable as we move forward. Every experience, whether it’s a success or failure, will help this young team.”

Clay Helton comments – Part 6 – Regarding the Trojans’ future and the expectations: “We believe in championships here. The expectations are high and I love them. Our players love it. That’s why we all came to USC. We’re challenged by them. We will always be continued to be challenged by them. Just as a fan base might be frustrated, a coaching staff and players are frustrated because we know what we’re about. I’m so appreciative to this senior group because when a lot of injuries happened, it could have gone one way. I really thought they finished extremely strong.

“I credit the 14 seniors in that room, the seven scholarship seniors that are in that room. They got us here, put us here. Men like this right here, they laid a foundation for what is going to be next year. They’ve set a culture, they’ve set an attitude amongst some young players, they’ve showed them how to be pros. I’m very appreciative of that.

“We’re going to be a very good team next year because of these men and their leadership this year. That was the thing that I take away, a foundation was laid by a bunch of good seniors. We’ll make sure we have success in the future. Bright days are ahead.”

Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz comments: “First of all, just a tremendous way to end the 2019 season for our football team. It was really a hard-fought game out there. Two highly competitive teams, two ranked teams. We got a lot of respect for USC, their program, their team certainly.

“Just really proud of our team, the way they prepared, not only this week but also the entire month. That’s always a challenge in bowl games. This one was a little bit unique for us because it was a shorter preparation with the calendar falling the way it did. I thought our guys really handled things well, did a great job out here. Obviously competed hard tonight. Just really, really proud of them.

“The biggest thing for us tonight, it was a complete team victory. It was offense, special teams, defense. That’s just good football.”

Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz (photo above) receives the SDCCU Holiday Bowl winning trophy. (Photo by Jordon Kelly)

Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz comments – Part 2 – On attacking the edges of the Trojans’ defense: “Seemed like there were some things we saw during the course of our preparation that we thought we might have a chance to get the ball on the edge. Thought we had a really good game plan, executed it well.”

WR Michael Pittman Jr. – On losing Kedon Slovis in the third quarter: “It’s just we kind of got shocked because our starting quarterback had gotten out, then it kind of deflected our, like, flow. Just one thing led to another. That’s what happened.”

Linebacker John Houston – On the Trojans’ defensive struggle against the Iowa offense: “We just tried to focus on getting off the field, which we pretty much didn’t do all game. Bad on getting off on third down. They kept drives going, kept the ball going. We just had a bad game pretty much.

It was a tough night and a long walk back to the Trojans locker room in the SDCCU Holiday Bowl.

Free safety Isaiah Pola-Mao – On the difficulty in stopping the Iowa run game: “They were scheme us a little bit. We tried to disguise and play with their quarterback a little bit. At the end of the day, they were just out-executing us.”

Free safety Isaiah Pola-Mao – Part 2 – On the toughest part in ending the season on a loss: It’s definitely difficult. We have a lot of young guys, a lot of guys coming back (for 2020). We’re just looking forward to the next season.”

Defensive tackle Marlon Tuipuloto – On the Iowa offensive line: “We didn’t get the job done. They (Iowa offensive line) did their thing. We were just out there trying to compete. We have to focus now on next year. We knew coming in that was the type of team they were (ball control on offense). I felt like we did everything we could getting ready for them. There were some good O-lines that we played this year, they were solid and did a very good job.”

Offensive tackle Jalen McKenzie – On the loss to Iowa:
“I hate losing like everybody else. I gave it everything I got out there. If it doesn’t go your way, you just can’t carry this into next season. This has got to be forgotten. We just have to get back to the drawing board.”

Special teams coach John Baxter:
“It was really frustrating (on the performance of his special teams). I think as I’ve said it before, you win as a team and you lose as a team. As a coach, you work to teach the players, coach the players, and do those kind of things and I haven’t had three plays like that in my career let along a season (kickoff returns for touchdowns). When the personnel starts to bleed off and there are inconsistencies and we didn’t have the same lineup a couple of games in a row, as lot of young players, I mean everybody on the backside of the kickoff teams was a true freshman. Bottom line is that they have to make the plays, and I’ve got to help them.”

From the press box…

The turnstiles: SDCCU Holiday Bowl attendance was announced as 50,123 with capacity listed as 70,561. 

The Trojans had a nicer turnout of fan support (photo above) than expected for the 42nd annual SDCCU Holiday Bowl.

Temperature: SDCCU Holiday Bowl kickoff temperature was clear and 57 degrees.

The pregame: Before the kickoff, the SDCCU Holiday Bowl pregame show on the field included performances by both university marching bands, parachute jumpers (Navy Leap Frogs) and for the national anthem, “The Big Flag, the football field size American Flag.

Navy Seals skydivers (photo above) were part of an impressive SDCCU Holiday Bowl pregame show.

The pregame -Part 2: Also part of the pregame was a flyover by four T-34 fixed wing aircraft with smoke.

The halftime show: Dr Pepper/Stater Bros. presented a halftime show, which included the marching bands of USC and Iowa, and an extended and impressive fireworks display.

A SDCCU Holiday Bowl tradition is the unfurling of a football field-sized American flag (photo above) for the National Anthem.

In memory tributes: With the recent passing of legendary Iowa football coach Hayden Fry and athletic director Bump Elliott, the Hawkeyes took the Tigerhawk off of both sides of their helmets in honor of Coach Fry and placed a sticker on the back of Iowa helmets to honor Bump Elliott

The officiating: If you wonder why there seemed to be less penalties in the SDCCU Holiday Bowl, it’s probably because the game was officiated by a group from the ACC and not the Pac-12.

The menu: The SDCCU Stadium press box pregame meal included corn beef, potatoes, carrots, a salad, sour dough bread slices. At halftime there were an assortment of cookies.

The pregame media meal (photo above) consisted of a main dish of corn beef, potatoes, and veggies.

The post-game show numbers…     

Tackling the issues: Against the Hawkeyes, safety Talanoa Hufanga led the Trojans with 14 tackles.

Downward trend: Against Iowa, the Trojans scored 24 points. Prior to the game with the Hawkeyes, the Trojans were averaging 31.17 points per game.

Upward trend: Against Iowa, the Trojans allowed 49 points. Prior to the game with the Hawkeyes, Trojans’ defense was allowing 27.074 points per game. 

Downward trend: Against Iowa, the Trojans had 356 yards in total offense. Prior to the game with the Hawkeyes, the Trojans were averaging 462.2 yards in total offense per game.

The Trojans offense was very effective at times as illustrated by this 16-yard TD reception by running back Vavae Malepeai (photo above) from Kedon Slovis. (Photo by Jordon Kelly)

Downward trend: Against Iowa, the Trojans defense allowed 328 total yards in total offense. Prior to the game with the Hawkeyes, the Trojans defense was allowing 415.2 yards per game in total offense.

Downward trend: Against Iowa, the Trojans had 22 net yards rushing. Prior to the game with the Hawkeyes, the Trojans were averaging 126.3 rushing yards per game. 

Downward trend: Against Iowa, the Trojans allowed 115 net rushing yards. Prior to the game with the Hawkeyes, the Trojans were allowing 166.6 rushing yards per game.  

The Trojans defense allowed 115 yards rushing to the Iowa offense. (Photo by Jordon Kelly)

Downward trend: Against Iowa, the Trojans had 334 yards passing yards. Prior to the game with the Hawkeyes, Trojans were averaging 335.92 passing yards per game.  

A bright spot for the Trojans offensive was the play of wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown (photo above), who had 163 yards in receptions on nine receptions. (Photo by Jordon Kelly)

Downward trend: Against Iowa, the Trojans allowed 213 passing yards. Prior to the game with the Hawkeyes, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 248.58 passing yards per game.

Time of possession: The Trojans had the ball 26:36 minutes while Iowa had the ball for 33:24 minutes.  

Downward flag trend: Against Iowa, the Trojans had three penalties for 21 yards while the Hawkeyes had four penalties for 23 yards. Prior to the Iowa, game, the Trojans were averaging 71.33 penalty yards per game while the opposition was averaging 68.50 penalty yards per game.

The post-game call-in show:

Caller No. 1: Greg, how big was the loss to Iowa? It was not just a loss, but a big loss in terms of numbers separation. I think the amount of points to Iowa was surprising, and according to Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz the most points scored by one of his Hawkeyes teams in a bowl game. Need I say more?

Caller No. 2: GK, do you think that Clay Helton will make changes the day after the Holiday Bowl? The rumor in the press box was that two significant changes will be made soon, and they will be on the defensive side of the ball. It is a hot rumor that the DC Clancy Pendergast and special teams coach John Baxter’s days are numbered. But we all know about the premature story regarding Clay Helton’s firing, which turned out not to be true. So, we’ll see if there are legs to these rumors.    

Trojans’ head coach Clay Helton (photo above) must now consider making changes in his coaching staff after the big loss to Iowa in the SDCCU Holiday Bowl. (Photo by Jordon Kelly)

Caller No. 3: Hey buddy, did you think what happened in the Holiday Bowl will have a big impact on the February signing period? Certainly, Caller No. 3, the loss to Iowa and the way it ended isn’t an encouraging recruiting sign, but I do think those players that have always wanted to be Trojans will end up wearing the cardinal and gold. That being said, there were a number of players that signed in December that always wanted to be Trojans but ended up in places like Oregon and Alabama.    

Caller No. 4: Was it cold in the press box at SBCCU Stadium? Wow, throw me a softball question. Thanks, Caller No. 4. I was wearing a heavy-hooded sweatshirt, a heavy jacket, and warm gloves, and I was still freezing.  

Caller No. 5: Mr. Katz, what is your favorite New Year’s Eve memory as it pertains to USC football? Caller No. 5, going to any of the Rose Bowl games that featured the John McKay Trojans and the Woody Hayes Ohio State Buckeyes. They were insanely physical games with NFL players at so many positions. They were worth the price of admission.

The Final Word: So, the 2019 season is officially over. Good riddance. With the return of Clay Helton as the Trojans’ head coach in 2020, the challenge will be to regain some enthusiasm, life, and excitement in the program, which is now a priority. Although the first signing of letter of intents was stunningly unacceptable, it will be interesting how much ground can be made up in the February signing period. Right now, there is a lot of damage control to overcome.  

Greg Katz
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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