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IMHO Sunday: Hanging on again for openers

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

IMHO So, did the USC Trojans (1-0, 0-0 Pac-12) 31-23 handwringing victory over the Fresno State Bulldogs (0-1, 0-0 MWC) answer all your preseason and off-season questions? Maybe you should have also asked yourself, “What if JT Daniels goes down in the first half of the Fresno opener, then what? How ’bout true freshman Kedon Slovis, who did reasonably well managing the offense, considering the circumstances. However, with Slovis doing his best, why did the Trojans go to the pass when the running game was working so well late in the third quarter? Slovis’s interception in the third quarter was on the coaching staff for putting the kid in a position to run a risk not needed at that point. For Slovis and the Trojans and the Trojans’ defense, let’s be clear, Fresno State isn’t Stanford, Utah, Washington, or Notre Dame for that matter, and I know it, you know, and everybody else knows it. And, BTW, did you feel you had seen a game like this in previous openers like UNLV and Western Michigan, respectively?  

For Trojans’ scrutinized head coach Clay Helton, the coach came away with a win, and in his position, he’ll take every win his team can muster for him. There are some big challenges ahead – like hosting Pac-12 North upstart and undefeated Stanford Cardinal (1-0, 0-0 Pac-12) next Saturday night in the Coliseum with the probability of a true freshman leading his offense in the Pac-12 opener for both the Cardinal and Trojans. And BTW, don’t ya just love these 7:30 p.m. games? And what time did you get home on Saturday night or should I say early Sunday morning?

IMHO – Part 2: Offensively, we all couldn’t wait to see how the new Graham Harrell Air Raid offense would perform against somebody other than the Trojans own defensive unit. One could assess the early returns on Harrell’s offense as at times entertaining and at times watching paint dry, but surprisingly effective in the running game. What we don’t know is how much Harrell held back in game-planning for Stanford even with JT Daniels when he was in there. With Slovis, the Trojans relied on their running game, which actually did a lot of damage in the second half. The heralded Trojans receiving unit was good as advertised for the most part, albeit a few head scratching drops. As for the Trojans running game, they were highly effective, especially in the first half. Running back Vavae Malepeai (5.8 avg/134 yds/1 TD) and Stephen Carr (cover photo No.7/9.3 avg./56 yds/ 1 TD/ 43 yds. receiving) were sensational at times, and, of course, then there was the offensive line, which actually picked up their game when Daniels left the game and was quite effective. Let’s not forget that before the Fresno opener, both Clay Helton and Graham Harrell were full of high praise regarding the O-line, and Saturday night it had its moments.

IMHO – Part 3: Defensively, the questions centered around a defensive line that gave up a lot of yards against the rush in 2018 and a redone and inexperienced 2019 secondary. As for the defending the run, the Trojans’ front seven was sometimes good and sometimes not so good, allowing 206 yards on the ground. A major question leading into the Fresno game was the Trojans’ inexperienced secondary. On its own merits, the Trojans’ secondary performed well enough, allowing 256 passing yards and two touchdowns through the air.  Is Stanford licking its chops over what they’ll see on film of the Trojans defense?   

IMHO – Part 4: Special teams wise, the key to the game was the 100-yard kick-off return by junior Velus Jones. It was a game-changer, no question about it. However, in the kick return game, how did the Trojans have two No. 7s on the field on the same time after all that spring ball and training camp promises of a more organized and disciplined team. There was great intrigue to see 27-year-old redshirt freshman Australian punter Ben Griffiths showcase that cannon of a leg, but it wasn’t a good night for Big Ben as he averaged a disappointing 37 yards per punt with a long of 38 yards. The return of sophomore placekicker Chase McGrath didn’t disappoint, however. Returning from knee surgery that knocked him out for much of the 2018 season, Chase connected on a field goal of 38 yards and converted all four of his PATs.  

Velus Jones (photo above) on his way to his 100-yard kickoff return, the key to the victory.

Bottom Line: For now, I need more information and evidence that the 2019 Trojans are in the midst of a major turnaround and not the 2018 Trojans all over again. The victory over Fresno State to christen the new United Airlines Field at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum left a lot of unanswered questions, but now the steps will get steeper and much more challenging, especially with a true freshman quarterback now at the helm of the offense. The question: What should we expect from the Men of Troy against Stanford?

The infirmary: QB JT Daniels (knee)

Next up: The Trojans will return to the Coliseum next Saturday night (7:30 p.m. PDT/ESPN), Sept. 7, when they host the Stanford Cardinal in the Pac-12 opener for both teams. On Saturday, Stanford (1-0, 0-0 Pac-12) defeated Northwestern 17-7 in Palo Alto. The Cardinal may have also lost its starting quarterback KJ Costello, who left with a possible concussion.

The Trojans/Fresno State quote book…

Trojans head coach Clay Helton comments: “Good win for our football team against a good Fresno State team. I commend coach Tedford for how they competed with honor. There’s a lot to clean up for us. We left some opportunities out there. Thank goodness for a stout defense at the end there. Great play by Isaiah Pola-Mao. A really good running game by both running backs. Both Vavae (Malepeai) and I thought Stephen (Carr) were exceptional tonight, and then this guy (Velus Jones) hit a home run. [To Velus] Thank you for being here. As special a play as we’ve seen. We’ve got a lot to do, a lot to fix before the next game, but we’re 1-0 and we’ll get it corrected and keep going.”

Head coach Clay Helton (photo above) bends over to check on injured QB JT Daniels.

Clay Helton comments – Part 2: (On deciding to go for it 4th and 1)“Looking at where we were, averaging 5.8 (Malepeai) and 9.3 (Carr), I felt their defense tiring a little bit and I thought our team had a nice job at the line of scrimmage. I’m always going to bet on our guys. I believe in them.”

Clay Helton comments – Part 3: (On seeing QB JT Daniels get hurt) “Gut-wrenching. When you see a guy who’s poured so much into the game and into this team and into his becoming better physically and mentally as a quarterback. I said a prayer as soon as I saw it and I hope we’ll get the best results tomorrow and see where it lies.”

Clay Helton comments – Part 4: (On Kedon Slovis stepping in as backup QB) “I always judge their eyes, and there was no fear. For him to walk out there and execute the offense. He had one interception on a deep ball, but he had another deep ball that put us in scoring position. He did things in a tough position to win. It’s about him getting better nextweek and getting better for the next game. I appreciate him.”

Fresno State head coach Jeff Tedford comments: “Proud of the team for the way they competed. At the end of the day it’s about winning the game and we didn’t get that done. We had a lot of good learning experiences against a good USC team. We’ll go back, look at this and look to improve off it.”

Fresno State head coach Jeff Tedford comments – Part 2: On Velus Jones TD kickoff return “That was a big play. We had a little momentum going and then let them get loose for a big play. We just didn’t execute very well right there.”

Fresno State head coach Jeff Tedford: On the Trojans’ game-saving interception by SC safety Isaiah Pola-Mao, Tedford said, “That’s a learning opportunity. When you have guys open you have to get them the ball. But like I said, the safety just made a good play on that one. He probably could have put a little more velocity on the ball, but he’ll learn and grow.”

The return: Velus Jones on before and during his 100-yard TD return in the third quarter: (On what he was talking to coaches about before his TD kickoff return) “We were saying look for the open hole. When you get a chance to hit a home run, you hit a home run, so that’s what I did. I couldn’t have done it without my brothers blocking for me. That’s where it all started. We just visualize it before you actually do it, and we were discussing that on the sideline before.” (On his TD kickoff return after JT Daniels went out with injury) As a player you have to give hope. I felt like I gave my team hope and energy to make sure we were successful at the end of the day.”

OC Graham Harrell on the running game: “We averaged 7 yards a carry, which is pretty good.”

Grading the offensive line: Asked about the offensive line’s performance, starting left tackle Austin Jackson said, “I am definitely pleased with my teammates effort. We have the same mentality. We want to get better, and we look what we did, and we learn from it. (on seeing JT Daniels go down in the first half) “It was terrible. It’s tough, but it’s the game of football.”

On sitting in the locker room at halftime waiting to start in place of JT Daniels, Kedon: “I just wanted to jump right in. They asked me if I was good, but that 20 minutes of waiting time (halftime) wasn’t good. It worked out. It was the longest 20 minutes for real.”

The game winning interception: On his touchback interception late in the game to preserve the victory, Trojans safety Isiah Pola-Mao said, “The ball was in the air and I had to go get it. I am a DB and you’re taught to go get the ball when it’s in the air and that’s what I did. I did my job. I was thinking about it (keeping his feet in the end zone), I just had to make sure I got it.”

On his first long pass completion in the third quarter, Kedon Slovis: “That one really gave me confidence. JT helped a lot on sidelines telling me what they were doing defensively.” (On his interception) “It was a bad read probably. The ball was not where he ran to.”   

Trojans running back Stephen Carr:
“It’s amazing the Air Raid offense. I love catching the ball out of the backfield. Our offensive line did a real good and opened up holes and made the calls before the ball was snapped.”

Wide receiver Tyler Vaughns on his receiving unit’s Fresno State performance:
“Our receivers came out and balled and do what they do in practice. We call ourselves ‘playmakers’ and we were playmakers today and did our thing. We came out and were hungry for everything.”  

The learning lesson:
Asked what he will take into the next game against Stanford, corner Olaijah Griffin said, “We need to continue to work hard and beat Stanford.”

The fun offense:
Running back Vavae Malepeai was asked afterward about playing in Graham Harrell’s Air Raid offense. Malepeai said, “I’m not sure about other opportunities in other offenses but I know it’s fun in this offense. I’ve said it many times, even when we didn’t get in the end zone, I said ‘This is fun’. It’s the best feeling in the world when you have a coach who’s going to bet on you.”

From the press box…

Moment of silence for GP: Prior to kickoff, USC Sports Information Director Tim Tessalone led a moment of silence in the new Coliseum press box for late WeAreSC.com publisher Garry Paskwietz, who passed away last winter. The press box ceremony was attended by Garry’s mother Kathy, sister Kami, and brother Ryan.

Moment of silence for GP – Part 2: As part of the press box tribute to Garry P, there was a WeAreSC chair on press row that was left unoccupied the entire game in GP’s honor.

The press box paused for a moment of silence in memory of late WeAreSC publisher Garry Paskwietz, and a chair (photo above) was left unoccupied during the game in Garry’s memory.

Temperature: The Los Angeles kickoff temperature was clear and 72 degrees.

Turnstiles: Saturday night’s attendance was announced as 57,329.

Tradition breaker: Unlike previous seasons, no one lead the Trojans onto the field prior to kickoff.

Sign of the times: During timeouts, there was a new electronic stand brought on the field that shows the running time left during a timeout.

Cover boy: Junior offensive left tackle Austin Jackson was on the cover of the game program.

Peristyle, we have a problem: After giving much attention to revitalizing the peristyle end of the Coliseum, it was a bit jaw dropping to see an array of tables with cover tents replacing those ugly two-story corporate structures, which once blocked a good deal of the Coli historic arches. This was part of the peristyle ends return to greatness. Who goofed, I want to know.

Helmet celebration: The Trojans wore a commemorative helmet sticker in the back of their headgear in honor of college football’s 150th season.

The pregame: Prior to kickoff, a pre-game flyover was executed by the Tiger Squadron, and then the Navy Seals “Leap Frogs” parachuted into the Coliseum. There were also pre-game fireworks to open the renovated Coliseum.

A pregame fireworks display (photo above)was presented to honor the renovation of the Coliseum.

Being honored: During the game,the Trojans’ 2018-19 NCAA champion men’s water polo team and women’s track individuals (Angie Annelus, TeeTee Terry, Anna Cockrell, Lanae-Tava Thomas, Chanel Brissett and Kaelin Roberts) were honored on the field.

Scouting: NFL scouts in attendance included the Chargers, Dolphins, Buccaneers, Giants, Saints, Lions.

Bowling: There were no bowl representatives in attendance.

The post-game show numbers…

Tackling the issues: Senior linebacker John Houston Jr. led the Trojans with 13 tackles.

Upward trend: Against Fresno State, the Trojans scored 31 points. Last season, the Trojans were averaged 26.08 points per game. 

Downward trend: Against Fresno State, the Trojans allowed 23 points. Last season, the Trojans’ defense allowed 27.0 points per game. 

Upward trend: Against Fresno State, the Trojans had 447 yards in total offense. Last season, the Trojans averaged 382.6 yards in total offense per game.

Upward trend: Against Fresno State, the Trojans defense allowed 462 total yards in total offense. Last season, the Trojans’ defense allowed 387.7 total yards per game.

Upward trend: Against Fresno State, the Trojans had 175 net yards rushing. Fresno State, last season the Trojans averaged 133.5 rushing yards per game. 

Upward trend: Against Fresno State, the Trojans allowed 206 net rushing yards. Last season, the Trojans’ defense allowed 164.4 net yards rushing per game.

Upward trend: Against Fresno State, the Trojans had 272 yards passing yards. Last season, the Trojans averaged 249.1 passing yards per game.

Upward trend: Against Fresno State, the Trojans allowed 256 passing yards.Last season, the Trojans’ defense allowed 223.2 passing yards per game

Flag waving: Against Fresno State, the Trojans had 4 penalties for 35 yards while Fresno State had 6 penalties for 51 yards. Last season, the Trojans were averaged 73.5 penalty yards per game while the opposition averaged 58.5 penalty yards per game.

The post-game call-in show:

Caller No. 1: Greg, did you watch the Thursday night game with Utah at BYU, a Utah 30-12 domination? Sure did, Caller No. 1. My impressions were that BYU – since the Trojans will be traveling to Provo in two weeks – was completely outmatched physically on both sides of the ball for most of the game. As for Utah – whom the Trojans play in the later part of September – I thought they looked ready to rock and roll, and the longer the game went, the more the Utes physical dominance really started to show. When I watched BYU’s offense, it made me think of the Trojans’ offense. When the Trojans travel to BYU, it will be a battle of two finesse offenses, which should make it interesting. BYU can be beaten in Provo as Utah proved by playing physically along the line of scrimmage for four quarters. It will be up to the Trojans to show us a Utah-type kind of physicality.

Caller No. 2: Are you happy, Katz, that the Pac-12 Conference has said there will be no 9 a.m. games this season?
I am, caller No. 2, very happy. What a stupid idea, a 9 a.m. PT kickoff, for something that impacts both attendance and players performances, and do you really think the East Coast is going to watch the game without a couple of headliner Pac-12 teams? The bad news is that conference is letting the word out that there could be a 9 a.m. game in 2020, and that’s fine with me as long as it doesn’t include the Trojans.

Caller No. 3: After the Fresno State win, GK, don’t you think your seasonal prediction of 6-6 looks really dumb? Well, thanks for the comment Caller 3. One game doesn’t make a season and besides, I did predict the Trojans to soundly defeat Fresno State, which they did. Bring on the Cardinal! 

Caller No. 4: In the past, Greggie, you’ve commented on the food they serve the media before and during a game. With a new press box, what was the menu? You really care, Caller No. 4, because you know the food is free. Okay, the menu on Saturday night was taco meat, rice, beans, shells, salad, popcorn, and soft drinks.

Caller No. 5: Mr. G, did the attendance for Saturday night’s game surprise you? To be honest, Caller No. 5, it didn’t. The first indication that ticket sales were not going well for the opener was when the Trojans’ ticket department sent out an email saying there was a fire sale of a 20% discount on tickets, and then after the deadline sent out an extension deadline. It was pretty well known that a significant number of Trojan season ticket holders did not renew their tickets in protest of the current state of the USC football program. However, I do expect a bigger turnout for next week’s Pac-12 Conference opener when the Stanford Cardinal come to the Coliseum. That game should tell us a lot about both the Trojans and the Cardinal.

The last word: So, the Trojans first game of the season is now in the proverbial books, and they say there should be a giant leap of progress between Game 1 and Game 2, which means Game No. 2 against Stanford. If Saturday night’s results are any indication, the Trojans have a lot of work to do, especially with QB JT Daniels not likely to play.

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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