16 min Read

IMHO Sunday: Telling it like it is in Texas

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

IMHO: Admit it. While your heart of hearts was hoping that your beloved USC Trojans would be 3-0 or at least 2-1 after the first three games, your head reluctantly told you that 1-2 would be the probable scenario. Needless to say, your head of heads was right after the No. 22 Trojans (1-2 overall, 0-1 Pac-12) were drilled and embarrassed 37-14 by the unranked Texas Longhorns (2-1 overall, 0-0 Big 12) on a humid Saturday night in Darrell K. Royal Stadium.

IMHO -Part 2: So, while the preseason 1-2 prognostication at this point has come to fruition, the lone positive from Saturday night’s cardinal and gold BBQ would be the Trojans’ season really begins in earnest next Friday night when the Cardinal and Gold embark on the balance of their Pac-12 schedule by hosting the undefeated Washington State Cougars (3-0, 0-0 Pac-12). It turns out to be a critical encounter for not only the Trojans players in terms of the conference race but especially for head coach Clay Helton and his staff. All signs are pointing to rough waters ahead if things don’t change very quickly both in team performance and coaching. This is not USC football as we know it. This is a brand of football that is foreign to cardinal and gold historians and the Trojans “family.” Some are calling Saturday night’s USC performance “pathetic.” And discipline? How about almost 100 yards in penalties and senior linebacker and captain Porter Gustin being ejected for “spearing” or leading with his helmet? Earlier Gustin was flagged for a personal foul to the face of Longhorns’ quarterback Sam Ehlinger, who finished the game by throwing  two TD passes and running one in.

IMHO – Part 3: The reflective school of thought heading into this season was that former Trojans’ all-star quarterback and now New York Jets rookie quarterback sensation Sam Darnold bailed out Clay Helton and his teams on numerous occasions the two previous seasons. However, now there is no No.14 to work his magic and the hypothesis is confirmed up to a point. There is near unanimous agreement – and the Texas game points it out – that the offensive’s inability to score close to the goal line is not linked to quarterback JT Daniels. It’s so much more than that. The offensive line can’t root opposing defensive fronts out and the schemes are open to realistic scrutiny. There’s that word “scrutiny” again. Ironically, the Trojans backs ran hard and even sophomore tailback Vavae Malepeai managed to break tackles around left end to score on a 3-yard touchdown run to put the Trojans up 14-3. Such hope, then the wheels came off.

IMHO – Part 4: Like it or not, the USC head coaching hot seat has been turned on to warm and not far behind – fair or unfair – is the offensive coordinator’s play calling along with scrutiny of the O-line mentorship. The balance of pass and run at times appears random – 11 rushes to 27 pass attempts in the first half alone only to finish with just 16 rushing attempts compared to 48 pass attempts. Or how about just 37 net yards rushing (-0.3 avg.)? Now that’s pathetic. Forget about the 322 yards in the air because none of it was TD receptions. How much warmer it gets will depend how the Trojans do the rest of the 2018 way, especially offensively. However, the way the defense and special teams played against Texas, it has become a team and program issue. Poor secondary play and those “yikes” special teams – oy veh.

IMHO – Part 5: With any thought of a national title run long gone, even with a rookie but extremely talented quarterback in JT Daniels, there’s no excuse for the Men of Troy not to still compete and win a considered weak but surprisingly competitive Pac-12 South. Colorado continues to win and ASU is competitive – not to mention the always physical and well coached Utah Utes. Anything less than that – a Trojans’ division title – will be a lost season, and with the 2019 season focused on the introduction of a completed but hotly debated Coliseum renovation project, how much patience does USC athletic director Lynn Swann have with a potential coaching controversy seemingly overshadowing the “celebration” of a reconfigured Coliseum heading into next season? What must USC athletic director Lynn Swann be thinking at this point?

IMHO – Part 6: San Jose Mercury columnist Jon Wilner is one of the Pac-12’s most respected veteran journalists/historians and wrote this week prior to Saturday’s USC/Texas game: “Since (Clay) Helton was named permanent coach late in the 2015 season, the Trojans have played seven games without (Sam) Darnold as the starter, either because he was redshirting (late 2015), on the bench (early 2016) or in the NFL (now). In those games, USC is 2-5 overall and 0-5 against Power Five competition. The Trojans have averaged 12.4 points against the Power Five opponents, lost by 10+ points four times and scored one or zero touchdowns three times.” You can now adjust those numbers after the Texas convincing loss. Wilner’s stats supply evidence to Helton detractors that Sam Darnold was the main reason for Helton’s successes. On the other hand, you are what you recruit, and Helton certainly gets credit for recruiting Darnold. As for the present, Helton certainly has enough games remaining this season to soften Wilner’s statistics, but the evidence is mounting despite a Rose Bowl win and a Pac-12 title in 2017. USC teams have lost games being competitive but losing games like the Texas fiasco will not be tolerated in the present or the future.

IMHO – Part 7: The truth is most media members really like Clay Helton – me included – and really want him to succeed. However, in USC football, production has to surpass even a wonderful and righteous personality. “Good enough” is not acceptable. Losing is not acceptable, especially like what happened Saturday night in Austin. Getting embarrassed is intolerable and deserves great scrutiny. USC football is built on national championships and not national embarrassments.  Pete Carroll reestablished the greatness bar during his marvelous era, and that is the expectations with no apology necessary.

Bottom line: The season is still young, but the Trojans are in trouble in all phases of the game as the evidence would indicate at Texas. In truth, the Men of Troy were not overly impressive against UNLV in the season opener and we all saw what happened against Stanford. BTW, the Trojans’ offense has now scored just two touchdowns in the last eight quarters of football and both were in the same first quarter at Texas. Not good.

They say the direction of a program generally reveals itself during a coach’s third season. In the case of the Trojans, head coach Clay Helton does not have the luxury in his third season of having a veteran quarterback, but the QB is ironically not the issue – far from it. It goes deeper, much deeper. There is no running attack (O-line still an issue in the third season) with some very good running backs, and the entire offensive scheme is now open to question on the field and in the press box. So, the irony of this season thus far is that the Trojans’ issues don’t fall on a young but highly talented true freshman quarterback. On the contrary, the offensive problems and its inconsistencies go much deeper than a freshman signal caller. As aforementioned, with just two touchdowns in the last eight quarters of play, this is soul searching time within the USC offensive coaching staff and players. For Clay Helton and his entire staff, there a lot of sleepless ahead.

Tackling the issues: Trojans linebacker Cameron Smith led the Trojans with 9 tackles.

The infirmary: Andrew Vorhees (knee – MCL), Chase McGrath (knee – possible torn ACL), Aca’Cedric Ware (knee), DL Malik Dorton (tight contusion).

Next Friday night: The Trojans return to the Coliseum this Friday night to play Pac-12 North rival Washington State Cougars (3-0 overall, Pac-12 0-0). On Saturday night in Pullman, the hometown Cougars whipped Eastern Washington (2-1 overall, 0-0 Big Sky) 59-24.

The Trojans/Texas quote book…

Trojans head coach Clay Helton comments: “Obviously not our night tonight. Any time that you get on the road in this type of environment and I thought we had a good plan, a good preparation, but just didn’t execute what we needed to be able to come out with a victory tonight. Limited run game forced us to throw the ball, and I commend JT (Daniels) and the receivers what they were able to accomplish tonight.”

More Helton comments – Part 2: Helton said, “Defensively, did not feel we gave the best field position to our defense and had a blocked field goal for a touchdown, which non-offensive touchdowns are not very good, as well as we need some improved punting to establish better field position for the defense. I thought we gave them a bad hand tonight. I commend Christian (Rector) and that D-line how they played. They had a lot of snaps and one the short field at times and were able to do what they must to be able to try to keep us in the game.”

Last add Helton comments – Part 3: Regarding the Texas defense, Helton said, “I thought they did a nice job with their zone pressures. I thought they came to the park to see what JT and the passing game could do and forced our hand.”

Texas head coach Tom Herman comments: “That’s a really good (USC) team with some really, really good players. We knew offensively that it was going to be ugly at times, but that we needed to keep taking shots. They’re a very aggressive defense. And you’re not going to hit every shot. We knew our completion percentage was probably not going to be great, but when we hit, they were going to be for big plays. We did just enough in the run game that I thought we going to need because of the structure of the defense to use the quarterback in the run game, and for our defense to shut’em out in the second half and score points on the blocked field goal was – again, it was a great team win.”

O-line reflections: After the game, Trojans’ offensive line coach Neil Callaway said, “We have to go back and work on fundamentals. Obviously, we still have work to do and we’ll continue to work.” Asked if the O-line issues were correctable, Callaway said, “I think so, but we need to look at the film. I thought our pass protection was good overall. I think it was two or three sacks. Our pass protection was good, but our overall run blocking we have to do better. When you lose a ball game like we did tonight, it’s very disappointing.”

JT speaks: On the overall experience of Darrell K Royal Stadium and what he learned in the loss, true freshman quarterback JT Daniels said, “It was cool playing Texas. The stands were crazy. I can’t speak to what I learned until we break down the film and watch it. It’s still too early; I have to process the game.” Asked if this was the most physical game he had played in, Daniels said, “Stanford was physical, UNLV was a physical team, it’s college ball. There isn’t anybody that shouldn’t be here.”

Tighten up: Asked about the game and the offense in general, senior tight end Tyler Petite said, “I think we had a really great start. They were bringing all sorts of pressures all night. It’s not an excuse because we have to pick that sort of stuff up. Teams are going to pressure us, and we have a young QB and they want to pressure us. We have to make sure we do a better job of that and keep the momentum going. I think we made some mistakes on both sides of the ball and on special teams, and we can’t have those things happen if we want to win games.”

Teeing off: Trojans’ offensive coordinator Tee Martin said, “We still have a lot of season left. There were a lot of positives. We started fast and started scoring in the red zone. The players came out and JT stood in the pocket and made some really big throws during this game. There are things we’re going to learn from as well. There is a lot of positive I am going to walk away with and keep my head high and head up. There are things we have to get out of our system and get better at. We going to go to work and get better at them. We have the Pac-12 South still in front of us as one of our goals and we’re going to work like heck to do it.”

The end: On how to rebound from the loss and next week’s short week in preparation for Washington State, sophomore receiver Tyler Vaughns said, “We have practice tomorrow (Sunday). We have to go back to the drawing board tomorrow and start fresh. Once we land (LAX), it’s over, that’s how we have to think about it and go about it. It’s a long season, so we don’t have to get our heads down and it’s still early in the season, fight back, and win. Sunday we have meetings and so we have to shake it off and start fresh on Monday. I have confidence in our offense and our team.”

The saint: Asked about the big hit he took in the second half and whether that was the hardest he’s ever been hit in football, true freshman wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown said, “I think so. That was a pretty hard hit. It was shocker after I got hit, but I got up and had a next play mentality. I am fine.” Asked about the environment of Darrell K Royal Stadium, Amon-Ra said, “I’ve only played at Stanford, but this was pretty crazy, a little different.”

Special teams: On the punting issues of the past couple of games, special teams coach John Baxter said, “It’s some stuff we have to look at. It’s a team situation. It some things we have to figure out.”

Reflections: Trojans’ senior tailback Aca’Cedric Ware said, “We all now have to step up as a team and we’ll be alright. (Tonight) it was the environment or the loud noise. I don’t know. It’s not an excuse. We still have to play our game. We were practicing with loud noise the whole week. We just have to make our communications and make our calls. If we communicate, we’ll be great. It’s something we have to work on as a team.”

From the press box…

High honor: At the end of the first quarter, the University of Texas recognized former Trojans great CR Roberts and his family for CR’s contribution in inspiring the first black students to enroll at UT in the fall of 1956. Roberts was the first black college athlete to play on the field against white players in the state of Texas.

Temperature: The Austin kickoff temperature was mostly cloudy with 80 degrees and 77 percent humidity.

Turnstiles: Official attendance was 103,507, the largest crowd to see the Longhorns play in Darrell K. Royal Stadium. Official capacity is listed as 100,119.

Texas hospitality: Darrell K. Royal Memorial Stadium is a huge stadium and do a great job of putting the students and the Longhorns’ band from one end of the 40 past the goal line, but in terms of the visitors, the USC band was placed at the highest level of the stadium behind the corner of the end zone.

FWIW: Prior to the game, ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit predicted a Trojans upset of Texas.

Scouting: NFL scouts in attendance included the Seahawks, Jets, Packers, Jaguars, Dolphins, Ravens, Buccaneers, and Redskins

Bowling: Bowl representatives in attendance included the Rose and the Sugar.

Food for thought: Concession prices inside Darrell K. Royal Stadium are somewhat reasonable. A hot dog, regular nachos, peanuts, and bottled soft drink are $4 each. A bottled water, regular fountain drink, candy, and popcorn are $3 each. And guess what? These concession prices have been reduced by at least a dollar from the 2017 season.

The post-game show numbers…

Going down: Against Texas, the Trojans scored 14 points. Prior to the Longhorns game, the Trojans were averaging 23.0 points per game.

Going up: Against Texas, the Trojans allowed 37 points. Prior to the Longhorns’ game, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 19.0 points per game.

Going down: Against Texas, the Trojans had 317 yards in total offense. Prior to the Longhorns game, the Trojans were averaging 416.5 yards in total offense per game.

Going up: Against Texas, the Trojans defense allowed 394 total yards in offense. Prior to the Longhorns’ game, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 373.5 total yards per game.

Going down, down, down: Against Texas, the Trojans had 37 net yards rushing. Prior to the Longhorns’ game, the Trojans were averaging 166.5 rushing yards per game.

Going down: Against Texas, the Trojans allowed 189 net rushing yards. Prior to the Longhorns’ game, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 233.5 net yards rushing per game.

Going up, up, up: Against Texas, the Trojans had 322 yards passing yards. Prior to the Longhorns’ game, the Trojans were averaging 250.0 passing yards per game.

Going up, up, up: Against Texas, the Trojans allowed 234 passing yards. Prior to the Longhorns’ game, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 140.0 passing yards per game.

Flag waving: Against Texas, the Trojans had 10 penalties for 99 yards while the Longhorns had 7 penalties for 86 yards. Prior to the Texas game, the Trojans were averaging 46.5 penalty yards per game.

The last word: With the Trojans 1-2 to start the season, how much will the combination of the early season record and an unwanted Friday night late kickoff time – albeit a Pac-12 game – have on the game’s attendance? Guess we’ll find out Friday at 7:30 p.m. Who knows?

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.

More Articles By Greg