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IMHO Sunday: Improving with desert domination

Greg Katz – WeAreSC.com

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

Evaluation: Well, it took a while, but with the USC Trojans (4-3, 3-2 Pac-12) “heated” 48-14 victory over the spiraling downward Arizona Wildcats (2-5, 0-4 Pac-12 South), the Men of Troy finally have a winning record in 2016, which now includes a current three-game winning streak. Surviving on-field temperatures as high as 137 degrees, the Trojans offense and defense was hot as well, playing efficiently and error free, thanks to the overall play of dual-threat quarterback Sam Darnold (5 touchdown passes) and a defense led by All-Pac-12 corner Adoree’ Jackson and safety Chris Hawkins. It was indeed a satisfying victory on both sides of the ball, which should lift team spirit heading into this bye week.

Evaluation – Part 2: And despite Arizona obviously being an inferior opponent, the Trojans snapped a six-game road losing streak, which is an important confidence builder, considering that Clay Helton’s men still have 2016 visitations to No. 5 Washington and crosstown rival UCLA.

Evaluation – Part 3: Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Saturday’s game was that even with a comfortable 34-7 halftime lead, the Trojans didn’t let up in the second half, which should bring smiles to Trojans fans everywhere. This team finally showed a killer instinct, and how many of you have been frustrated with that aspect of the program in recent times?

Offensively speaking: Continuing to play beyond his years, Trojans redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold (20-32-0/235 yds./5 TDs) proved even more dangerous for opposing defenses by increasing his running the ball (6 carries for 54 yards.9.0 avg.), which drove the Arizona defense nuts. Not that Sudden Sam was perfect, but he was perfect enough to help in the continued reemergence of All-Pac-12 receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (3 TDs of 3, 39, 46 yds.), who started the season as basically the invisible man.

Offensively speaking – Part 2: Although Trojans tailback Justin Davis is out for an undisclosed amount of time due to a high ankle spring, his replacements Aca’Cedric Ware (103 yds./1 TD) and Ronald Jones ll (77 yds./1 TD) were highly effective. Ware was intriguingly good, rushing for 103 yards, including a 21-yard TD run, and sporting Anthony Davis’s hold No. 28, Ware brought back some wonderful memories of “AD” transporting the pigskin. And even jet-fast sophomore Dominic Davis got a chance to showcase his speed with an 85-yard dash that was a sight to behold, although his teammates, no doubt, will stick it to him in the film room on how he was caught from behind.

Offensively speaking – Part 3: The Trojans offensive line blocked fairly consistently against a lightweight Arizona line and didn’t allow a sack, a major accomplishment for an O-line. Of course, it doesn’t hurt when you have Daredevil Darnold scrambling all over the place turning potential disaster into resounding success. And let’s not forget, the Trojans even used their tight ends again, as Daniel Imatorbhebhe was the recipient of an 8-yard scoring strike from Darnold. How many of you stood up and cheered that positive event?

Defensively speaking: Honestly, the Trojans defense had the luxury of playing against an inexperienced 17-year-old freshman quarterback in former Gardena (Calif.) Serra High star Khalil Tate. Tate showed flashes of ability but didn’t have enough to make a difference. The Trojans now continuing to get a big lift with the emergence of junior college transfer Josh Fatu, who is rotating nicely at nose tackle with Stevie Tu’ikolovatu. Tu’ikolovatu clogs the “A” gap while Fatu has the speed to get up field and attack the quarterback. The Trojans also secondary seems to be in better sync than the beginning of the season, although Arizona’s passing attack won’t be confused with Washington State or upcoming Cal. The Golden Bears figure to heavily test the Trojans air defenses on Oct. 27.

Defensively speaking – Part 2: The Trojans tandem of inside linebackers Cameron Smith and Michael Hutchings were excellent against Arizona, and outside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu (photo above) continued his stellar play on the outside. While offenses continue to attack Trojans sophomore corner Iman Marshall so as not to have to deal with his counterpart Adoree’ Jackson, it’s also no longer a secret that teams think they can have success on the ground against the Trojans by focusing in on sophomore outside linebacker Porter Gustin and avoiding his counterpart, Uchenna Nwosu. However, Gustin did adjust technically to the option of Arizona as the game wore on and was less vulnerable in the second half.

Special team speaking: With the exception of a botched extra point that almost led to a 2-point conversion return by Arizona (nullified by an unsportsmanlike penalty against the Wildcats), special teams coach John Baxter had to be pleased, as kicker Matt Boermeester continued his torrid pace of touchbacks on kickoffs, nailing all eight kickoffs into the end zone without a return. The junior left-footed kicker barely missed a 55-yard field goal attempt in the third quarter when the football hit the right upright. It serves future notice that Matt is a definite threat from long distance.

The bottom line: While Arizona certainly is a club that is on the decline due to injuries, youth, and a talent gap, the Trojans showed they can put somebody away, especially if they’re not self-destructing with fumbles and interceptions. On Saturday, the great news was there were no USC turnovers while the team benefited from four Wildcats turnovers, which will win most games. Yes, the team is getting better offensively and defensively, although the caliber of team does have something to do with it.

Looking to November: And now for those Trojans fans perhaps looking forward to Nov. 12 when their heroes visit No. 5 Washington, remember the Huskies had to survive a September overtime nighttime victory, 35-28, in Tucson to stay undefeated. However, before Trojans fans get too giddy, the Cardinal and Gold still have to play Cal and Oregon, both home games, before they can turn their attention to the Great Northwest.

The infirmary: Wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster (back) and Steven Mitchell Jr. (right knee) and linebacker Olajuwon Tucker (right knee).

The quote book…

Trojans head coach Clay Helton comments: “What a huge difference (4 turnovers) it makes, credit for our defense for really establishing great field position for us all day. You know when you’re playing good on offense it means you’re getting good field position on offense, that’s when you separate yourself in a game. We asked our team to play a full 60 minutes on the road and they did and I am very proud of them.”

More Helton: On redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold, “You love guys that love to be coached and there was a huge emphasis this week on ball security, and it all started with the quarterback. He (Darnold) said at our press conference where he said he worried every play on protecting the football and protecting ‘my team.’ That’s what you want for a leader. He didn’t force any balls today and he’s progressing as a quarterback. What I love about him is that when he came off to the sidelines today and after I told him ‘great job, five touchdown passes today,’ he said, ‘I left so much out there, coach, I have to get better.’ He’s almost too good to be true.”

Last add Helton Commenting further on Darnold, “Not to blow his head up too much, but he’s playing really good football right now, way beyond his years, his maturity level.”

Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez comments: Regarding starting a freshman quarterback against the Trojans, Rodriguez said, “He’s (Khalil Tate) not the nervous type. He seemed okay during the week and at the beginning of the game, but there are times when a 17-year-old freshman looks like a 17-year-old freshman. He’s a competitive guy, but it was a challenge. They have some pretty good dudes over there.”

Defensively speaking: Arizona junior running back Zach Green was complimentary of the Trojans defense. Green said, “They were solid up front and sometimes they brought six to the line. I felt we could have executed better. When I was in, it was difficult because they brought six to the line. They were trying to stop the run and force the pass, but that’s just what I saw.”

Sam says: Regarding his progress as a freshman quarterback, Trojans quarterback Sam Darnold said, “I am taking it week by week. If I progress, I progress. That’s part of growing, mentally and physically. I think we can look at this as a turning point, we looked at last week as a turning point, as well. We just want to keep getting wins because they’re always important in Pac-12 play. You can never underestimate what a Pac-12 win does for a team.”

More Sam: On reminding himself to hold onto the ball when running, Darnold said, “It was a huge emphasis this week in practice, so it was on my mind the whole game. I just didn’t want to turn the ball over.”

Freshman hazing: In trying to distract Arizona true freshman quarterback Khalil Tate, Trojans safety Chris Hawkins said, “He’s a true freshman so we wanted to rattle him a little bit and get some hits on him.”

Banner day: Evaluating the play of the Trojans offensive line against Arizona, senior All-Pac-12 right tackle Zack Banner said, “Myself and the offensive line, we just dominated. We felt if we were going to win this game, you had to do it upfront and pound the ball. It feels to go into the bye week with a win and have a great off week. We’re going to work, hit each other for a couple of days, and get ready for Cal (Oct. 27).”

Biggie evaluation: Trojans sophomore corner Iman “Biggie” Marshall talked about how important it was to get make Arizona turn the ball over, which the Wildcats did four times. Marshall said, “We came out strong defensively. We came out to attack the young quarterback that they had. Our whole mentality was to get the ball out and get as many turnovers as possible and for us to get four turnovers is a big day for our defense.”

Rush to judgement: Trojans sophomore tailback Aca’Cedric Ware had a big day rushing on Saturday and was asked about his play, maturing, and having to wait his turn to get extended game time, Ware said, “It feels good to get my first college 100-yard game. I knew that me and Ronald (Jones ll) had to carry the load today. I have more confidence in myself. In my first year, I was trying to figure some things out. I see things better and I know what I am doing. My dad tells me all the time that God has a plan. My junior year (at Cedar High), I had two guys ahead of me. When I got in, I just did what I got to do.”

Rush to judgement – Part 2: Asked about his offensive line’s performance against Arizona, Aca’Cedric Ware said, “Those guys are doing great. They’ve been improving every week. The holes are getting bigger and bigger. Those guys are my protection.”

From the press box…

Welcome home: Trojans true freshman defensive end Connor Murphy returned to his home state and had a fumble recovery in the fourth quarter. Murphy attended Phoenix Brophy Prep.

The reunion: After the game, former players from Gardena (Calif.) Serra High from both teams gathered on the field to take a group picture.

Comparison shopping: If you’re looking to compare past and future Trojans opponents, Stanford, who beat the Trojans 27-10 in Palo Alto in September with All-America running back Christian McCaffrey, beat Notre Dame in South Bend, 17-10, on Saturday night without McCaffrey. The Trojans end the 2016 regular season against the Irish on Nov. 26 in the Coliseum.

Crying Irish eyes: With the Trojans now on a three-game winning streak, you might be interested to know that Notre Dame’s record as of today is a disappointing 2-5. The Irish, by losing Saturday night to Stanford, have now lost four of their past five games, losing the past two in a row. Notre Dame hosts the Miami Hurricanes next Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium.

The Big Unit: In attendance at Saturday’s game in Tucson was former Trojans All-America and MLB Hall of Fame pitcher Randy Johnson. And no, he wasn’t sitting in the air conditioned press box but out in the oven-like stands with the people.

Counting the house: The announced attendance for Saturday’s game at Arizona Stadium was 55,463. Stadium capacity is listed as 57,400.

Getting high: Kudos to the Trojans Marching Band, which was placed high in the upper far corner of Arizona Stadium, and how they survived the extreme heat in full uniform is anybody’s guess. Even legendary band director Dr. Arthur C. Bartner was dressed to the nines and survived a sun that was looking straight into the band.

Hey Joe: Calling the USC/UA play-by-play for FOX television was Joe Davis, who will take over fulltime next season on Dodgers cable television voice replacing the legendary Vin Scully.

The post-game show…

Happy days: Prior to USC’s victory over Arizona, Trojans sophomore inside linebacker Cameron Smith commented that this is the happiest this Trojans team has been all season. Smith said, “Yeah, everyone is feeling confident and we’re working together and I would say it’s a more positive atmosphere right now.”

Fuel for thought: The Pac-12 announced this week a multi-year agreement with 76, the retail gas brand, as the new presenting sponsor of the Pac-12 Football Championship Game. The agreement with 76 marks the first time a presenting sponsor has been attached to the game in its six-year history.

FYI: As a public service reminder, the 2016 Pac-12 Football Championship Game will be played Friday night, Dec. 2, at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., and will feature the Pac-12 North champion versus the Pac-12 South champion. The game will kick off at 6 p.m. PST and be broadcast on FOX and FOX Deportes.

Hall of Fame: Congrats to former Trojans standout linebacker Rikki Grey Ellison (1978-82) for being named to the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame Class of 2017.

Over the top: Did you hear that Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh was at Antioch (Calif.) High on Thursday to recruit the nation’s top running back Najee Harris, already an Alabama commit, who, by the way, is also being recruited by the Trojans? It seems that it was Antioch’s homecoming game and they asked the Michigan head coach to announce the homecoming queen since he was at the game. Naturally, Harbaugh agreed to do it. So what’s next in recruiting, Harbaugh announcing names at a high school graduation? Okay, NCAA, it’s your serve.

The Call-In Show numbers…

Above average: The Trojans scored 48 points against Arizona on Saturday. Prior to Saturday’s game with Wildcats, the Trojans were averaging 25.0 points per game.

Defensive reduction: The Trojans defense allowed 14 points to Arizona on Saturday. Prior to the Wildcats game, the Trojans were allowing 25.7 points per game.

Getting down: The Trojans had 25 first downs compared to the Wildcats 20.

Offensive production: The Trojans had 574 yards in total offense against Arizona on Saturday. Prior to the Wildcats game, the Trojans were averaging 417.7 yards in total offense per game.

Below average: Against Arizona on Saturday, the Trojans defense allowed a total of 343 total offensive yards. Prior to the Wildcats, the Trojans were allowing 375.3 yards per game.

In a rush: Against Arizona, the Trojans rushed for 320 yards. Prior to the Wildcats, the Trojans were averaging 153.2 rushing yards per game.

In a rush – Part 2: Against Arizona on Saturday, the Trojans defense allowed 201 net yards rushing. Prior to the Wildcats, the Trojans were allowing 158.3 net rushing yards per game.

Passing decrease:  On Saturday against Arizona, the Trojans passed for 254 yards per game. Prior to the Wildcats, the Trojans were averaging 264.5 passing yards per game.

Below the norm: On Saturday against Arizona, the Trojans defense allowed 142 passing yards. Prior to the Wildcats, the Trojans were allowing 217.0 passing yards per game.

The red zone: The Trojans were 4 of 5 in the red zone while Arizona was 2 of 4.

Sacking out: Trojan quarterback Sam Darnold was not sacked once on Saturday while the Trojans sacked Arizona QBs twice.

The flag is up: Unfortunately, the Trojans were penalized eight times for 98 yards on Saturday. Prior to Arizona, the Trojans were averaging 46.7yards per game in penalties per game compared to its opponents 41.0 yards per game.

The last word: After the upcoming bye week, the Trojans return to the Coliseum for the dreaded Thursday night game (ESPN) against Cal on Oct. 27 at 7:30 p.m. Leaving aside the evening Los Angeles rush hour traffic, Cardinal and Gold fans know the late kickoff means getting home near or past midnight. If it makes you feel any better, UCLA played its third 7:30 p.m. game in a row, losing 27-21last night at cold and rainy Washington State. The again, that probably brings a smile to your face.

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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