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IMHO Sunday: Mayday, Mayday, Mayday

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

Evaluation: And so it has come to this. After Friday night’s gut-wrenching 31-27 loss at No. 24 Utah, the USC Trojans – despite the validation of a brilliant redshirt freshman quarterback named Sam Darnold who has given hope for the future of USC football – are now staggering with an overall 1-3 record, which also includes an ominous 0-2 Pac-12 Conference start. Make no mistake about, this is the worst case scenario to start the 2016 Trojans season, and the immediate and far ranging future is both murky, uncharted, and the distress call of Mayday is the appropriate sign of these Cardinal and Gold times.

The gauntlet: So now the Trojans enter what many refer to as the “soft part of the schedule,” which includes next Saturday’ Coliseum home game with ASU, which just hung 51 points on Cal on Saturday night in Tempe for 51-41 scoring marathon victory over the Bears; the following Saturday, Oct. 8, hosting Colorado, which yesterday lit up the Autzen Stadium scoreboard in Eugene by shocking Oregon 41-38; at Arizona, Oct. 15, which took No. 9 Washington into overtime this weekend before losing in Tucson 35-28; and finishing up the “soft part of the schedule” with a Coliseum Thursday night game (Oct. 27) against a Cal team that although losing on Saturday night at ASU still hung 41 points on the victorious Sun Devils defense. In ASU and Colorado, any hopes the Trojans have of staying in the Pac-12 South Division race will be on the line the next two weeks in competing with these two divisional rivals. Obviously, the Trojans defense will have to make a remarkable turnaround, and the offense will have little choice but to become mistake free if it wants to score enough points to compete with these four “softies.”

Hope for the future: Yet, for all the foreboding issues surrounding Clay Helton’s (photo above) program, the huge light at the end of the tunnel is quarterback Sam Darnold. While it takes a team to reverse the current misfortunes of the 2016 Trojans, in Darnold they have somebody who will not only play at the next level, but competes like he is already there. Talk about a warrior! It’s entirely possible that Darnold, who will get better and better each game, will provide the competitive spirit that has been questioned about this team since Alabama. On Friday night, Sam’s performance was recognized by all his teammates, especially on offense, as having raised their spirits and their game. Darnold, however, can’t play defense, and that subject is disturbing unto itself.

The drive killers: The truth is that on a cold and rainy Friday night in Salt Lake City, these Trojans still should have put Utah away in the first half in Rice-Eccles Stadium, but the Cardinal and Gold repeatedly shot themselves in the foot over and over again with drive-killing fumbles (three in three consecutive possessions to open the game) and penalties, not to mention poor execution of game management like the use of timeouts during the contest.  From our vantage point in the solitude of the press box, Clay Helton’s Trojans should have been up at halftime by at least three touchdowns.

The echo: In his postgame press conference, Clay Helton echoed our sentiments and yours in blowing first half scoring opportunities. Helton said, “We made some mistakes early that cost us to have a bigger lead early and it slipped away with three turnovers in the first half, but I was extremely proud of the job we did offensively with balance.”

Offensively speaking: We won’t bore you with all his stats and numbers that you’ve already read about, but we will say is the Sam Darnold that everybody saw in Salt Lake City is exactly the same quarterback we all saw back in spring ball and during summer training camp. Eventually, he will bring back the Trojans into championship contention. He is that good. After the game, Trojans offensive coordinator Tee Martin said, “He (Darnold) made some ‘next level’ throws tonight.”

Reflections: In discussing Darnold’s performance in a tiny, cramped media room afterward, Helton said, “I had the opportunity to recruit him out of San Clemente and watch him compete and saw the reign was never too big for him whether he was playing in high school or whether he was playing against Alabama or Stanford. You walk into a hostile environment like this on a rainy night and go out there and do what he did, throw for 253 yards and adds 41 yards worth of rushing. I thought for a guy making his first start, this is as good as you can hope for.”

Defensively speaking: Ironically, while the Trojans offensive was being given resuscitation paddles by Dr. Darnold, defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s defense went from giving up previous game explosion plays to almost falling apart completely. Utah’s winning drive to basically end the game was the nightmare defense that many Trojan observers had feared from the end of spring ball.  It was a helpless and hopeless feeling watching the Trojans defense try to repel Utah’s physical offensive line and late game precision passing. To be honest, the Utah offense wasn’t exactly at the same level as Alabama or even a Stanford team, which has shown signs that it is not quite what past Cardinal offensive teams have been. Clay Helton better hope there’s a defensive version of Sam Darnold somewhere in his program if the Trojans are going to make a serious drive of remaining in Pac-12 South contention or as many of you are thinking “a winning record.”

Gone with the Wind: Understandably, one of the fastest Trojans to dress and get out of Rice-Eccles Stadium was Trojans defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. It was obvious that Clancy was in no mood to answer questions about the Trojans defensive performance or lack thereof. Do you blame Pendergast for his quick getaway? Already discussion has come up asking whether the hiring of Pendergast has brought an upgrade to that of former Trojans DC Justin Wilcox, whose career seems to have been revived at Wisconsin? Giving up 52 points to Alabama is one thing, but allowing 31 points to Utah is another.

Gone with the Wind – Part 2: Don’t expect Clancy Pendergast to be fired anytime soon. Clay Helton has both a professional and personal relationship with him, and the questions about this defense span two different defensive coordinators. With a 1-3 start, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly didn’t waste time in dealing with their defensive lapses as head coach Brian Kelly fired his DC Brian VanGorder on Sunday and replaced him with the Irish secondary coach Greg Hudson. Still, the fact the rival Irish addressed its issues with a personnel change does put scrutiny on the Trojans situation.

The confidence vote: On Saturday, Clay Helton assured the media that he had spoken with USC Athletic Director Lynn Swann after the Utah loss and said Swann was “extremely supportive.” Of course, that’s for now and certainly doesn’t apply to the future. Remember, we saw a vote of confidence by Pat Haden in supporting Lane Kiffin and we all know how that ended. And remember, this “extremely supportive” comment is coming from Helton, but there’s been no official word to the media coming from Swann. Already those in and out of the media are speculating how many more losses by the Trojans would it take to put Helton job security into jeopardy although the likeable coach is in just his first full season as the head coach.

Telling it as it is: Despite his professional level of play on defense throughout most of the game and on special teams, Trojans All-Pac-12 corner and return specialist Adoree’ Jackson took full responsibility for giving up the winning touchdown pass. From our vantage point down on the field near the Trojans end zone, we were in perfect position to witness the 18-yard scoring dagger toss from Utah quarterback Troy Williams to wide receiver teammate Tim Patrick. It appeared that Adoree’ had slipped on the play and couldn’t recover. Later Jackson revealed, “I had lost my shoe and slipped (covering Patrick) and slipped again when I tried to recover without my shoe.”

Telling it as it is – Part 2: Utah quarterback Troy Williams was euphoric about defeating the Trojans. Williams, who attended local Harbor City (Calif.) Narbonne, said, “It means a lot (beating the Trojans). I got a call from everyone in my hometown and it means a lot. It was my dream to go to USC, and it’s a dream to compete against and beat them.”

From Troy with love – Part 3: On his game-winning touchdown pass that beat Adoree’ Jackson, Williams said, “It was a great call by (Utah offensive coordinator) Aaron Roderick. I knew it was touchdown when the safety came down and Tim Patrick got away from Adoree’ Jackson.”

Special teams speaking: If there was another silver lining besides Sam Darnold in Friday’s loss, it had to be coach John Baxter’s special teams on all sides of the ball. There was Adoree’ Jackson’s 100-yard kickoff return, kicker Matt Boermeester’s two field goals and four touchbacks, and punt coverage that downed the ball on Utes 7-yard line before the fateful 97-yard final scoring drive. And don’t dismiss the accurate punting of Chris Tilbey, who couldn’t have placed a more perfect punt to pin Utah on the Utes 7-yard line before the home team’s fateful drive.

The bottom line: Turnovers, Turnovers, and questionable coaching decisions were lethal. There was the Trojans late offensive drive I the final quarter that could have salted the game away had offensive guard Damien Mama not been called for being an ineligible receiver down field. Then there were the Trojans three turnovers that accounted directly for 10 Utah points. The Trojans came away from the game with no points off Utah turnovers. Then there was the questionable decision by Clay Helton to punt the ball to Utah with the Trojans on the Utes 37-yard line during the waning moments of the fourth quarter. A Trojans first down would probably have sealed the game for the Men of Troy. Did anybody really think Utah couldn’t or wouldn’t drive the length of the field and win the game or at least send the game into overtime? Any or all of these issues could have changed a close loss into a close win. And about the time management of timeouts again became an issue.

From the press box…

IMHO: For the record, we would have never punted the ball back to Utah because of the way the Trojans defense was playing. Afterward, Helton was unconvincing in supporting his decision to punt the ball back to Utah late in the game that set up the Utes victorious ending. Helton said, “I was waiting to see the spot and it looked like it was fourth-and-three. That was the information I got. We were at about the 40-yard line. We were down three and if you don’t make it, they are basically 30 yards away from a field goal range.” Would you rather have gone into overtime and take your chances or lose by a late touchdown. No show of hands is necessary.

IMHO: Why didn’t rugged running Trojans tailback Justin Davis get more carries, especially in the fourth quarter? I understand that the Trojans like to rotate tailbacks and keep them fresh, but like Sam Darnold, Davis brings such a competitive spirit and ability that if he was in John McKay’s I-formation, he could have carried the ball 30 times and grown even stronger in the final stanza.

Fumbleitis: Asked about why all the USC fumbles against Utah, Trojans tailback Justin Davis said, “It’s about us and our fundamentals and not how hard Utah hit. Honestly, I felt like we lost the game; Utah didn’t win it.”

More Davis: Being philosophical about the loss, Davis said, “We just lost in the end. It will show what kind of team we have when we bounce back. It was a good feeling to see our offense doing better. This game reminded me of the last time we were here two years ago and we let that one slip away.”

Last add Davis: Asked about the ineligible lineman (Damien Mama) down field that changed the whole complexion of the game before Utah had an opportunity to have its game-winning scoring drive, Davis said, “That one (penalty) hurt us. We have to stay away from that.”

JuJu says: On the loss and the overall State of Troy, Trojans All-Pac-12 junior wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster said, “You have to limit the fumbles. I wanted us to go for it and not punt (in the end). At this point, we now just have to just play ball. Last Sunday, we had a players’ meeting to lift our spirits and bring us back together. Tonight, we played like a family.”

Tee Martin says: In retrospect, the Trojans offensive coordinator said, “If we don’t hurt ourselves, we can go up and down the field. You can’t fumble, you have to put two hands on the ball.” Apparently, that’s easier said than done.

Cameron comments: Out in the rain after the game, Trojans standout sophomore linebacker Cameron Smith talked about the game-winning Utah drive. Smith said, “They made plays against us. They ran five plays with slants and curls. We fought hard, but they made the plays. Give them credit. It’s a bummer, but we’ll get back next week. That (winning)drive is something I’ll be thinking about all night. We just have to get better every day.”

The post-game report…

Top tackler: Inside linebacker Cameron Smith led the Trojans defense with 15 tackles, seven of which were of the solo variety.

The thermometer: Temperature at kickoff at Rice-Eccles Stadium was 45 degrees and raining.

The infirmary: None were reported.

Counting the house: Although not all the seats inside Rice-Eccles Stadium were filled, it was announced that the game was a sellout (46,123). It was Utah’s 41st consecutive home sellout.

Scouting the talent: NFL representatives in attendance on Friday night included the 49’ers, Vikings, Seahawks, Jets, Chiefs, Eagles, Ravens, Steelers, Dolphins, and Lions.

Scouting the talent – Part 2: You think that NFL scouts liked what they saw in the performances of the Trojans Adoree’ Jackson and the future of quarterback Sam Darnold? Hey, even NFL corners slip and get beat on a slippery field.

Bowling is closed: There were no bowl representatives attending Friday night’s game.

The Call-In Show numbers…

Exceeding the average: The Trojans scored 27 points against Utah on Friday. Prior to Friday’s game with the Utes, the Trojans were averaging 20.3 points per game.

Defensive meltdown: The Trojans defense allowed 31 points to Utah on Friday. Prior to the Utes game, the Trojans were allowing 28.7 points per game.

Getting down: The Trojans had 22 first downs compared to Utah’s 30.

Offensive production: The Trojans had 466 yards in total offense against Utah on Friday. Prior to the Utes game, the Trojans were averaging 323.0 yards in total offense per game.

Defensive reduction: Against Utah on Friday, the Trojans defense allowed a total of 456 yards. Prior to the Utes, the Trojans were allowing 374.0 yards per game.

Rush hour: Against Utah, the Trojans rushed for 213 yards. Prior to the Utes, the Trojans were averaging 119.7 rushing yards per game.

Rush hour – Part 2: Against Utah on Friday, the Trojans defense allowed 186 net yards rushing. Prior to the Utes, the Trojans were allowing 197.7 net rushing yards per game.

Passing the test:  On Friday against Utah, the Trojans passed for 253 yards per game. Prior to the Utes, the Trojans were averaging 203.3 passing yards per game.

Air defense holes: On Friday against Utah, the Trojans defense allowed 270 passing yards. Prior to the Utes, the Trojans were allowing 176.3 passing yards per game.

The red zone: The Trojans were 3 of 3 in the red zone while Utah was 5 of 5.

Sacking out: Trojan quarterback Sam Darnold was not sacked once while the Trojans sacked Utes QB Troy Williams one time (2 yds.).

The flag is up: The Trojans were penalized seven times for 49 yards on Friday. Prior to Utah, the Trojans were averaging 58.0 yards per game in penalties per game.

The last word: On the bright side, if you get a chance, take a look at the high school highlights of Laguna Hills (Calif.) HS senior quarterback Kyle Paskwietz. Yep, he looked impressive to me and not just because he is the nephew of WeAreSC publisher Garry Paskwietz. Oh, and BTW, he wears No. 3, the number worn by his idol, former Trojans Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Carson Palmer.

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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