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IMHO Sunday: Next stop – Salt Lake City

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

IMHO: Well, folks, the 2018 USC Trojans football season just took an enthusiastic turn onto “Hope Is Alive Boulevard,” picking up their 19th straight Coliseum victory by defeating the previously undefeated No. 19 Colorado Buffaloes (5-1 overall, 2-1 Pac-12 South), 31-20, in front 57,615 mostly enthusiastic cardinal and gold fans, who knew what was at stake on Saturday night – first place in the South Division. The workmanlike win over Colorado puts the Men of Troy at the top of their division – yes, that’s correct – ahead of Colorado and Utah by a half and full game, respectively. Clay Helton’s men now control their own destiny. And you know who the Trojans play next week, right? Duh.

IMHO – Part 2: It’s October, not November, and the Trojans (4-2 overall, 3-1 Pac-12 South) are one Pac-12 South victory at surging Utah (4-2 overall, 2-2 Pac-12 South) next Saturday night from playing the “magic number” game. Yep, the Trojans are one big and tough victory away against the Utes in Salt Lake City from getting a stranglehold on the Pac-12 South Division race. That being said, it should be hell’s bells at Rice-Eccles Stadium, and did you know that the Utes scheduled the Trojans long ago as their designated homecoming game? And you know why a team would schedule another team for its homecoming game? That’s right, a guaranteed victory to make the donation-giving alumni, faculty, students, and fans happy campers.

IMHO -Part 3: No doubt these Trojans know what they have to do in Salt Lake City – Win – and it won’t be easy, as Utah destroyed Arizona, 42-10, on Friday night in the winner’s home stadium. At this point in time and even with two conference losses already in the book, Utah is so hot it could melt the Park City snow and force the skiers to run for cover. If you watched the Utes play Arizona on Friday night television, this could be the best Utah offense – exceedingly physical in the running game – the Trojans have seen in quite some time, and the Utes can pass too. And remember, the last time the Trojans played at Utah – with Sam Darnold – they came away with a last minute 31-27 loss.

IMHO – Part 4: So, the Trojans have now positioned themselves to be in the Pac-12 driver’s seat with Saturday evening’s triumph over the Buffaloes, coming none too soon. Let’s face it, not being nationally ranked and bordering on the brink of being irrelevant on a regional map is not in the USC DNA – not by a long shot. While the victory over a previously unbeaten and probably overrated Colorado club is satisfying and invigorating, right now it feels more like an exhale than a major triumph. However, that will change if the Men of Troy travel to Utah and beat a Utes team, which two weeks ago smashed a Bryce Love-less Stanford team 40-21. Yeah, a Cardinal team that reduced the Trojans 17-to gridiron impotency (17-3) on both sides of the ball in early September. You can make a strong argument that next Saturday in Salt Lake City is the Pac-12 South Game of the Year.

Bottom line: Okay, we can all agree that Saturday night’s win keeps hope alive for a Pac-12 South title, a place in the Pac-12 championship game, and a Rose Bowl opportunity on January 1. It’s still all out there for your beloved Cardinal and Gold. However, it’s also really the moment of truth next Saturday in Utah. The question: Are these Trojans under Clay Helton up to the task? The immediate answer is “they’d better be.” The stakes will be Wasatch Mountains high in the Great Salt Lake area, but are these Trojans capable of making the victory climb? There’s not a hotter team in the conference than Utah.

IMHO – The offense: First, the Saturday night’s good news against Colorado: The passing game came alive in the first half (255 yds.), contributing to a 21-7 half time lead. The Trojans started off the first quarter with two JT Daniels’ interceptions, but the freshman prodigy also redeemed himself with three first half TD tosses.  The first TD a pretty 27-yard second quarter pass to sophomore receiver Tyler Vaughns, who executed a well-conceived stop-and-go pattern to tie up the score at 7-7 early in the second quarter. Late in the first half (3:33), JT heaved a towering deep throw to Michael Pittman who eluded the defender for a 65-yard TD catch and run, and moments later Pittman (144 receiving yds.) made a brilliant 39-yard reception, capped by a 9-yard scoring catch from Daniels. In the first half, Daniels and Pittman turned into a two-man wrecking crew. For the game, the Trojans passed for 272 yards and three touchdowns.

Now, the bad news: First, the Trojans didn’t score an offensive touchdown in the second half. Secondly, the Trojans didn’t have much of a running game. Okay, we lied, the Trojans had virtually no running game (62 net yards rushing for the game, 0 in the first half). Whatever happened to the legendary physical USC running attack? Balanced offense (34 pass attempts to 27 rushing attempts)? Try 272 yards passing and 62 yards running. Maybe a balanced offense in terms of numbers is just a myth at this point. Anyway, it may sound like a broken record, but if the Men of Troy continue to have a limited running game – can they still win the Pac-12 South Division? We’ll find out against a very physical Utah defensive front. The offensive line good news is that the unit allowed only one recorded sack of JT Daniels (272 yards passing, 17-for-34, three touchdowns, two interceptions. However, they also committed holding penalties, two by OT Chuma Edoga, which were rather obvious, and the center snaps were not consistently on target and that’s being nice.

IMHO – The defense: Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast deserves credit for a creative game plan that basically shut down the Colorado offense (265 yds.). With the exception of the defense being gashed in the second quarter when Colorado’s exciting receiver Laviska Shenault took a Wildcat Formation and ramble 49 yards, aided by a key downfield block on Trojans standout safety Marvell Tell lll, the defense basically played lights out. Impressive considering star inside linebacker Cameron Smith was unable to play due to a hamstring issue and came out for warmups wearing street clothes with his familiar No. 35 jersey being worn over his grey hoodie. Smith was replaced by heralded true freshman Palaie Gaoteote, who performed well in his first start and delivered some radical hits, one leading to having leave the game in the third quarter with a possible concussion. Gaoteote was replaced by senior Rueben Peters, who was excellent in his second half duty. The Trojans’ defense in the first series of the game set the tone with a Porter Gustin sack of CU QB Steven Mendez. A huge play occurred with 5:16 left in the third quarter when Trojans’ senior NB Ajene Harris (photo above) intercepted a Mendez pass and returned it six yards for the Trojans fourth TD.

It should be noted that reserve DL Liam Jimmons made a second quarter sack and redshirt freshman D-liner Jacob Lichtenstein was seen at nose tackle on third down passing situations. The Trojans played Pac-12 South Division championship defense throughout most of the game and they’ll need that effort taken to another level against a powerful, physical Utah offense. On a rather ominous note, stellar outside linebacker Porter Gustin reinjured his right ankle and appeared very questionable for the Utah game. He couldn’t put pressure on his right ankle and needed to be carted to the locker room.

IMHO – The special teams: Special teams on Saturday night were efficient. Placekicker Michael Brown converted all his three PAT attempts and added a late fourth quarter 38-yard field goal. Punter Reid Budrovich was solid in the punting game, averaging 42.4 per boot with a long of 54 yards. Kickoff performer Alex Stadthaus had six kickoffs, four good for touchbacks. The coverages were mostly commendable. One big special teams play late in the game was a recovered onside kick by Trojans linebacker Levi Jones, which helped preserve the victory. However, even later in the game, the special teams gave up an onside kick recovered by Colorado.

The bottom line: So, the Trojans now have a 13-0 record against Colorado and have scored 30 or more points in eight of those games. Their Coliseum winning streak is now the second longest home winning streak in the nation. However, despite all the impressive statistics of the moment, the one that will be most relevant is what they do at Utah. We’re at the point in the season that the road to the Pac-12 South Division title is right in from your cardinal and gold eyes, and the sign reads “Salt Lake City.” A week from tonight, we’ll know which direction Clay Helton’s team is turning.       

Tackling the issues: True freshman inside linebacker Palaie Gaoteote led the Trojans with 9 tackles.

Sack exchange: Porter Gustin, Jordan Iosefa, Liam Jimmons. Malik Dorton all were given credit for sacks.

The infirmary: Palaie Gaoteote (concussion), Brandon Pili (shoulder), Jonathan Lockett (hip), Olaijah Griffin (shoulder), Porter Gustin (ankle)

Next Saturday Night: The Trojans continue Pac-12 South Division play next Saturday night (6 p.m. MT/5 p.m. PDT/Pac-12 Network) at Utah.

The Trojans/Colorado quote book…

Trojans head coach Clay Helton comments: “Glory to God and a bunch of great kids for getting a great victory at the Coliseum. Appreciate the fans for coming out and the support. It was a really good win for our team. It’s a win that allows us to control our destiny the rest of the way, it gives us first place and we have the opportunity now to move on to Utah and prepare for that game. I thought defensively it was a tremendous effort, I think any time you have 16 tackles for a loss in a game, it just felt like the defense was playing in that Colorado backfield all night. From a rush standpoint, we put a huge point of emphasis on putting pressure on the quarterback. Offensively we saw a lot of pressure tonight. I thought Mike Pittman had and unbelievable night as well as the rest of our receivers. They big play after big play and really got us some separation going in ant halftime.”

Clay Helton comments – Part 2: On linebackers Palaie Gaoteote IV and Reuben Peters’ performances: “I think the bye week helped develop some young kids who we knew they were going to have to help us. EA (Palaie Gaoteote) got his opportunity and was the leading tackler today. He came in and really got to the ball and played very instinctively. And the rest of our defense played that way as well. It was Reuben’s turn as well and he’s trained for this moment for a long time. He’s a kid who walked on here, earned a scholarship, and played really well for us on special teams. He came in to finish the game off and did a really great job getting us in the right calls.”

Clay Helton comments – Part 3: On the defense without Cameron Smith: “I was very proud of them. I thought we were playing in their backfield the entire night. Whether it was run game, pass game. Their quarterback had a night where he was having to get off his spot consistently and just interrupt his timing. Tremendous plan by Clancy (Pendergast) and the defensive staff. I credit Johnny Nansen and Kenechi Udeze for a great job with what they’re doing with that D-line.”

Clay Helton comments – Part 4: On JT Daniels’ development through the game: “JT settled in nicely. He got fooled on the first pass. We knew we wanted to be aggressive in the ball game. We knew we were going to have to take shots. We kind of had a feeling they were going to try and pressure us, plus they played so much man coverage and adding safeties to the box, that we thought we were going to have to go up top. So it was a heavy shot game. We didn’t hit all of them, we missed a few in the second half, but when we were able to get them, our defense took over and did the job.”

Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre comments: “First of all, USC is a very good team, very experienced, very athletic. We did a good job against the run. We gave up too many big plays against the pass. We made some fundamental errors. Our offense kept battling. Any time we got momentum, we got a holding penalty. We couldn’t establish the run very well early. But a couple of those penalties hurt us. I thought the kids kept battling and fighting. I thought it was a physical game. I was pleased the way our front 7 played. We won the turnover battle and the penalty battle, and you should have a chance to win the game. We kind of had a chance but just shot ourselves in the foot.”

MacIntyre comments – Part 2: On USC’s defense against CU’s short passing game, MacIntyre said, “They did a great job. They were breaking down hill and dropped eight a lot. They were doing some things they hadn’t done. They had a week off and were interchanging out of the same personnel group. We started finding some stuff that would work, but it was too late.”

MacIntyre comments – Part 3: On JT Daniels, “He put the ball on the money and was able to hold it a few times. We were right there a few times but couldn’t make the play. (We) had (some) interference calls. They challenged us and had a good scheme. They had good rout runners and a kid who could make all the throws.”

Agene speaks: Regarding his six-yard touchdown interception return, senior NB Ajene Harris said, “I got the pick and I was trying to find the ball and bring it over to coach.”

Not the Pitts: Trojans junior wide receiver Michael Pittman on the offensive takeaways from this game: “I feel like the offense is taking steps as far as making those explosive plays. I feel like we showed some good things moving forward.”

Not the Pitts – Part 2: Addressing if the defense playing well helps offensive struggles, Pittman said, “Whenever they play well it makes me and the offense want to help them out. Help them carry the load and take some of that weight off of their shoulders and puts some points up. They played lights out today and gave us chances to score points.”

Relentless: Discussing the performance of the aggressive Trojans defensive line against Colorado, redshirt freshman D-lineman Jay Tufele said, “We were playing tonight with our hair on fire. We were out there making plays. We had a whole week of preparations to stop their run (95 yards rushing). After we stopped the run, make the quarterback feel the pressure. We made them three and outs.”

Montez speaks: Of the Trojans and their defense, Colorado quarterback Steven Montez said, “I think they had us figured out. When we had some of the play calls and had some good calls, maybe we shot ourselves in the foot. It was a bunch of different penalties. We need to clean it up. They took away our short passes and short intermediate game and we were having some trouble running the ball. They made us throw it outside. Once we got it going, we were making some positive plays. They’re a damn good football team. They don’t play any games. They’re a good football team.”

Houston, we don’t have a problem: With Trojans’ defensive captain Cameron Smith sidelined with a hamstring pull, USC junior inside linebacker John Houston made the calls. Afterward, Houston said, “I was prepared for it. I prepare for it every day in practice. I made the calls like Cam was in there.”

The prodigy speaks: Getting his first start at inside linebacker in place of Cameron Smith, true freshman Palaie Gaoteote said, “On an A through F scale, I would give me a B-minus. There’s a lot of things I could have done better. Tackles I could have made, made a lot more plays I kind of missed out on.”

The prodigy speaks – Part 2: Asked about his health after making a violent collision, Gaoteote said, “I am well. I just got a little dizzy there, but after getting up and talking with my trainers, I feel really good and ready to go for next week (Utah). I wasn’t scared at all, it’s just football and things happen like that. Being able to walk was significant. No, I haven’t had a collision like that, it’s a first for me.”

Tell-ing it like it is: After the game, Trojans standout senior safety Marvell Tell lll said of the defense, “We have to keep on progressing, keep getting better every week, and keep getting more wins.”

Tell-ing it like it is – Part 2: Asked about playing the huge game at Utah next Saturday, Tell said, “It’s just another game in my eyes. We gotta win. I thought we played hard tonight, but one thing I didn’t like was we didn’t finish the way we should in the fourth quarter and gave up points. We had them in check like three quarters and let our foot off the gas at the end, so have to work on that.”

From the press box…

Temperature: The Los Angeles kickoff temperature was a 67 degrees and clear skies.

Tunnel leader: Leading the Trojans out of the Coliseum tunnel prior to kickoff was former Trojans’ All-America wide receiver and member of the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles, Nelson Agholor.

Cover boy: On the game program cover was Trojans’ senior center Toa Lobendahn.

Stepp by Step: Trojans true freshman tailback Markese Stepp had his first two career rushing attempts in the fourth quarter that totaled 10 yards.

False alarm: A fire alarm went off and some fans were held up behind the portable press box Lights on all the Coliseum tunnels went off, but nobody exited the Coliseum or the press box.Lights were blinking on the upper level tunnels of the Coliseum. The event took place near the end of the first half.

Easy pickens: Before the game, there was an overabundance of fans selling tickets for Saturday night’s game, and the prices were well under the listed game price ($85).

Scouting: NFL scouts in attendance included the Rams, Giants, Bears, and Eagles.

Bowls: The lone bowl representative in attendance was the Las Vegas Bowl.

The post-game show numbers…

Upward trend: Against Colorado, the Trojans scored 31 points. Prior to the Buffaloes game, the Trojans were averaging 24.6 points per game.

Downward trend: Against Colorado the Trojans allowed 20 points. Prior to the Buffaloes game, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 26.2 points per game.

Downward trend: Against Colorado, the Trojans had 334 yards in total offense. Prior to the Buffaloes game, the Trojans was averaging 390.8 yards in total offense per game.

Downward trend: Against Colorado, the Trojans defense allowed 265 total yards in offense. Prior to the Buffaloes game, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 381.2 total yards per game.

Downward trend: Against Colorado, the Trojans had 62 net yards rushing. Prior to the Buffaloes game, the Trojans were averaging 138.8 rushing yards per game.

Downward trend: Against Colorado, the Trojans allowed 95 net rushing yards. Prior to the Buffaloes game, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 163.2 net yards rushing per game.

Upward trend: Against Colorado, the Trojans had 272 yards passing yards. Prior to the Buffaloes game, the Trojans were averaging 252.0 passing yards per game.

Downward trend: Against Colorado, the Trojans allowed 170 passing yards. Prior to the Buffaloes game, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 218.0 passing yards per game.

Flag waving: Against Colorado, the Trojans had 13 penalties for 123 yards while the Buffaloes had eight penalties for 81 yards. Prior to the Buffs game, the Trojans were averaging 85.2 penalty yards per game.

The last word: So now it’s on to Utah for the latest and most critical moment of truth for the Trojans. One way or another, we’ll get a sobering look where the second half of the USC season may be headed.

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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