21 min Read

IMHO Sunday: No. 10 and running towards Pasadena

Greg Katz – WeAreSC.com

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

The prognosticator: I fully expect Washington to dominate Colorado in next Friday night’s Pac-12 Championship Game in Santa Clara, especially if the Huskies get ahead early on a neutral field. I then expect Washington then to be seeded fourth in the CFP final rankings next Sunday, matching the Huskies against No.1 Alabama (good luck with that). Consequently, with Colorado’s decisive loss to Washington, I expect the Trojans, now No. 10 in the AP and just a notch below No. 9 Colorado, to leapfrog the Buffaloes in the final CFP rankings (maybe finish No. 9 or No. 8) and be automatically placed by the CFP committee into one the top tier bowl games.

The Prognosticator – Part 2: Considering the Men of Troy beat Colorado 21-17 during the conference season, I predict the Trojans to be invited to the Rose Bowl (Jan 2). If not, then probably the Alamo Bowl (Dec. 29), but hold off on those San Antonio plane reservations for the moment. I can visualize Art Bartner’s Spirit of Troy marching down Colorado Blvd and bring on Michigan! And don’t tell me to not get ahead of myself and I am going to jinx it. Barring a Colorado upset (ain’t going to happen), the Trojans are now positioned nicely for a truly remarkable end to a remarkable season.

Evaluation: Move over Anthony Davis, there’s a new cardinal and gold villain to join you in tormenting the eternal nightmares of Notre Dame football fans. Like Davis did repeatedly over 40 years ago – scoring indelible touchdowns through kickoff returns and scrimmage plays -Trojans current all-purpose performer Adoree’ Jackson brought back those sickening “AD” memories of yore to the Irish faithful with his three touchdowns performance on Saturday, which included a 55-yard touchdown punt return, a 97-yard touchdown kickoff return, and a 52-yard scoring pass reception, as the Trojans (9-3, 7-2 Pac-12 South) dominated Notre Dame 45-27  in the Irish house of horrors better known as the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

IMHO: In watching and covering Trojans football for over 50 seasons and Adoree’ Jackson’s individual performance against the Irish ranks right up there with the best of the best in college football’s most storied intersectional rivalry. If Jackson elects to forego his senior season and head to the NFL after the Trojans’ upcoming bowl game, nobody will be happier than Notre Dame fans who would have dreaded the Men of Troy’s visit to Notre Dame Stadium next October 21.

Evaluation – Part 2: Adoree’ Jackson’s newly minted legendary performance against the Irish helped sooth some of the pain from later in the afternoon, as Colorado beat bumbling Utah, 27-22, to claim the Pac-12 South Division Championship, thus eliminating the Men of Troy from having the opportunity to play again beat the Washington Huskies, this time in Friday night’s Pac-12 title game in Northern California. Trust me, nobody is happier about not playing the Trojans than the Washington Huskies. Forget about the revenge factor, UW wanted no part of the Trojans in the Pac-12 title, who manhandled the Huskies 26-13 on Nov. 12.  Playing the Trojans, especially playing on a neutral field away from the insane asylum known as Husky Stadium, would have been highly problematic.      

Offensively speaking: Against the Irish, the Trojans did what they had to do offensively and did it with a balanced attack (. Some will think that quarterback Sam Darnold had an “off game,” but he played a great game. He was efficient (205 yards and two TDs) and didn’t throw an interception – an improvement right there for the redshirt freshman wunderkind. Notre Dame did its best to keep Darnold in the pocket and from roaming outside the tackles and did a pretty good job of it. Trojans sophomore tailback Ronald Jones (photo above), who ran for 143 yard (8.4 avg.) and an electrifying 51-yard touchdown, continued his accent to be recognized as one of the most explosive tailbacks in the country. RoJo may not make All-Pac-12 this season, but he will be a lock next season and a definite 2017 All-America candidate. Eight Trojans receivers caught passes, and 3 of 19  of those receptions went to the tight ends. The Trojans offensive line was challenged by the Irish front, but coach Neil Callaway’s men didn’t allow a sack and managed to create enough cracks for 207 yards rushing, a 5.4 average per carry.

Defensively speaking: The Trojans faced an Irish offense that brought power and skill. It wasn’t easy, but the defense did keep the Irish at bay. However, impressive ND tailback Josh Adams rushed for 180 yards and quarterback DeShone Kizer passed for 220 yards and two scores. At times, the Irish offensive line would overpower the Trojans front seven, but it was neutralized as Notre Dame couldn’t sustain enough drives to offset the damage created by Adoree’ Jackson. The Trojans defensive play of the game was corner the Ajene Harris 33-yard touchdown backbreaker interception near the end of the half. All in all, the Trojans made enough plays and sacks to allow keep Notre Dame from overcoming Trojans leads. We’ll leave it to WeAreSC’s crack defensive guru Kevin Bruce to dissect the particulars. And by the way, did you know that a young Kevin Bruce made a key fumble recovery in the Trojans epic 55-24 comeback win over the Irish in 1974?

IMHO: The most impressive defensive aspect of the game was that all 11 Trojans on the field were in constant communication with each other, a far cry from the beginning of the season when they performed like 11 mutes. On Saturday, Trojans sophomore linebacker Cameron Smith was physical and all around the ball and helped plug and limit some potential rushing damage. The secondary, although far from perfect, made adjustments, but sometimes it was just the technique on the part of Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer (like pump fakes), which sucked in various Trojans secondary performers.

Special team speaking: It wouldn’t be a reach to say that if you had Adoree’ Jackson as your punt and kickoff returner, you’d have excellent special teams play. Obviously with Jackson’s special teams touchdowns there were some pretty explosive moments. However, there were some not so good moments like Trojans true freshman Michael Pittman running into the Irish kicker when the Trojans had seemingly stopped an Irish drive. It wasn’t the first time this season that Pittman has been involved in a critical penalty on special teams. Returning to the positive, Trojans placekicker Matt Boermeester had four touchbacks and a 37-yard field goal and punter Chris Tilbey averaged 38.5 on six boots with a long of 44 yards.

The bottom line: The Trojans opened 17-point favorites to defeat Notre Dame and they beat the Irish by 18 points, thanks to blowing up a late Notre Dame two-point conversion attempt. The victory over Notre Dame proves that the Trojans can now say with a straight face that they ended their season as proficient in three phases of a football game. Looking back on the 52-6 massacre to Alabama on Sept. 3, to the 2016 Men of Troy, we can respectfully say, “You’ve come a long way, baby.” And don’t think that the overly impressive array of recruits taking in the SC/Notre Dame game didn’t take notice.

Tackling the issue: Leading tackler for the Trojans against Notre Dame was sophomore inside linebacker Cameron Smith (10) followed by sophomore defensive end Porter Gustin (8) and junior linebacker Uchenna Nwosu (7).

The quote book…

Trojans head coach Clay Helton comments: “Glory to God, thank you to a great bunch of seniors for what they’ve accomplished over the last part of the season. To go undefeated in October and November, to come into the Coliseum each and every time this year and come out with a victory and to bring back the Victory Bell and the Shillelagh. What an accomplishment by a group of kids that have been through adversity and come out on the other end on top. I am very very proud of them.”

Trojans head coach Clay Helton comments – Part 2: “Keys for the game for us, obviously anytime you get in this type of weather you’re hoping and praying for some non-offensive touchdowns and all of a sudden you get three of them in a game, it’s like an early Christmas present. I thought the ability to run the ball again, 200-yards plus rushing on an ugly, sloppy day weather-wise was important, and this creature (Adoree’ Jackson) to the right of me to do a kick return, a punt return, and a catch for a touchdown and look like something, he’s a super hero figure. I don’t know, he’s unbelievable.”   

Trojans head coach Clay Helton comments – Part 3: Defensively, I thought the keys were getting off the field on third downs. They were 5 of 17 on the day with numerous stops. Overall, a great team effort by everybody.”  

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly comments: “USC is a good team and Clay Helton has done a nice job putting together a good team on offense, defense and special teams that creates problems. I’m proud of our team. All year they’ve battled and one thing, I’m certain of this, is we fight each week. We’ve played lot of close ball games. Unfortunately today, special teams was a huge deciding factor in the game and we gave up two TDs to a talented player. The interception, any time you give scores to a good offense like USC, you’ll pay for the mistakes. Those three scores clearly put us in a huge disadvantage. Our defense overall — if you take away the 3 TDs, they battled a good offense today. We’re not happy with the outcome but take away some good things.”

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly comments – Part 2: (On talking to team on the field at start of halftime) “This is a difficult place to talk at halftime. The locker is broken up and you can’t see their eyes and talk to them. I needed to make a couple important points. I already thought about it prior to the game if I needed to make a couple points, regardless of what people thought, that gave me the opportunity.”

Adoree’ story: On his three touchdowns against the Irish, Trojans Adoree’ Jackson said, “The returns and reception were just great blocks by everybody. They (teammates) made it look easier than it was. I knew something special would happen when I trust them. They set things up, and it makes a highlight play.”

Adoree’ story – Part 2: On the Coliseum chants of “One more year,” Jackson said, “It’s one of those feelings that you can’t describe. The crowd was loud and like the coach said we were having so much fun out there. This was probably the most fun game I’ve been a part of because the seniors were playing their last game, and we wanted to make sure we were doing it for them and hearing them scream was just unbelievable.”

The enemy: Notre Dame offensive left tackle Mike McGlinchey said, “I think we had a good game offensively. A couple bounces went the wrong way. We felt like we executed pretty well on the offensive side of the ball. It was a physical ball game and we put up a good number of offense on them, but that doesn’t matter if you don’t put it in the end zone.”

Sammy says: Regarding the game, Trojans quarterback Sam Darnold said, “It wasn’t easy, especially the first half. Adoree’ (Jackson) had that punt return and then Ajene (Harris) got that ‘pick six’ and I could really feel it and felt that was a little turning point. I was looking at the clouds and knew it was going to be dry in the second half and knew our offense was going to be able to score enough to where we had it, so no worries. I never try to worry anyways. Even knowing it was 10-7 and they had the ball with a couple of minutes left (in the first half), I was confident in our defense and our offense’s ability to score.”

Sammy says – Part 2: On not throwing an interception all game, Darnold said, “That’s always a good thing, taking care of the ball and you can get three non-offensive touchdowns. Whenever you can take care of the ball, we have special guys that can do the rest. Whenever something holds us back, it’s always the turnovers. I think whenever we don’t turn the ball over, we’re a hard team to stop.”

The pick six: On his critical 33-yard touchdown interception, Harris said, “Man, it’s still unbelievable to me. I didn’t even think the quarterback (DeShone Kizer) was going to throw that ball right there. I was waiting for him to break down and when he did I just drove on the ball. I think I kind of baited him and I was just trying to protect the inside and I had Adoree’ right outside of me and the guy made an inside move on me and I just drove on the ball.”

Long distance jaunt: On his 51-yard touchdown run, tailback Ronald Jones ll said, “The blocks were excellent and it was just a run to the right and I turned and they (tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster) sealed them (Irish defenders) off and I knew to go around it. I looked at the scoreboard to see the video and I knew they weren’t too close (to me).”     

On the outside looking in: Outside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu said, “We got to send the seniors out the right way. We played hard and we played hard for each other. They woke us up (on the first Irish first possession TD drive); we came to the sidelines and talked it over and made the adjustments. We told ourselves we’re not going to let this happen again. This was my first Notre Dame game, and the physicality of the game was pretty good.”

El Capitan: Trojans senior inside linebacker and captain Michael Hutchings said, “You need to score all different ways to win games like these. I thought we responded really well after that first play (Irish 74-yard run). They break a 75-yarder right there, and they’re going to make big plays. It’s a big rivalry game, but all in all, we stepped up in some tough situations and we do what we do every week. We preached about it all week (beating Notre Dame) and being complete in all three phases of the game. Last year in South Bend, they had a blocked punt for a touchdown and it shifted momentum. For us to get Adoree’s punt return and kick return and the ‘pick six’ was huge. Whenever you get non-touchdowns like that you really separate yourself.”

Irish thrower: Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer said, “Once again it was a lack of execution. We had a great game plan. They came out and did the same kind of thing to us every play as expected. They’re confident in their DBs and we have to execute our checks and make sure the ball is getting into our playmakers hands. (On the pick six) “I wish I could have that throw back (the pick six), obviously. I stepped up in the pocket and got aggressive on a ball a little late to the receiver and they jumped it and returned it for six.”

Feeling great: Trojans wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster said, “Beating Notre Dame feels great. To be undefeated for the seniors is amazing. Beating Notre Dame means a lot and it goes back to the spring and the summer. I was sitting out for a while because my hip was bothering me, but the coach needed a play and I made that play happen (2-yard TD reception). We made a couple of false starts out there and there was the rain, but I thought our defense played great. It was so much fun (playing Notre Dame). The hype and the crowd was pumping us up.”

Irish defender: Notre Dame defensive lineman Jarron Jones said, “I feel like our defense played great. Besides the two TDs we let up in the second half, we came out and we fought until the very end. Despite all the odds against us, we could’ve came out and rolled over. We knew there was nothing after this, but we still kept fighting.”

Mr. “T”: On playing Notre Dame for the first time, Trojans nose tackle Stevie Tu’ilolovatu said, “It was pretty cool. Their offensive line was really good. Defensively up front, I think we did a pretty good job. The game lived up to everything it’s meant to be. It was physical, and I gave props to those guys telling them how good they were. We had a great season. I wouldn’t want to say we’re the best team in the nation, but I think we can compete with the top teams. I am just glad I moved here.”

From the press box…

The defense rests: Still think that Trojans special teams coach John Baxter is overpaid and the Trojans spend too much time on special team? Baxter has more than made his coaching presence felt this special teams season in his return from Michigan to Troy.  

Say what: Why in the world did Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly continue to kick/punt to Adoree’ Jackson? I guarantee you that if Adoree’ was playing for the bad guys, Trojans special teams coach John Baxter would never allow his kicker or punter to kickoff or punt to No.2.

IMHO: At the very least, Adoree’ Jackson’s performance against Notre Dame should catapult him into this season’s Heisman Trophy conversation. He has done enough to have his name considered for an invitation to New York, especially after Saturday afternoon’s prolific effort against the Irish. If Jackson decides to return for his senior season – an underdog possibility – he will be a frontrunner for college football’s most prestigious aware.

Honorees: Before Saturday’s kickoff, Trojan seniors playing their last home game in the Coliseum were individually recognized by walking out of the legendary Coliseum tunnel and through a spirit line of former cardinal and gold players. Those leaving the Trojans included seniors Justin Davis, Deion Hart, Taylor McNamara, Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, Jordan Simmons, Zach Banner, Isaac Whitney, Chad Wheeler, De’Quan Hampton, Leon McQuay III, Quinton Powell, Darreus Rogers, Michael Hutchings and Zach Smith.

Tunnel vision: Leading the Trojans out of the legendary Coliseum players’ tunnel prior to kickoff was former All-America defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis.

Counting the house: The official Coliseum attendance on Saturday was announced as 72,402. Believe me, it certainly didn’t look close to that many. It was the smallest turnout for an SC/ND game in the Coliseum since 1986 (70,614).

NFL evaluations: Scouts in attendance included Buffalo, Indianapolis, San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Seattle, the Rams, and Saskatchewan (CFL).

Bowling: The lone bowl representative in attendance was from the Alamo Bowl.

Temperature: At kickoff, the temperature was a chilly 63 degrees, 5mph wind, and 62% humidity.

Cover boy: The cover photo of the final home football game program was junior All-Pac-12 receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (4 rec./23 yds./ 1 TD).

The comparison: A number of experts are comparing Sam Darnold with Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre. That might be a bit premature, but Sam is now sporting a full red beard that is reminiscent of Favre. 

A line on awards: The Trojans offensive line, which helped its running backs rush for 207 and did not allow a sack against Notre Dame, was recently named a semi-finalist for the Joe Moore Award given to the nation’s best unit. FYI, there were 18 other schools that were also named as semi-finalists.

Clancy and Ryan: Trojans’ defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast is a finalist for the Broyles Award, which goes to the nation’s top assistant coach. An interesting sidebar is that former Trojans defensive lineman Ryan Nielsen (1998-2001), now an assistant coach at North Carolina State, has also been nominated.

The post-game show…

Smelling Roses: For what it’s worth, ESPN’s bowl projections last week had the Trojans playing Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. In case you’ve forgotten or would like to forget, the Trojans lost to the Badgers 23-21 in last season’s Holiday Bowl.

For the record: The Trojans have not been back to the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day since 2009 when the Cardinal and Gold destroyed coach Joe Paterno’s Penn State team 38-24, a game that not as close as the final score.

For the record – Part 2: In case you want to win a Trojans trivia question, have your buddy name in order all the bowl games USC has played in after the 2009 Rose Bowl.

For the record – Part 3: The answer to the above trivia question is the 2009 Emerald Bowl, 2012 Sun Bowl, 2013 Las Vegas Bowl, and the 2014 and 2015 Holiday Bowls.

The old days: I miss that special Rose Bowl deciding Saturday when Ohio State used to play Michigan in the morning followed by USC and UCLA for the right to go to Pasadena on New Year’s Day. Ah, those were the days.     

South Pacific: Trojans standout JuJu Smith-Schuster was among five players named this week as finalists for the Polynesian College Football Player of the Year Award. The award is presented annually to the most outstanding Polynesian player who epitomizes great ability and integrity. The winner will be announced on Dec. 8.

Bayou buddy: Congratulations to former Trojans “interim” head coach Ed Orgeron on being was named LSU’s permanent head coach on Saturday. Coach O was 11-4 as an interim coach in stints at USC (2013) and LSU.

IMHO: I’ve never swayed from my conviction that Ed Orgeron had earned the right to be the Trojans permanent head coach after what he did in turning around not only the 2013 USC team but the program, as well. Yeah, so he lost to Notre Dame and UCLA, but he isn’t the only Trojans head coach do that – permanent or interim.

The Call-In Show numbers…

Upward climb: The Trojans scored 45 points against Notre Dame. Prior to Saturday’s game with the Irish, the Trojans were averaging 31.8 points per game.

Above the mean: The Trojans defense allowed 27 points to Notre Dame. Prior to the Irish game, the Trojans were allowing 21.7 points per game.

All tied up: The Trojans and the Irish both had 23 first downs.

Lowering the 400 Club: The Trojans had 412 yards in total offense against Notre Dame. Prior to the Irish game, the Trojans were averaging 474.1 yards in total offense per game.

The 54 More Club: Against Notre Dame, the Trojans defense allowed a total of 408 total offensive yards. Prior to the Irish, the Trojans were allowing 354.5 yards per game.

On the mark: Against Notre Dame, the Trojans rushed for 207 yards. Prior to the Irish, the Trojans were averaging 207.3 rushing yards per game.

Bend but don’t break: Against Notre Dame, the Trojans defense allowed 154 net yards rushing. Prior to the Irish, the Trojans were allowing 131.8 net rushing yards per game.

Passing restrictions: Against Notre Dame, the Trojans passed for 205 yards. Prior to the Irish, the Trojans were averaging 266.8 passing yards per game.

Air attack: Against Notre Dame, the Trojans defense allowed 254 passing yards. Prior to the Irish, the Trojans were allowing 222.7 passing yards per game.

The red zone: The Trojans were 2 of 2 in the red zone while Notre Dame was 3 of 4.

Sack exchange: The Trojans officially sacked Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer six times while Trojans quarterback Sam Darnold was officially never sacked by the Irish defense.

Flagging down: The Trojans were penalized seven times for 65 yards on Saturday. Prior to Notre Dame, the Trojans were averaging 65.7 yards per game in penalties per game compared to its opponents’ 42.5 yards per game. Notre Dame was penalized six times for 54 yards.

The last word: The Trojans bowl destination will be announced next Sunday, Dec. 4, on ESPN. The suspense is building and GO HUSKIES!… for the obvious reasons.

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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