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IMHO Sunday: Oh brother, USC run down by UCLA in Pasadena and here come the Irish!

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

IMHO: Put away the confetti. Return the celebratory libation back into the fridge. Cancel the takeout pizza order. The USC Trojans (5-6 overall, 4-5 Pac-12 South) are STILL not bowl eligible, thanks to being literally rushed to a 34-27 upset loss to crosstown rival UCLA (3-8 overall, 3-5 Pac-12 South) in the Rose Bowl on Saturday afternoon. Was it really an upset? Not if you’ve followed both teams to this near end of this very forgettable 2018 season. You think it can’t get any worse? Wrong again, Tommy Trojan. Look no further than next Saturday’s final game against No. 3 and undefeated Notre Dame (11-0) in the Coliseum (5 p.m. PT), a game that cries out total mismatch, unmitigated disaster, a red wave bloodbath, bowl game rejection finality, and probably Clay Helton’s last stand. The Irish will come into the Grand Old Lady in Exposition Park ready to show the world and the Trojans what a CFP “Final Four” team really looks like. Yikes! Mother make it stop! And by the way, did we mention the Men of Troy have lost last four out of their last five games, and the Bruins’ win snapped their three-game losing streak to the Trojans?       

IMHO – Part 2: The biggest question after the game was whether Clay Helton would be relieved of his command before or after the Notre Dame game. Afterward in a very subdued press gathering, Helton said that USC’s athletic director Lynn Swann came into the Trojans locker room, gave him a big hug around the neck, and said he would see him on Monday. The loss to UCLA, however, constitutes enormous mounting evidence against Clay Helton’s return as the Trojans head coach in 2019. Will the finale next week against the Irish seal the deal or are USC fans just going through some wishful thinking at this point?  Only Trojans’ athletic director Lynn Swann or perhaps somebody higher holds the cards to the “return” question. So, how bad is it? Well, it’s pretty bad. Perhaps the loss to the Bruins adds to the inevitable with Notre Dame providing the final coup de gras to Helton’s tenure as head coach. Would a probable 5-7 regular season finish and no bowl game be a “enough-is-enough” conclusion to administer a head coaching change? Logic would tend to point strongly in that change of direction, but money payouts and buyouts could play a prominent role of Helton and/or his staff coming or going. Then again, since when can USC not afford cashing out to save its beloved football program, especially with UCLA head coach Chip Kelly ready to seize the moment? Then again, what would happen if Helton somehow got his team to pull the upset of the year or many years in college football by upsetting the heavily favored rival Irish? If Helton could get his kids to shock the vaunted Irish, it might silence the massive amount of Helton critics. On the bright side, think about this: If the Trojans could upset the Irish, they would also become bowl eligible. Hey, just trying to inject some positive.

IMHO – Part 3: Because of the two team’s lack of a winning record, Saturday’s rivalry game was greeted by a general perception of apathy and “who cares,” but there was a lot on the line on against the Bruins. There was still enough interest for recruits to be at the Rose Bowl in person or watch on TV. There is the old adage: Recruits that want to come USC will do so no matter the circumstances…even with the current Helton uncertainty. Those recruits that already have no interest in wearing the cardinal and gold will not be swayed. However, there is a large grouping of recruits that haven’t made up their mind. Did the Trojans loss in the Arroyo Seco have an impact on those that have not made a mental decision? That’s problematic for the USC football program because of the early signing period. It figures the Trojans will have all their top recruits at next week’s game against Notre Dame, and that may have additional impact to that gathering of blue chippers.

IMHO – Part 4: I’ve been attending USC/UCLA games since 1962, and that is the worst turnout of fans from both schools that I have ever seen, especially the Trojans’ following. It’s indicative of where the minds and hearts of Trojans fans reside, and those that didn’t come to the famous saucer are no doubt glad they didn’t. After last week’s booing of Clay Helton after the Cal game, the last thing many of the USC faithful wanted to do was drive to the Rose Bowl in the morning and eventually watch UCLA celebrate, which came to fruition on Saturday. To the dismay of those that did attend Saturday’s game, they were rewarded with another Trojans’ mind-numbing loss, and their attitude towards the program probably yet took another descending direction. Sorry, Mr. Swann, it’s hard to support this Trojan football program with gusto when there are some issues, and there are issues.

Bottom line: In a disappointing season, the stinging defeat at the hands of UCLA takes this season to the basement of emotions – if you have any cardinal and gold emotions left. However, games are played on the field and not on paper, so Trojan fans might have a sliver of hope that somehow, some way their beloved Men of Troy can find it within themselves to administer one of the greatest upsets in the history in the USC/Notre Dame series. Remember 1964 and the (Rod) Sherman catch to ruin the No. 1 Irish’s undefeated season. But then again, “Here come the Irish!” (gulp).

IMHO – offense: As has been the pattern almost all season, the Trojans scored touchdowns in the first half and then can never reach the end zone in the second half. It’s seems the second half is always relegated to field goals and field goal attempts. Such was the case against UCLA as the Trojans were outscored 13-3 in the second half. It’s not like the Trojans’ offense was horrible, but they couldn’t finish. They, however, did finish with 449 yards of offense (112 yards rushing and a whopping 33y yards passing), and JT Daniels was 20 of 34 for 337 yards, two TD passes, but two lethal interceptions, the second a major killer in the final quarterback with the game still in the balance. Afterward, JT Daniels defending the play calling of Clay Helton and placed the offensive’s difficulties on the players. Rushing, the Trojans Vavae Malepeai led all Trojan carriers with 77 yards, but there were no rushing touchdowns. As for receiving, Michael Pittman’s return to the lineup was a success with seven receptions for 106 yards. Both Velus Jones and Amon-Ra St. Brown recorded TD receptions of 45 and 44 yards, respectively. The offensive line was respectable, giving up just one sack. Time of possession between the two teams was pretty close (USC – 27:17, UCLA 32:43). The Trojans were 2 of 2 in the red zone. However, when it came to points on turnovers, UCLA converted 10 points to the Trojans 3 points and there you have it. As usual, penalties played a factor.

IMHO – defense: Anytime you give up 21 points in the first half, it’s not a good sign. It’s even a worse sign when your defense gives up a whopping 313 yards rushing, making UCLA running Joshua Kelley, who ran for 295 yards and two touchdowns, look like he belongs in the College Football Hall of Fame. All in all, the Bruins offense accounted for 479 yards. UCLA head coach Chip Kelly dissected defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s defense repeatedly in the first half with touchdown drives of 75, 76, and 55 yards, although the last first half drive was aided by a JT Daniel’s interception. In the opening second half UCLA drive, senior DB Isiah Langley intercepted a Wilton Speight ill-advised deep ball in the end zone. It was a rare defensive bright spot as the UCLA offense, aided by the loss of Trojans’ inside linebacker John Houston Jr (hamstring), exploded. The final dagger in terms of touchdowns was Kelley’s 55-yard jaunt off the left side in early portion of the third quarter. The Bruins still added two more field goals by JJ Molson (19&48 yds.) to seal the deal. Bruins’ grad transfer quarterback Wilton Speight (from Michigan) was good enough with 166 yards through the air for one passing TD and 22 yards rushing and one 4-yard option keep TD run. As usual, penalties didn’t help the cause.

IMHO – special teams: Trojans’ field goal kicker Michael Brown keep the Trojans close with field goals of 46, 42, and 22 yards. However, he did miss a 42-yard attempt. Trojans got clever in the first half with a fake punt when sophomore tight end Eric Krommenhoek, whose parents attended UCLA, went ran six yards for a first down, which eventually led to a Trojans touchdown. A big play by John Baxter’s special teams again showed when senior Jack Russell blocked a UCLA punt and true freshman wide receiver Devon Williams picked it up and ran 5 yards for the touchdown. Punter Reid Budrovich was effective with three punts for 126 yards (42.0 avg.). Kicker Alex Stadthaus had six kickoffs, and all were converted into touchbacks. A good day for Alex.

Tackling the issues: Senior corner Iman Marshall led the Trojans with 11 tackles followed by senior ILB Cameron Smith with 10 tackles.

The infirmary: RB Aca’Cedric Ware (shoulder), ILB John Houston Jr. (hamstring)

Next Saturday: The Trojans return to the Coliseum to host undefeated and No. 3 Notre Dame (11-0) with kickoff time set for 5 p.m. PT.

The Trojans/UCLA quote book…

Trojans head coach Clay Helton comments: “Good college football game. Both sides fought extremely hard. At the end of the day, they made a couple more plays than we did, especially in the second half of the game. From an injury report standpoint, we lost John Houston at halftime to a hamstring and basically lost (Aca’Cedric) Ware to a shoulder. Everyone else I’ll be able to diagnose once we get back home.”

Clay Helton comments – Part 2 – On what went wrong offensively in the second half: “I thought we’d have a couple of turnovers in the second half; we had long field that we had to go. We took the opening drive and get it down to the three-yard line and had to kick a field goal. We went back and had a turnover. We drive it back down to the 30 and get a penalty that takes us back to the 40-yard line, and the drive stops there. Then we had an interception where it was an unfortunate ball that slipped out of the kid’s hand while trying to throw it away.”

Clay Helton comments – Part 3 – On why USC quarterback JT Daniels struggled: “I don’t know that he struggled. He threw for over 330-something yards and two touchdowns. I thought he saw the field well. I’ll get a chance to see the tape, but it was one of those games where they loaded the box, it was man-to-man coverage, really challenged us early, and I was proud of our receivers. I thought they did a phenomenal job of winning the one-on-one matchups and making some big plays, especially down the field. So, no, I don’t think JT got caught up in the moment. I think we made two errors in that second half that got us, but for his first time out there, he didn’t have the big eyes. He was going in the right places with the ball.”

Clay Helton comments – Part 4 – On whether he thought there was a turning point in the game: “I was hoping that first drive when we were up three in the second half, we drive it a long way and then stall out on the three-yard line, to try to get that a six-point game instead of a 10-point game. That’s the one that jumps out at me just a little bit. And then the last drive. I thought we were rolling there for a second, had some good matchups. Just one of the routes, we missed the fourth down.”

Clay Helton comments – Part 5 – On whether he’s more concerned for his job than he was earlier this week: “No. Just like I told you, I work my butt off every 24 hours to try to buy them 24. You know, if you work as hard as you can and do the best job you can for your kids and for the university you love, you have no regrets, and I don’t. I’ll continue to work as hard as humanly possible. I’ve had great support from USC, from Lynn Swann, and from these kids. And I will continue to work as hard as I can for them.”

Clay Helton comments – Part 6 – On whether he knows if he’s coming back in 2019: “That’s a great question for Mr. Swann. Out of respect to him, I’ll let you ask him that. As I said earlier this week, I feel tremendous support from Mr. Swann and what we are doing here and thank him for being with me every step of the way.”

Clay Helton comments – Part 5 – On whether he’s more concerned for his job that he was earlier this week, No. Just like I told you, I work my butt off every 24 hours to try to buy them 24. You know, if you work as hard as you can and do the best job you can for your kids and for the university you love, you have no regrets, and I don’t. I’ll continue to work as hard as humanly possible. I’ve had great support from USC, from Lynn Swann, and from these kids. And I will continue to work as hard as I can for them.”

UCLA head coach Chip Kelly comments: “I just think that it’s a group that works hard. We don’t have a lot of things and we don’t have a lot of numbers but keep playing. We’ve got to play to our strengths. Josh [Kelley] is a strength for us right now. We needed to run the ball, control it. They’re just so explosive on the offensive side of the ball. We tried to keep them away from it a little bit. It’s a great experience, and I’m just happy for the kids and what they have put in all year long to win this right now. This gives them an understanding of what we have asked them to do and it pays off. For a 24-hour span, we can feel OK about ourselves. And then we’ve got to get ready to play Stanford.”

UCLA head coach Chip Kelly comments – Part 2:  On facing a momentum shift with USC blocking a UCLA punt, Kelly said, “Again, you’ve got to learn in his game, that it’s ebb and flow. It’s going to go back, and I think that part of it is your response after a bad play. You know, we kept our same punt team on the field and they faked a punt and they got it. Instead of feeling sorry about ourselves, they blocked a punt, all right, but let’s go. I don’t think this team dwells on the past. I think they learn from their experiences and they kept fighting forward. It’s a very resilient team.”

Department of defense: Asked what happened to the Trojans defensive, especially the UCLA running game, defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said, “We just mis-fit a few runs, particularly in the second half. Losing (linebacker) John Houston really hurt us in the run game. They (UCLA) didn’t open up their sets as much as they did in the past. They went more to two or three tight ends. We practiced that stuff, the stuff they’ve done all year long, but not quite as much of that. Some of the running games we got cut out of gaps and like I said mis-fit.”

On UCLA running unbalanced lines, Pendergast said, “No, we worked on that. They did little bits and pieces of it all year long. Coach Kelly even did it at Philadelphia. We worked on that, but they did a little different unbalanced every week. That was one thing they did tonight.”

Captain talks: Regarding the game, Trojans’ senior inside linebacker Cameron Smith said, “They (UCLA) did a really good job and ran their stuff. We had a tough time stopping it for whatever reason. We’ll have to go back to the film and see what happened.

On losing to UCLA and still being bowl eligible, Smith said, “It’s pretty crushing. Leaving that stadium (Rose Bowl) like that and having the memories here, it’s pretty tough. We have to move on and not mop about things and feeling sorry about yourself, that’s when worse thing start happening. This week in practice is going to be harder than ever.”

JT speaks: On the last interception and the offense in general, Trojans quarterback JT Daniels said, “I was trying to throw it away, and it’s completely on me. I felt disgust. It was completely inexcusable. We made a lot of really good plays (offensively) and moved the ball consistently really well as an offense. I thought we were a balanced attack today. It was a couple of misfires in the red zone, a couple communications things, the whole miscommunication thing with the refs and the defense shouts and moves makes it a little more difficult. Overall, we did a lot of things well but didn’t finish.”

The center speaks: On the loss to the Bruins, senior center and captain Toa Lobendahn said, “Obviously disappointed with the loss. We have to give some credit to UCLA. They played a good game. We have seven days until our season can be over or we can fight for a bowl game. We’re going to give all this week to chase that bowl game.”

The Ra truth: On his first experience playing in the crosstown rivalry against UCLA, Trojans’ true freshman wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown said, “I’m a freshman and I don’t really know what happened last year. I wasn’t there. All I can speak on is this year and just the outcome is just what it is. I can’t change it.”

On feeling any pressure to win for his head coach, St. Brown said, “We’re going to go in (to the Notre Dame Game), and we’re going to win it for the seniors and they’re going to do it for us. But like I said, this is the seniors’ last home game so we’re doing it for them.”

On not being bowl eligible, St. Brown said, “It’s something to think of, but we do one game at a time. Next week is Notre Dame. I tip my hat off to UCLA. They played a great game. But we’re working for Notre Dame, and they’re a great team. So, we have to see what they do and execute.”

The enemy: On the feeling of beating the Trojans, UCLA DB Adarius Pickett said, “This feels amazing, I mean, we haven’t won since my freshman year when I was redshirting. So, to beat SC my senior year and have a game like that. The Rose Bowl was rocking. Darnay (Holmes) made a hell of a play. Nate (Meadors) made a hell of a play. We gave up some, but at the end of the day we stuck together and like I said this is an amazing feeling.”

The Rector set: On what went wrong in this game, Trojans’ linebacker Christian Rector said, “I say we lost the turnover battle, and not being able to get off the field on third downs.”

On not being able to stop the run, Rector said, “We game planned for them. We knew Chip (Kelly) was going to bring something new, like he does every week, and we weren’t able to adjust.”

On what was tough in the second half, Rector said, “I would say turnovers and stopping the ball in the red zone.”

It’s secondary: On losing to UCLA, Trojans’ senior safety Ajene Harris said, “Coming in here, you definitely want the win but sometimes things just don’t go your way. It is, what it is. We just have to look forward to Notre Dame next week and try to upset them because they got a really good team.”

On how motivated he was to finish his career at USC in a bowl game, Harris said, “We definitely want to finish out with a bowl game. Definitely want to get a win next week, so it’s very motivating to seniors.”

On talks of his head coach’s status, Harris said, “We’re not really paying attention to what is going on outside of our program. We’re focused on coming out here and executing and trying to do our assignment the best way possible.”

From the press box…

Temperature: The Pasadena kickoff temperature was 69 degrees.

Turnstiles: Official attendance was 57,116. The Rose Bowl lists a capacity of 80,616.

Here come the Irish: The head linesman for Saturday’s game was former Huntington Beach (Calif.) Edison All-America linebacker and former Notre Dame Fighting Irish linebacker Rick DiBernardo, who also played in the NFL.

Observation: It was stunning to see the lack of attendance right before kickoff. It was like the old Turkey Tussle high school rivalry between Pasadena High and John Muir High.

The big debate: As bad as this sounds, after the game the media was placing odds when Clay Helton would be relieved of his command. The general consensus is that if it does happen, it will come quickly after the Notre Dame game. The rational was that the Trojans won’t be going to a bowl game anyway, Clay has always been a gentleman, and no need to embarrass him with just one frightening game left against the Irish.

The quip: One media wag said after the game, “Well, with this afternoon’s (lack of) attendance, we should have no trouble getting out of the Rose Bowl parking lot, which is normally gridlock.”

The aftermath: It was somewhat surprising after the game that other than the expected yelling and excitement by UCLA players and fans right after the final gun, it became very quiet as Bruin players walked up the home team ramp to their subdued awaiting families and friends. Most of the USC players quickly dressed, grabbed a box lunch, and walked silently to their family and friends who were equally quiet and mute. Honestly, you couldn’t tell 30 minutes after the game who won and who lost.

Feeling the draft: NFL representatives in the press box included the Cowboys, Bears, Vikings, Raiders, Bills, and Lions.

There were no bowl representatives in attendance, which wasn’t shocking since the Bruins are not bowl eligible and the Trojans aren’t either at the moment.

The post-game show numbers…

Slight increase: Against UCLA, the Trojans scored 27 points. Prior to the Bruins game, the Trojans were averaging 26.90 points per game.

Noticeable increase: Against UCLA, the Trojans allowed 34 points. Prior to the Bruins game, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 26.60 points per game.

Sufficient increase: Against UCLA, the Trojans had 449 yards in total offense. Prior to the Bruins game, the Trojans were averaging 369.9 yards in total offense per game.

Major increase: Against UCLA, the Trojans defense allowed 479 total yards in offense. Prior to the Bruins game, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 370.0 total yards per game.

Below average: Against UCLA, the Trojans had 112 net yards rushing. Prior to the Bruins game, the Trojans were averaging 139.6 rushing yards per game.

Massive increase: Against UCLA, the Trojans allowed 334 net rushing yards. Prior to the Bruins game, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 153.9 net yards rushing per game.

Major increase: Against UCLA, the Trojans had 337 yards passing yards. Prior to the Bruins game, the Trojans were averaging 230.30 passing yards per game.

Significant decrease: Against UCLA game, the Trojans allowed 166 passing yards. Prior to the Bruins game, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 216.10 passing yards per game.

The flag waving: Against UCLA, the Trojans had nine penalties for 63 yards while the Bruins had two penalties for 15 yards. Prior to the UCLA game, the Trojans were averaging 74.90 penalty yards per game while opponents were averaging 59.0 penalty yards per game.

The last word: Here Come the Irish! Need we say more?

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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