27 min Read

IMHO Sunday: Pain in Provo

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

IMHO: Coming off last Saturday night’s exhilarating Pac-12 victory over Stanford, you knew USC head coach Clay Helton (cover photo above) must have had an early-week queasy feeling when his guardian angel, now former USC athletic director Lynn Swann, turned in his resignation letter to President Carol Folt. Okay, so maybe it wasn’t Swannie’s idea. And then on a heat-filled Saturday afternoon, that nauseous feeling returned to Helton like a tsunami, as the never-say-die BYU Cougars (2-1) took Gentleman Clay’s Trojans (2-1, 1-0 Pac-12) and prized true freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis behind the Provo overtime woodshed and administered a painful 30-27 upset, which set off fireworks and delirium in LaVell Edwards Stadium. For Clay Helton, it’s hard to fathom having a more horrendous beginning and end to a workweek. Advil, coach?

IMHO – Part 2: The difficult overtime loss to BYU will now test the psyche and resolve of both the Trojans team and their head coach. When you look at the next stretch of three games (Utah, at Washington, at Notre Dame), the results – with heavy emphasis on Utah, will probably draw the roadmap to a successful or unsuccessful season and could help decide the fate of Clay Helton, so help me Dr. Carol Folt. Yes, the new Trojans’ President will be watching and taking it all in with new interim athletic director Dave Roberts, who was in the LaVell Edwards’ press box observing the festivities. Fair or unfair, obviously the OT loss to BYU returns Clay Helton back to the hottest of hot seat of coaches.

A bright spot for the Trojans on Saturday’s overtime loss to BYU was this 52-yard field goal by Chase McGrath (photo above) that sent the game into overtime.

IMHO offensively: Before we get started, what happened to fast-paced, up-tempo USC offense we were promised? Maybe I am missing something, but it’s not what was seen in practice. Now to the autopsy, Trojans true freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis (24 of 34, 280 yds., 1 TD, 3 PI) saw a defensive front that was hell-bent on tearing off his helmet – not to mention his cranium. Slovis was credited with three interceptions – two in the first quarter and the overtime ender to seal the BYU victory. BYU got to Kedon enough early, and Slovis was definitely affected and so seemed the offensive coaching staff, too, as it appeared to limit Kedon’s passing attempts in the second half, which actually shortened the game. In fact, Slovis had 22 passing attempts in the first half and just 12 attempts in the second half. The kid had an incredible game last week against Stanford, but he looked very much like a true freshman here in Provo, without question. One of many bottom lines is that while Slovis had three interceptions, BYU’s Zack Wilson had none. In fact, Slovis was given no favor by his offensive line, which at times looked physically mismatched by the interior of the BYU D-line. The Cougars were especially effective attacking the center and guards of the Trojans’ offensive line. Coming into the game, the BYU was lacking both in pass rush sacks and run defense. The Cougars did enough on Saturday to keep the Trojans’ off balance.  

What a difference a week can make, and just ask true freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis (photo above) who was all smiles after last week against Stanford. However, against BYU on Saturday the talented, young quarterback threw three interceptions, including the game-winner in overtime for BYU.

For the record, BYU had a couple of sacks, but some major hits on Slovis. If BYU was able to give the Trojans offensive line, better hide the women and children when Utah comes calling next week. The Trojans running backs were somewhat effective, especially Vavae Malepeai (23 carries, 102 yds,/4.2 avg., 1TD), but the real eye-opener was redshirt freshman Markese Stepp (9 carries, 53 yds., 5.9 avg.) and, quite frankly, should have been used more than he was. Stepp was put in to juice up the physicality of the rushing attack and he came through with flying colors. Again, he looked like the reincarnation of LenDale White. Stepp needs to play more. He brings energy and productive to the field.

As for the Trojans’ receivers, senior captain Michael Pittman Jr. was efficient (9 rec, 95 yds, 10.6 avg., 2 TDs. However, where was sophomore Amon-Ra St. Brown, who had just one reception for four yards? Wow, that was a bit of a shocker. However, you did see a Trojan tight end actually catch a pass, right? Your eyes were not deceiving you when junior Erik Krommenhoek was on the receiving end of a huge 60- yard reception from Slovis.    

IMHO defensively: The Men of Troy for the first time – unlike Fresno State and Stanford – saw a real starting quarterback with actual long-term game experience, who could actually mount a true passing attack because Fresno State and Stanford certainly didn’t. The result was that BYU’s sophomore Zack Wilson (20 of 33, 280 yds., 1 TD) showed great poise, but then again he seemed to escape the Trojans pass rush too many times, which seem to make his being sacked three times almost invisible. However, the bigger issue was the Trojans inability to stop grad transfer running back Ty’Son Williams, who had 100 yards rushing in 19 carries, a nifty 5.2 average. The BYU offensive line was effective enough and too many times the Trojans’ linebackers were missing in action. We’ll leave it to WeAreSC defensive guru columnist Kevin Bruce to do the complete defensive autopsy. I can guarantee you it won’t be pretty.

Trojans’ defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast (photo above) has some areas to fix before the Trojans host Utah on Saturday night in the Coli.

For the most part, I thought the corners hung in there at times, but this defense really got burned on the edges, a sign of poor discipline. Early on, BYU made the USC defense look like a fire drill. To be fair, the Trojans were missing starting defensive end Christian Rector, but how much a difference that would have made is pure conjecture. For Trojans’ defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, his defense gave up 30 points, which included the overtime points, so perhaps he could make an argument that 30 points in this day and age of high-powered should put the team in a position to win, and it did by going into overtime. In fact, in overtime the Trojans limited BYU to a field goal and the Men of Troy could have won the game had they scored a touchdown rather that a game-ending interception.    

IMHO special teams: A penalty for wedge blocking? Well, it happened if you remember. There are now questions regarding punting strategy, as it applies to talented Trojans’ punter Ben Griffiths, who averaged 38.5 yards on four punts. BYU punter Jake Oldroyd also had four punts, but he averaged 48.2. As for placekicking, once again sophomore Chase McGrath was clutch as he sent the game into overtime with a dramatic 52-yarder, which was preceded a 27-yard FG in the second quarter. Chase had to be clutch, as BYU field goal kicker Jake Oldroyd was good on 3 of 4 attempts (23,32, 43), the last one the overtime game winner.  Again this week, there was no big runback on kickoff ,and there were no real productive punt return either. The Trojans need to increase their productivity in this area.    

Bottom Line: Well, folks, I predicted the Trojans would be 2-4 in their first four games and got panned for saying so by our good readers, but I was wrong in that I thought Troy would lose to Stanford (I didn’t know that Stanford QB KJ Costello would be out, although it’s doubtful the Cardinal would have beaten the Trojans because Kedon Slovis had one amazing night). I thought the Trojans would beat BYU in overtime. In my preseason predictions, I thought Chase McGrath would win an overtime game in Provo. I was wrong. He got the Trojans into overtime, but the Men of Troy lost by a BYU placekicker and an interception. Now comes the dreaded stretch of games with Utah, at Washington, and at Notre Dame. The Trojans figure to be underdogs in all three, and you certainly don’t need me to tell you that Clay Helton is in it deep. The good news is that the Trojans still have a winning record at 2-1, and it would take a three-game losing streak to total 2-4. Hopefully, I can be proven wrong, but it’s going to take some real resolve in the next three games. 

The infirmary: None listed.

Next up: The Trojans return to the Coliseum next Friday night (6 p.m. PDT) to entertain the undefeated No. 11 Utah Utes (3-0, 0-0 Pac-12), a 31-0 winner on Saturday over Idaho State. Friday not figure to be an early Pac-12 South Division Game of the Year, the winner gaining a major inside lane to the divisional title and the loser hoping to hang on and play the “what if” formula game. 

Next Friday night in the Coliseum, the Trojans will battle No. 11 Utah (photo above) for Pac-12 South Division supremacy.

The Trojans/BYU quote book…

Clay Helton comments: “Great coach and football game. I thought they played a hell of a football game under Kalani Sitake. The kids played extremely hard, and they had one more play than we did tonight. Anytime you have three turnovers to the other team and you’re on the road, that’s going to put you in a hole. Tonight, we came up one play short of getting out of that hole. I love how the kids kept fighting and competing. This is one game early in the season. We’ll correct it and move onto the next one. This is going to be a special team because there are special kids on this team. Mark my words. They’re learning with every snap and I’m proud of them and I look forward to the next opportunity to compete. This team is built for this. To have adversity and overcome it. This is a non-conference game early in the season. We have a big game coming up next week again and just like this one was, against another great Utah team. We need to get right on this plane and get right back to work tomorrow morning.”

Despite the BYU loss, Clay Helton (photo above) told the media that his Trojans can still be a “special team.”

Clay Helton comments – Part 2: On his team’s mentality during the game, Helton said,“I think they’re tough as heck. You have two early turnovers in the red zone and they only got ten points out of that. We were able to create one of those stops and then get it back to a 17-17 ballgame at half time on the road. We got up in the second half, they made some plays and we made some plays. We find ourselves in overtime. I thought the defense did a really nice job on the first series in overtime. We had the opportunity to close the door and the ball bounced the wrong way. That happens sometimes in football.”

Clay Helton comments – Part 3: On his decision to run during overtime, Helton said, “To get a third manageable. We thought it was a nice run by the kid and I thought it was a good play call. He got it to a manageable distance. That’s all you can ask for. You try to get half the distance on second down and complete on the third down. But, we didn’t get that done.”

BYU head coach Kalani Sitake comments: “Tough game with overtime again. We got put in a tough spot where we had to kick a field goal in the overtime. I’m proud the defense was able to make a play. Hats off to USC, they’re a great team with tons of talent. We feel very fortunate to get this win. We did some things that were a little bit unconventional, and I’m just glad we were able to get the win.”

Obviously BYU head coach Kalani Sitake (photo above) was excited over his team’s overtime win over the Trojans.

BYU head coach Kalani Sitake comments – Part 2: On gameplay vs. USC, “I felt like we did some things and took some chances that I didn’t think were out of the ordinary. I was just proud of our players and the way they performed offensively, defensively and on special teams. I thought we played really solid. I’m just really happy that our guys were able to execute. I trust our players.”

USC DL Jay Tufele: On BYU QB Zack Wilson, Tufele said, “He’s a great football player. They just got a one up on us.”

USC DE Hunter Echols: “It was just effort at the end of the day. BYU have great effort at the end of the game, and we need to push more and get off in practice.”

USC WR Michael Pittman: On whether he received an explanation on the pass interference call, Pittman said, “No. The referees don’t really like to explain, so we just had to keep playing. So they just threw and the next play.”

USC center Brett Neilon: “BYU is a great team, well coached, big, physical; they stuck in their gaps (D-line). They’re a great team. It was a challenge for us.  We’re going to attack the (Utah) Utes and get in the film room. We’re going to try and get this bad taste out of our mouths.”

USC DE Drake Jackson: “We had a couple of missed opportunities, and we just have to come back and prepare for that. We just have to come back and get better. That’s all we can do.”

BYU linebacker Kavika Fonua: On the final play in overtime, Fonua said, “I was reading the quarterback and doing my job. I saw him look back into the middle, and I just tried to get a hand on it.”

BYU QB Zack Wilson: On the game, “Man, it was crazy. We thought how great would it be to have a turnover to end the game right here. Dayan (Ghanwoloku) made a great play. I don’t know who the receiver was that tipped the ball up but great job by our defense. I’m proud of those guys.”

BYU DB Dayan Ghanwoloku: On his winning interception, “We knew they were trying to get some quick throws and deep comebacks. Coach always says that with tips and overthrows, we’ve got to get them.” On forcing multiple interceptions, “Our defensive line did a great job of creating pressure. When we changed up the coverage type it would mess with the quarterback’s head. He’s a young quarterback, and it was working a little bit.”

From the press box…

Temperature: The Provo kickoff temperature was clear and a very warm 78 degrees.

Before kickoff, the heat was starting to go upward and if you look at the upper right of the photo above, perhaps you can see the “Y” in white on the mountain hill.

Crank it up: The BYU press box is glass enclosed, but the sun comes into the press box, so electronic shades were down before kickoff. However, in the meantime, it felt like being under a magnifying glass. More than one scribe asked to crank up the air conditioning, which finally happened.

The shades were down in the BYU press box (photo above) due to the intense sun before the game.

Smart move: A number of USC fans, who know about SoCal heat, choose to wait outside the stadium in shaded areas before the game.

Before the game game at LaVell Edwards Stadium, the heat was getting intense and USC fans (photo above) were smart to find shade before the gates were opened.

Warm ups: During pregame warm-ups, Trojans offensive coordinator Graham Harrell was next to QB Kedon Slovis throwing slant routes to USC receivers.

Turnstiles: Saturday’s attendance was announced as 63,546. LaVell Edwards Stadium capacity is listed as just over 63,000. However, there were visible pockets of unattended seats.

Welcome wagon: The Trojans team arrived at LaVell Edwards Stadium around 10:45 am and were greeted by a nice turnout of fans.

USC players and coaches (photo above) were all smiles for the most part getting off the team busses.

The “Y”: The setting of LaVell Stadium is beautiful to say the least. With a large white “Y” on a mountain hill, the scenery is gorgeous. The stadium itself is very cozy and fans are right on top of the action with the Wasatch Mountains seemingly right on top of the facility.

Cougar country: As most Trojan fans know, before every game, there is a designated fan fest behind the peristyle end of the Coliseum. Here at BYU, there is a fan gathering spot for fun, game, and even a rock climb. This is the first season that BYU has had “Cougar Country.”

BYU and USC fans (photo above) were enjoying the pregame fun at “Cougar Country,” which is like the USC fan fest before games near the peristyle end of the Coliseum.

A throwback Part 1: In a bit of nostalgia, the game program between the Trojans and BYU was an old-fashioned throwback cover.

BYU’s game program (photo above) featured a “throwback” type of cover.

Throwback – Part 2: Speaking of nostalgia, the BYU cheering section actually performed card stunts, and they looked pretty good.

Lavell Edward Stadium is located along the main street (University Ave.) of town, which is really a throwback in many ways to the 1940s. Actually, it’s pretty cool.

The guest:
Trojans’ play-by-play announcer Pete Arbogast was a guest on the BYU pregame show.

There were no bowl representatives listed in attendance.

The post-game show numbers…

Tackling the issues: Strong safety Talanoa Hufanga led the Trojans with 10 tackles.

Downward trend: Against BYU, the Trojans scored 27 points. Prior to the game with the Cougars, the Trojans were averaging 38.0 points per game.

Downward trend: Against BYU, the Trojans allowed 30 points. Prior to the game with the Cougars, Trojans’ defense was allowing 21.5 points per game. 

Downward trend: Against BYU, the Trojans had 452 yards in total offense. Prior to the game with the Cougars, the Trojans were averaging 469.5 yards in total offense per game.

Downward trend: Against BYU, the Trojans defense allowed 430 total yards in total offense. Prior to the game with the Cougars, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 398.5 in total yards per game.

Upward trend: Against BYU, the Trojans had 171 net yards rushing. Prior to the game with the Cougars, the Trojans were averaging 145.0 rushing yards per game. 

Downward trend: Against BYU, the Trojans allowed 131 net rushing yards. Prior to the game with the Cougars, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 152.0 rushing yards per game.

Downward trend: Against BYU, the Trojans had 281 yards passing yards. Prior to the game with the Cougars, Trojans were averaging 324.5 passing yards per game.  

Downward trend: Against BYU, the Trojans allowed 299 passing yards. Prior to the game with the Cougars, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 246.5 yards per game.  

Flag waving: Against BYU, the Trojans had 5 penalties for 44 yards while BYU had 5 penalties for 39 yards. Prior to the BYU game, the Trojans were averaging 64.0 penalty yards per game while the opposition was averaging 55.5 penalty yards per game.

The post-game call-in show:

Caller No. 1: Greg, do you think the Trojans are as good as they have played? Caller No. 1, I’ve always believed you are as good as your record says you are because if weren’t, you’d have a different record. After Saturday’s overtime loss at BYU, we’ll find out quickly next Friday night in the Coli when No. 11 Utah comes calling. The Utah game will be the best benchmark to date.

After the 30-27 OT loss to BYU (photo above), the Trojans are now 2-1 and face Utah, Washington, and Notre Dame in their next three games.

Caller No. 2: Mr. Katz, are you shocked that sophomore wide receiver Devon Williams has decided to enter the NCAA Transfer Portal? Yes and no. There seems to be very little patience for players to let a season unfold, especially when they are young like Devon. The kid has tremendous potential and probably believes he should not only be getting more playing time, but that maybe he felt the coaching staff has some credibility issues with him, considering he didn’t see any action against Fresno State after having had an excellent training camp and the coaches saying there is going to be a lot of playing time for receivers. Hopefully, Devon will pull a Velus Jones and Matt Fink and reconsider, but I don’t actually expect it.

Caller No. 3: If Garry P. were here, whom do you think GP would like to see as the new USC athletic director? I would bet the farm, based how what Garry told me in the past before Lynn Swann was hired, that his first choice would be David Baker, who currently is in charge of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Yes, the same David Baker whose son, Sam, was an All-America offensive tackle for Pete Carroll. Personally, I could support David for the position. I don’t think he’ll get it because I think that Dr. Folk emphasized in the Lynn Swann resignation announcement that she is looking for someone with past athletic director experience, and I think that would hurt Dave’s chances for the position since, to my knowledge, he has no such experience.

Caller No. 4: Sir, are you concerned about interim athletic director Dave Roberts as it pertains to the football program? Caller No. 4, Dave has quite a resume as it pertains to football. An offensive tackle from 1970-72, Roberts is the first player in UC Davis football history to earn first-team All-America honors, making the coaches association’s top squad as a senior. He also won UPI Little All-Coast honors in his final two seasons, helping the Aggies to its first conference championship. Roberts was also first-team All-Far Western Conference and was selected as one of two tackles for the UC Davis “All-Decade” team for the 1970s. Does that mean anything? Well, at least he was a football background, but then again so did Garrett, Swann and Hade,

Caller No. 5: Katz, there have been comparisons of Kedon Slovis to both Sam Darnold and Matt Leinart. Do you agree? Caller No. 5, I can see why some would make those comparisons. I think the quarterback that Slovis reminds me of from USC past quarterbacks is a little bit of John David Booty but more polished. Slovis does have some of the poise and calmness of Leinart, and he moves around a little bit like Sam, but I think he is his own guy and I think after his baptism in Provo, he came back down to earth and would be the first to say he still has a long way to go. As far as the pros, he reminds an old school person like me of a Bob Griese, Bart Starr, or even a little bit of Philip Rivers.

Caller No. 6: Grego, do you think we’ve seen the last of JT Daniels as a starting quarterback for the Trojans? I wouldn’t go that far. JT is a heckeva competitor, and I think he deserves to compete to get his starting job back. With surgery and rehab this year, it’s going to be awhile before JT is on the field and feel comfortable to compete. And honestly, we don’t know the future of the coaching situation whether it’s Clay Helton or even Graham Harrell. If Slovis leads the team to a big bowl destination, it’s reasonable to assume that Harrell will be a hot commodity both as a head coach and/or an NFL OC.

Once he’s had his surgery and rehab, expect to see quarterback JT Daniels (photo above) return and compete for the starting job in the distant future.

Caller No. 7: Hey buddy, do you expect to see the Trojans playing in the Rose Bowl this season.  Caller No. 7, let’s not put the cart before the horse. Right now, the Trojans should concentrate at taking it one game at a time and down the road – like November – to see if that is still a viable goal. Like I said, we’ll get a clearer picture next Friday night against Utah.

Caller No. 8: Mr. G, how about a LaVell Edwards media meal review. I thought, Caller No. 8, you’d never ask. The pregame menu called for an array of options. Among the culinary items were Brazilian beef, turkey wrap, chicken, mashed potatoes, green salad, and, of course, chocolate chip cookies.

It was quite a pregame meal (photo above) for the media before the BYU/USC kickoff.

The last word: With so much going on with the resignation of Lynn Swann and the progress of this USC team, next Friday’s Utah clash is going to give some real clarification and direction where this season is headed…and we’re still in September. Hold on to your cardinal and gold pom-pom, the Utes are coming, the same team that destroyed BYU in Provo, 30-12. On Aug. 29.

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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