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IMHO Sunday: Perception meets reality in Salt Lake City

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

IMHO: On Saturday night, the Utah Utes rolled up 541 yards in total offense while the USC Trojans could manage just 205 in total offense. Okay, Trojan fans, take a deep breath, hold it, and now exhale. One more time now, take a deep breath, hold it, and exhale. Admit it, you are neither shock nor surprised that the Utah Utes (5-2 overall, 3-2 Pac-12 South) took the USC Trojans (4-3 overall, 3-2 Pac-12 South) behind the cardinal and gold woodshed and turned perception into reality by dominating the Men of Troy, 41-28, at Rice-Eccles Stadium, thus turning the Utes’ homecoming game into a premature New Year’s Eve celebration.

IMHO – Part 2: Between the second and fourth quarters, Utah outscored the Trojans 34-0. That’s right, the Trojans’ offense was shutout in the second and third quarters. So much for halftime adjustments. And don’t let the final score fool you, the Trojans were leveled. Like at Texas, the Trojans jumped to a 14-0 lead and then saw an opponent’s scoring and physical tsunami.  Obviously, the loss to the Utes severely hurts the Trojans bid to repeat as Pac-12 South Division champs, but at this point there is still a three-way tie for the South Division (USC, Utah, Colorado – all with two losses). For now, Utah is in the catbird seat and rightly so. The Utes are riding high and playing like a tough, physical divisional champion. Unfortunately, the Trojans can’t say the same. Saturday night’s painful loss to the Utes exposed once again the pimples and blemishes that have haunted Clay Helton’s team from the beginning of the season. They are not physical along the offensive line, and it doesn’t appear they will be after Clay Helton said three years ago that he planned to make his offensive lines a physical bunch of dominators. That doesn’t hold water today. You can come to your own conclusion why it’s not happening, but there’s no more selling Trojan fans that “we’re getting there.” The evidence says otherwise. Credibility has been lost among former players and fans. The media is just the messenger for what most have already seen in person or on television. The defensive once again has tackling issues and was outmuscled at the point of attack. It, too, has been an ongoing issue. There is much soul-searching to be done, by coaches and players.

IMHO – Part 3: So now the Trojans will have to pull out all those crazy math formulas of “if they beat them and we beat them, and so-and-so loses,” and here we go again. The Trojans found that formula worked in 2016 with Sam Darnold. It would be a minor miracle if history repeats itself with a true freshman quarterback. To be sure, the true freshman quarterback, JT Daniels, who took a beating on Saturday night, isn’t the 2018 problem. It begins with the aforementioned deficient offense line that somehow has never developed because of talent or coaching or scheme or all of the aforementioned. However, the defense, which played so well against an inferior Colorado offense, couldn’t bring the wood for all four quarters on Saturday evening and wore down because the offense had way too many three-and-outs. The Trojans defensive front was simply out-muscled by Utah’s aggressive offensive line. Of course, this has always been the Utah goal and system – beat you up and challenge your manhood on both sides of the line of scrimmage. And they do it without the annual type of skill players that the Trojans can trot out on an annual basis. This season, however, Utah was on par with the USC skill players.

IMHO -Part 4: Dave Baker, current President and CEO of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and father of former three-time Trojans All-America offensive tackle Sam Baker, once said to members of the WeAreSC staff that our site provided Trojan fans with hope and not the type of journalism that causes sensationalism or innuendo. Mr. Baker is right that we provide realistic hope, but it is also true by providing reasonable perspective and reality, we also provide credibility. So, as things stand today, this USC team still has the “hope” of rising above it all and finishing things out in 2018 with a positive outcome. This team has the ability, but it plays defense on itself in all three phases of the game. And to be honest, there are definitely coaching questions from the head on down. These are provocative times in the Trojans football program. Losing will do that to you and being unimpressive in winning can be accepted for only so long.

Judging by the updated record, reality says that this team is average, certainly not acceptable by USC’s storied standards. However, you are what your record says it is, which is a team that lacks consistent discipline, execution, and direction. Is the coming weeks, we’ll find out what the final record will be, and all Trojan fans will be hoping to see a rousing regular season finale. There’s still have a chance to make the best of a tough situation, but that chance was severely hurt against the Utes and the way it was lost. So, let’s see what Clay Helton, his staff, and the players are made of from this point on. They will provide the best hope.  

Bottom line: The Trojans have five games remaining in the 2018 season. The opponents are not world beaters except for the final game against Notre Dame, which could possibly come to the Coliseum undefeated and in line for a CFP semi-final invitation. Most Trojan fans I know are dreading the Irish arrival and what they could do on Nov. 24 in the Grand Old Lady – especially with a CFP invite on the line in front of a national television audience. However, before jumping into the Notre Dame debate, there’s still the rest of the Pac-12 to play, and maybe Clay Helton’s Trojans will emerge with a Pac-12 South Division title. Now that is called hope, something that Trojan fans know all too well since the dreaded NCAA sanctions and the past coaching carousel. It is what it is and at this point, Trojan fans deserve better.

IMHO – offense: Clay Helton’s offense went air raid early and often on Saturday and tried to showcase a running attack to keep the Utes off balanced. It didn’t work either way. Way too many three-and-outs put extreme stress on the defense, which had its own issues. Only 73 net yards rushing tells you all need to know about the Trojans’ running game although credit to the Utah defensive front, which is one of the nation’s best against the rush. Trojans’ QB JT Daniels had a difficult night to say the least, throwing for only 89 yards (6 of 16), one TD, and two killer interceptions. To add insult to injury, the freshman quarterback appears to have been “dinged in the head,” according to Clay Helton, which means a possible concussion and questionable for ASU. Backup Matt Fink came in at the start of the fourth quarter and threw for 43 yards (6 of 7) and rushed for 21 yards. Fink may be the starter next Saturday afternoon against ASU in the Coliseum and given the situation on Saturday acquitted himself well. If there was a star in all the Trojans’ offensive fog, it would be receiver Michael Pittman (4 rec. for 107yds. and a 42-yard TD rec.). Pittman has really turned it on this season and at this point is the most reliable receiver. However, all in all, the offense left a lot to be desired – again – and it certainly showed up on the scoreboard with only three scrimmage touchdowns. It didn’t help that Utah changed a number of fronts and coverages to confuse JT Daniels, and the offensive coordinator Tee Martin admitted afterward that the offense was caught off guard, and he would have done the same things as Utah had the Trojans’ defense gone up against a Utah freshman quarterback.

IMHO – defense: Defensively, the numbers speak for themselves. Tonight was the third straight game that Utah has scored 40-plus points. So, it wasn’t like the Trojans didn’t know what to expect. The truth be told, the USC tackling was sloppy, and they treated highly talented Utah quarterback Tyler Hundley like a greased vine. Hundley showcased why he is a former Gatorade Florida Player of the Year. Combined, Hundley went off for 341yards passing, 33 yards rushing, and four touchdowns. And don’t be misled by Hundley’s numbers because Utes tailback Zack Moss gained 145 yards (5.4 avg) and looked like a former storied Trojan tailback. The Trojans were physically out-toughed as the game wore on, the secondary showed signs of lack of depth and execution, and without the leadership of Cameron Smith, it was not a good night. And if you have any doubt about it, we remind you again that Utah gained 541 yards in total offense.

IMHO – special teams: Special teams didn’t have a good night either. Field goal kicker Michael Brown missed a critical 39-yard attempt late in the second quarter, and then Utah marched down the field quickly and kicked a 30-yard field goal (Matt Gay) as time expired in the half for a 20-14 advantage. When able to return a kickoff, Utah had big success. In the battle of punters, Utah’s Mitch Wishnowsky averaged 47.7 yards while the Trojans Reid Budrovich averaged 39.9.

Bottom line: So now the Trojans must play that old football math game of “if.” The “if game” is played like this: If the Trojans win out in conference and Utah loses a couple of games and so on and so forth – not the game you want to play for the balance of the Pac-12 season. The heat is now squarely on head coach Clay Helton.

Tackling the issues: Trojans junior linebacker John Houston led the Trojans with 15 tackles.

The infirmary: QB JT Daniels (possible concussion)

Next Saturday: The Trojans return to the Coliseum for another Pac-12 South clash against Arizona State, which lost to Stanford 20-13 in Tempe on Thursday night. Kick-off is scheduled for 12:30 pm PDT.

The Trojans/Utah quote book…

Trojans head coach Clay Helton comments: “Obviously, not our best night. All the credit goes to Utah. I thought they put a good plan together and played better than us. We made mistakes on both sides of the ball. We have the opportunity to go back home, watch this tape, get the corrections made, and get ready for Arizona State as fast as possible. The fact of the matter is we have a three-horse race with three teams sitting at the top right now with Utah, us and Colorado. We have no time to feel sorry for ourselves.”

Clay Helton comments – Part 2: On if he feels he’s getting the most out of this team, Helton said, “I love their effort. Obviously, I’m going to put everything on me as far as our performance. My job as the head coach is to make sure that we are performing at a high level. We didn’t do enough tonight to win the football game, a very critical football game for this stretch run the Pac-12. Give credit to Utah, they did a good job tonight. It’s my job to make sure over these last games that we are in a position to win the south, and that is what I am going to do each and every day.”

Clay Helton comments – Part 3: On what needs to change with his team, Helton said,
“Right now, tonight, what I saw was we put a lot of stress on our defense with three-and-outs. Early, we get up 14 to nothing, which is exactly where we wanted to be. Then we made some mistakes that allowed Utah to get back in it and get back in their game, which is being able to run it and use play action, rather than being a drop back pass team. Credit them. I thought they made a great play on a ball to get a turnover deep inside the red zone and then they got back in the game.”

Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham comments: “We came out and handled adversity getting down 14-0 early in the game. We didn’t flinch. I think we had 34 unanswered points. Physical performance by our guys. Did a great job on both sides of the football. Did a good job defending the run and running the ball. Tyler (Hundley) did a great job running our offense. He’s really settled into a rhythm and is playing with a great deal of confidence. Third straight game scoring over 40 points. Lot of positives.”

Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham comments – Part 2: On how it feels to get past USC, Whittingham said, “It’s good to beat them and stay in the race. We all know our backs are against the wall. Just about everyone in the south has two losses at least. It’s exciting. That’s Pac-12 football at its finest. It’s a shame because we cannibalize each other, and odds are no one will get to the playoff. That’s not the point right now though, but that speaks to the competition level in the conference.”

Telling it like it is: Answering media questions, Trojans senior tight end Tyler Petite said, “They were bringing pressure the whole time. We were doing the best that we can. They really outplayed us tonight. We need to go back and watch the tape and come back better. This sucks. I don’t think anybody can come out and say this loss was a good thing, but hopefully it’s a good wakeup call and not that everybody has bought in, but we need to make sure we’re doing everything we can every single day of every single week from here on out. It’s no joke anymore. We have to take this loss and build upon it and that all you can really do about it at the end of the day.”

Honest evaluation: According to Trojans’ linebacker Jordan Iosefa, “They (Utah) played their asses off, we played our asses off, and they played better football. They’re a regular team with great players. Every week we play guys like that. They adjusted well (to the Trojans’ offense).”

Driving the Carr: Asked about the Utah defense, tailback Stephen Carr said, “They had the upper hand and that’s it. We need to get back into the playbook, man, and break down the film. They were a good team, most definitely. I’d say them and Texas, most definitely.

Get it and go: On his 48-yard TD fumble recovery return, redshirt freshman D-liner Jay Tufele said, “We always do those drills (in practice) and I was just doing my job.”

The new inside linebacker: With starting inside linebacker Cameron Smith held out due to a hamstring problem, true freshman Palaie Gaoteote had the start in whacko Rice- Eccles Stadium. Gaoteote said, “This was crazy. Utah fans are really crazy and so is SC, so there was definitely a homefield advantage (tonight). It comes with the game and so we have to fight through each day and each game. I knew we were going to spilt time (with Cameron Smith), but I didn’t know I was going to start.”

The offensive coordinator: Afterward Trojans OC Tee Martin said, “You plan on going into games planning all sorts of coverages and pressures of that nature and you get to it and see what they’re going to do. Tonight was a night when another team (Utah) again comes in and totally changes its character to defeat what they think is the strength of our offense.”

From the Pit: One of the bright Trojans offensive bright spots was junior wide receiver Michael Pittman. Asked about the impact of the Rice-Eccles Stadium crowd, Pittman said, “I feel like anytime there’s noise, there’s (a lack) of communication. It kind of throws us off. I kind of fed off the crowd.”

A good plan: Utah wide receiver Britian Covey said, “We had a great game plan. We were really comfortable with what we were doing. Shout out to Tyler (Hundley). He played a heck of a game and made some plays that if we don’t make it’s a really close game. That’s the one thing you can’t teach a quarterback and that’s what he has.”

The Ra truth: Afterward, Trojans’ freshman receiving standout Amon-Ra St. Brown said, “We have to go back and look at the film and see what happened and make our corrections and go out next week. ASU is a good team and we have to prepare for them. Utah played a good game.”

The QB coach: Asked about quarterback backup Matt Fink’s performance, Trojans’ quarterback coach Bryan Ellis said, “I thought he did a good job and showed a lot of toughness. The kid is a warrior, the kid is a fighter, and it’s tough when you get named the backup. It’s hard to go out there every day and prepare like you’re going to be the starter. He’s done that all season, and I tell everybody in the (quarterback) room that it’s very rare to go through a season with one quarterback. You never know when you’re going to get an opportunity and his opportunity happened to come tonight. Credit to the kid for being prepared to come out tonight.”

Brandon speaks: According to Trojans defensive Brandon Pili, “We need to better with our consistency. We start off games really well, but you know as we get going, mistakes start to come out and they start adding up. Pretty soon, you know, we’re down.”

From the press box…

Temperature: The Salt Lake City kickoff temperature was a comfortable 67 degrees.

Turnstiles: Official attendance was 46,405. Rice-Eccles Stadium lists a capacity of 45,807.

Absent: It was announced prior to the game that Trojans starting inside linebacker Cameron Smith would not play. Smith did suit up as though he was available.

Hair today gone tomorrow: Starting Trojans QB JT Daniels was sporting a new short haircut as part of his new look for Utah.

The director: Trojans Marching Band Director Arthur C. Bartner directed the Utah Marching Band for the National Anthem.

Homecoming: Saturday was Utah Homecoming Game, and the home Utes wore throwback uniforms

The view: There is no more scenic view than Rice-Eccles Stadium. From the front of the press box, one can view the snowcapped mountains in the distance, and in the back of the press box, one looks through a gorgeous full glass window to see downtown Salt Lake City. When the day turned the night, the city lights were spectacular.

Bowling: Bowl representative in attendance included the Sun and Holiday Bowls.

Scouting: NFL scouts in attendance included Colts, Saints, Falcons

The post-game show numbers…

Slight gain: Against Utah, the Trojans scored 28 points. Prior to the Utes game, the Trojans were averaging 25.67 points per game.

Point-a-thon: Against Utah, the Trojans allowed 41 points. Prior to the Utes game, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 25.17 points per game.

Steep decline: Against Utah, the Trojans had 205 yards in total offense. Prior to the Utes game, the Trojans were averaging 381.3 yards in total offense per game.

Steep increase: Against Utah, the Trojans defense allowed 541 total yards in offense. Prior to the Utes game, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 361.8 total yards per game.

It true: Against Utah, the Trojans had 73 net yards rushing. Prior to the Utes game, the Trojans were averaging 126.0 rushing yards per game.

That’s correct: Against Utah, the Trojans allowed 200 net rushing yards. Prior to the Utes game, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 151.8 net yards rushing per game.

That’s correct – Part 2: Against Utah, the Trojans had 132 yards passing yards. Prior to the Utes game, the Trojans were averaging 255.33 passing yards per game.

Seeing is believing: Against Utah, the Trojans allowed 341 passing yards. Prior to the Utes game, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 210.00 passing yards per game.

The flag is way down: Against Utah, the Trojans had two penalties for 20 yards while the Utes had seven penalties for 69 yards. Prior to the Utes game, the Trojans were averaging 91.50 penalty yards per game while opponents were averaging 68.33 penalty yards per game.

The last word: There are many thoughts how Saturday night’s outcome would affect Trojans recruiting. As you may have heard, former Trojans head coach and current head coach of Florida Atlantic Lane Kiffin has offered a scholarship to the 11-year-old son of Matt Leinart. Cole Leinart is a 5-foot-7 sixth-grader, and I am sure Saturday night’s outcome will have a huge impact on his recruiting. Stay tuned!

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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