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IMHO Sunday: Reaching for the panic button?

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

IMHO: What’s left to say after the Arizona State Sun Devils (4-4 overall, 2-3 Pac-12 South) severely dealt what may be a mortal blow to the Pac-12 South Division title hopes with a hard-fought 38-35 victory over the Men of Troy, a loss so deep it left the Trojans’ locker room in tears, depression, and speechless. Before 47,406 mostly cardinal and gold faithful, the Trojans had their 19-game winning streak snapped by an ASU team that came to play and played hard.

Afterward the game, there was no unified outward Coliseum booing or catcalls. No audible screams of fire the coach. There was more quiet resignation or silent text message therapy. Perhaps more than anything else, there seemed to be a collective agreement that this season, as we turn to November, is a season on the brink with most of the original goals having evaporated. USC football seasons aren’t supposed to be this way before the November games are played. Two of the future November opponents, Cal and Oregon State, pulled off conference upsets of Washington (12-10) and Colorado (31-24), respectively. And did we mention that Notre Dame remained undefeated by trouncing Navy 44-22. The balance of the 2018 season is sobering.

IMHO – Part 2: Before the game, the Trojans tried to change their mindset from last weekend’s shellacking by Utah by wearing unconventional black socks with their traditional home uniforms, and there was no Trojan legend or celebrity leading the team onto the field before kickoff. Unfortunately, the pregame changes did little, although the Trojans did fight hard against ASU. Despite the courageous effort, the Trojans continued their downward spiral, and now possess two-game Pac-12 South losing streak. Folks, it’s probably officially time to open the kitchen cupboard and make sure the panic button is working.

IMHO – Part 3: It’s not hyperbole to say that things are looking bleak. The good news was supposed to be that the Trojans travel next Saturday to Corvallis to play Oregon State (2-6 overall, 1-4 Pac-12 South). Earlier, that was considered tantamount to a bye. Well, not so fast, my friend. As mentioned, Oregon State upset Colorado in Boulder, 41-34, on Saturday. So much for the bye theory. The game, which has a 7 p.m. kickoff, could also add some additional misery depending on the Oregon coast weather as in rainy, foggy, and just plain cold. And how appropriate considering the contest will be played just day after Halloween.  It’s going to be a trick or treat if the Trojans don’t come ready to play. Just ask Colorado.

IMHO – Part 4: Getting back to Saturday’s game and ASU, it says here that there were a number of plays in all phases of the game that put the Trojans in the position that they are in today. Those plays were (1) a late third quarter 92-yard Sun Devils TD punt return by standout receiver N’Keal Harry. (2) That killer return was preceded just moments earlier by a perfectly thrown deep ball by Jack Sears to Tyler Vaughns who dropped a potential 45-yard touchdown reception. Of course (3), there was also the controversial inability of the Trojans to convert a critical fourth-and 2 at the ASU 20 in the final quarter. How many times in Clay Helton’s Trojans head coaching career has his team failed on a fourth and short situation? More than the coach would like to remember.

IMHO – Part 4: He never complained. He never said he was going to transfer. When he was not only not named the Trojans starting quarterback at the end of training camp but relegated to third-string status behind starter JT Daniels and his backup Matt Fink, he spoke “Fight On.” Tip of the cap to inexperienced redshirt freshman quarterback Jack Sears (photo above) who emphatically said he was a Trojan, not looking to transfer, and not publicly considering any options other than being a good cardinal and gold teammate and a Trojan for life. On Saturday, Jack not only proved that coming out of the same San Clemente High School as Sam Darnold, he was a lot like Sam Darnold. Sears numbers were impressive (20 of 28 for 235, 0 PI, 2 TDs/35 yds rushing). He almost stopped the USC seasonal slide, not to mention the suffocating scrutiny on head coach Clay Helton. Sears performance was one of the brightest of bright spots in a game that finished in the darkness of disappointment.

Bottom line: Boy, this is getting difficult to watch. Trojan teams have lost in the past and have survived, but it’s how this team is losing. Last weekend in Utah was basically a no-contest, and Saturday was a close loss that calls into question everything from execution to strategy to game management. No doubt that Clay Helton and his staff believe they are doing their best, but this is USC and “trying your best” won’t cut it by the way the Trojans are losing. After all, Clay Helton himself has said that college football is a production business, and right now the Trojans aren’t producing (wins). At some point, this will come to a head, but probably not until the end of the season. Right now, there is no reason out of respect to Clay Helton, his staff, and the players to do anything during the season. There are still four games to play and what happens if the Trojans sweep UCLA and Notre Dame?

IMHO – The offense: It would be too simplistic to say the Trojans offense was lacking because they were starting a completely inexperienced redshirt freshman quarterback in Jack Sears, but he and his team still managed 420 total yards of offense. Sears started off shaky early, but late in the second half Jack was displaying the skills that make him such a high recruiting priority by many universities. At the end of the first half, he led his team on an 8-play, 75-yard scoring drive, capped by a 6-yard TD pass to standout junior receiver Michael Pittman. As for the Trojans’ running game, it was at least pedestrian with 149 yards led by senior tailback Aca’Cedric Ware (64 yds.). One note about the Trojans’ offensive line alignment was when the Trojans inserted redshirt freshman offensive right tackle Jalen McKenzie in place of senior starter Chuma Edoga (knee). The O-line seemed to play better. Edoga was called earlier for a holding penalty, which seems to be something that Chuma has struggled with during his career at Troy. As for some coaching creativity, how about that double-pass and the old flea flicker?  One offensive player that rode the roller coast was wide receiver Tyler Vaughns, who atoned for his TD drop from Sears in the third quarter by catching a 48-yard TD reception within a minute to play that narrowed the margin to 38-35 in favor of ASU.

IMHO – The defense: The Trojans’ defense has now given up 30 or more points four times this season and at one point on Saturday had given up 24 points in a row. ASU showed no mercy with 449 yards in total offense. The Trojans defense again got outmuscled – yet again – and this time ASU had a running back who is going to be soon a national name in sophomore Eno Benjamin from Wylie, Texas. Benjamin, who had 128 yards rushing in the first half, finished with 185 yards on the ground and two touchdowns. The kid looked a lot like former Trojans Heisman Trophy winning tailback Charles White running the ball. The Trojans also had no answers – as they did the week before – in defensing a dual-threat quarterback. Sun Devils’ senior QB Manny Wilkins, who finished with 166 yards passing (1 TD) and 89 rushing, killed the Trojans both with his right arm and his legs. In fact, Wilkens did whatever it took to win, even selectively jumping over USC would-be tacklers. Sun Devils head coach Herm Edwards had no problem literally running his quarterback repeatedly. The Trojans secondary had its challenges, as Ajene Harris was asked to replace all-star senior candidate Marvell Tell lll at safety and got beat by N’Keal Harris for a 44-yard TD reception in first quarter.

IMHO – The special teams: What a mixed bag for ST coach John Baxter. First, there was Tyler Vaughns’ first quarter 82-yard punt return after ASU’s first possession. However, later special teams have up a 92-yard TD punt return by ASU’s N’Keal Harry. Then there was the muffed first quarter kickoff return by Stephen Carr. Trojans kicker Alex Stadthaus did manage four touchbacks in six kickoff attempts. Trojans punter Reid Budrovich had a reasonably good day sans the TD return. Reid had seven punts that averaged 44.1 yards. Of course, at the end of the game, the special teams onside kick unit was unable to make the key recovery after the Vaughn’s scoring TD reception. Unable to secure the onside kick, ASU eventually went into their victory formation, and that was the end of it.

The bottom line: It looks more and more that the Trojans will be playing for pride and a chance to upset Notre Dame at the end of the season. Stranger things have happened, but it looks like a super longshot for the Trojans to have a remote chance to win the Pac-12 South Division. Certainly, a bowl game is still in the offering, although it probably won’t be the Rose, Alamo, or perhaps even the Holiday Bowl. As crazy as this sounds, the Trojans are yet to win the minimum number of games (6) to be bowl eligible. This is where we are today.

Tackling the issues: True freshman safety Talanoa Hufanga led the Trojans with 11 tackles.

The infirmary: SS Talanoa Hufanga (fractured collar bone), OT Chuma Edoga (knee), LB Levi Jones (hip), CB Greg Johnson (undisclosed)

Next Saturday Night: The Trojans continue Pac-12 South Division play next Saturday night at Oregon State (7 p.m. PDT).

The Trojans/ASU quote book…

Trojans head coach Clay Helton comments: “Very sad locker room. Some warrior efforts, I thought, one by this guy (Jack Sears). I thanked him in front of the whole team for a monumental effort to go 20-of-28 to put us in position to win a football game down on some people and personnel. Can’t thank him enough, and there were some other guys who I thought gave it all. It was one of those games where we had some mistakes and in the end you look back and there’s going to be three or four plays that you look back and that’s the difference in the game – a turnover, a deep ball on our end of the field, whether it’s a punt return by them, whether you think you’ve got a touchdown and all of a sudden it’s a drop. Guys gave a great effort all the way a down to the end. I was extremely proud of them.”

Clay Helton comments – Part 2: On decisions made on fourth downs, “The first one (4th and 1 in the fourth quarter) I actually, it was on the far hash and I didn’t know where exactly we were. I called timeout because I told the kids we’d be aggressive in this game. Whether it was a flea-flicker or whether it was a double pass, we’re going to be ultra-aggressive. I thought we had a good play called and we got penetration in the A-gap on a power play that worked for us earlier. I have total faith in Ced Ware. He’s a senior and a vet and I know he is as physical as all get-out and he was running the ball extremely well at 5-yards per carry. I have total faith in him to do that.

“The second one (4th and 2 later in the fourth quarter) being backed up and looking up, and it was four minutes on the clock and still having a timeout, I knew if we could punt it down and be able to get a three-and-out, we’d probably have about 2.5 and change rather than if you don’t make the 4th and 2, it’s pretty much ballgame. I entrusted our defense to be able to do that. I knew I had a timeout. I still looked up after four plays, and it was still above two minutes. And we still had the opportunity to stop on 3rd-and-1, and we just didn’t get it done.

“I was proud of both 2-minute drives – the one before the half and one there at the end. Being in your first one of those in a real game I thought Jack did a tremendous job; we just didn’t get the onside kick. Would I change anything? No. I wanted the game to be aggressive but not be dumb. I thought the first one was aggressive, and the second one I entrusted our defense to get a stop. I believe in them. I knew we had enough time on the clock to execute a 2- minute drive and get it done.”

Clay Helton comments – Part 3: On the feelings in locker room after the loss to ASU: “They all stink. This one I think hurts these guys more because they love this place, we all do. We all know what walking into the Coliseum means. It means your best effort and coming the victory and we didn’t get that done today. As a coach, you know when your kids are sad and there’s tears. When I see a grown man like Jay Tufele being emotional because he gave everything he had, and I see guys absolutely saddened by a loss, that’s what you want as a coach. You don’t want a loss, but that’s the emotion you want to be able to see, that it hurts them when they lose. I appreciated them all for their effort and I told them there’d be better days ahead. I’m sad for the kids, to go out there and play that hard and not come away successful. I hurt for them, I’m not really worried about myself. I’m more worried about the guy that gave extreme effort or seniors in that locker room, or the guy that stood up not only at halftime but in the fourth quarter in John Houston, rallied our kids. There’s a bunch of warriors in there. We didn’t win a ballgame today and I hurt for them and we’ll go out there and get one next week.”

ASU coach Herm Edwards comments: “This is quite an accomplishment for our team. I’m really happy for our players and coaches. We’ve been on the wrong side of a lot of these games. It was fun to see them come in the locker room after beating a talented team. They had to beat a team that had won 19 in a row (at home). I told them at the end. They made it hard on me. I thought about maybe going back to television.”

Edwards comments – Part 2: Regarding Trojans’ quarterback Jack Sears, Edwards said, “Jack did very well. I thought they managed him well. They used his legs. We knew he was athletic. And he did a nice job throwing the ball down the field. It’s hard to go in the game for the first time. What helped us, we didn’t allow them to get the run game going with the running backs.”

Edwards comments – Part 3: On handling the Trojans short-yardage try, Edwards said, “We were really good on third down. On fourth down, you can tell – and I’ve been there as a coach — you start listening to the fans. And he (Helton) calls timeout, and I knew he was going to go for it. And maybe he felt good about the fourth and one. I get it. But I’ve been there. I went for one in New Orleans on a Monday night.”

Sears speaks: On settling into a starting role, Trojans quarterback Jack Sears said, “It’s been a while since I’ve been in a game setting. We did our best in fall camp and my entire time here. I gotta go out and play better in the first half. I felt comfortable in the second half and guys never stopped believing in me. It was fun to rally with them and keep competing and we fought to the very end.”

Sears speaks – Part 2: On why he stayed at USC after being named third string: “I love these guys; I’ve been with them for over two years. This man next to me (Clay Helton), I believed in what he was doing here, and I still do. Every down, every play, no matter what’s going on. I love this university and I value a degree from this place. It never even crossed my mind.”

Houston calling: On what he did to inspire the team during the game, linebacker John Houston said, “Just bringing everybody up in the fourth quarter. Bringing everybody in and just talking to them, giving them a little test speech, telling them we got this and just gotta finish out the game.”

Houston calling – Part 2: On missing safety Marvell Tell lll, Houston said, “It was noticeable. But I feel like everybody’s up to the task and ready to come up when their name is called so everybody filled in well. Ajene (Harris) came out and did his job.”

Staying together: Asked how the losing and tough games are affecting himself and the team, true freshman linebacker Palaie Gaoteote said, “We have to pull together and hand out. Be the best brothers that we can. After a tough loss, it’s kind of hard to keep a positive mindset. Being a team, being a brother, it comes through.”

Rector speaks: Reflecting on the current state of the Trojans’ locker room, junior DL Christian Rector said, “As an older guy, it’s my job to bring up the younger guys and show them how to go forward and move on and how to prepare. We’ll look at the film and see what we did well and what we didn’t do well. The key to the game today was stopping the (ASU) run and creating third-and-long, which we weren’t able to do. They were able to convert and keep drives alive.”

Center talk: Trojans senior center Toa Lobendahn was asked about the offensive challenges. The team captain said, “We got off to a slow start and fumbled around the 20-yard line. We gave them the ball there right there to score. We had penalties too, which set some of our drives back and gave us first-and 15 in the first half. Coach said that outside the locker room things are going to be said and we have to stick together and go back to work on Monday. There isn’t much we can do other than get back to work.”

The key: According to Trojans wide receiver Michael Pittman, the key to the game was “we didn’t start fast. I felt like we came back in the second half and battled back, but they came out and were playing good too. They made some big plays and credit to them.”

He knows Jack: Asked about the performance of his rookie quarterback Jack Sears, Michael Pittman said, “I thought he battled today. I thought he got off to a rough start, but he battled back, and I felt like in the second half we looked as good as we’ve looked the whole year. We were moving the ball and that’s all you can ask for. He did great.”

The key – Part 2: Asked about his version of the key to the game, Trojans outside linebacker Jordan Iosefa said, “To play hard and to play physical. It was to stop N’keal Harry, stop No. 3 (RB Eno Benjamin) and No. 5 (QB Manny Wilkins) and their offensive line. They made some great calls. The running back is very talented and very good.”

The defensive angle: According to defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, “I think in the first half we misfit some runs. Give them credit and they did a nice job. We had some runs that were misfit and allowed their backs to get a head of steam. That’s why we made the switch at inside linebacker and put Jordan Iosefa in there. I’ve said all along that he (Eno Benjamin) and the Utah back and this guy were the two best backs we’ve seen so far. The first guy rarely gets him down. We knew he was going to be hard to tackle and nothing new about that.”

From the press box…

Congrats: After the game outside the locker room, ASU head coach Herm Edwards made it a point to walk over to Trojans’ quarterback Jack Sears to shake his hand and offer him some positive words of encouragement.

Temperature: The Los Angeles kickoff temperature was clear, sunny, and 82 degrees.

Turnstiles: Saturday’s attendance was announced as 47,406. The count is USC’s fewest since 44,880 against Oregon State in 2001.

Tunnel leaders: In a surprise, there were no legends for celebrities leading the Trojans out of the Coliseum tunnel prior to kickoff.

Cover boy: On the game program cover was Trojans’ senior safety Marvell Tell lll.

The civilian: Trojans starting senior linebacker Cameron Smith, who did not suit or play on Saturday, did work out before the game dressed in a black catapult outfit.

Sock it to me: The Trojans wore black socks along with their traditional home uniforms.

Go Dodgers: A noticeable number of Trojan fans in the stands were wearing blue LA Dodgers World Series baseball caps.

Surprise surprise: None of the Trojans’ defensive captains (Camerson Smith, Marvell Tell lll, Porter Gustin) suited up on Saturday. Gustin and Smith were known to be out for the game, but Tell was a big surprise. Clay Helton did not mention any Tell issue during the week and there was no reason given until after the game.

Scouting: NFL scouts in attendance included the Vikings, Dolphins, Jaguars, Browns, Panthers, Falcons, 49’ers, and Packers.

Bowls: There were no bowl representatives in attendance.

The post-game show numbers…

Upward trend: Against ASU, the Trojans scored 35 points. Prior to the Sun Devils game, the Trojans were averaging 26.0 points per game.

Upward trend: Against ASU, the Trojans allowed 38 points. Prior to the Sun Devils game, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 27.3 points per game.

Upward trend: Against ASU, the Trojans had 420 yards in total offense. Prior to the Sun Devils game, the Trojans was averaging 356.1 yards in total offense per game.

Upward trend: Against ASU, the Trojans defense allowed 449 total yards in offense. Prior to the Sun Devils game, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 387.4 total yards per game.

Upward trend: Against ASU, the Trojans had 149 net yards rushing. Prior to the Sun Devils game, the Trojans were averaging 116.9 rushing yards per game.

Upward trend: Against ASU, the Trojans allowed 283 net rushing yards. Prior to the Sun Devils game, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 158.7 net yards rushing per game.

Upward trend: Against ASU, the Trojans had 271 yards passing yards. Prior to the Sun Devils game, the Trojans were averaging 239.29 passing yards per game.

Downward trend: Against ASU, the Trojans allowed 166 passing yards. Prior to the Sun Devils game, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 228.71 passing yards per game.

Flag waving: Against ASU, the Trojans had seven penalties for 73 yards while the Sun Devils had five penalties for 48 yards. Prior to the Sun Devils game, the Trojans were averaging 81.29 penalty yards per game.

The last word: So, the Trojans proceed up to Oregon State and the pesky Beavers in Corvallis. By record and consensus, the Beavers are supposed to be the worst team in the Pac-12 regardless of division. It would seem inconceivable that the Trojans could go down in Reser Stadium, right?

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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