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IMHO Sunday: Reality check

Greg Katz – WeAreSC.com

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

The evaluation: Well, folks, the more things change, the more they stay the same, as the USC Trojans (1-2, 0-1 Pac-12) were again outmuscled, outplayed, out-disciplined, outcoached, and out-executed by No. 7 Stanford 27-10 on Saturday night in Palo Alto. So, for what seems like the umpteenth time in what is becoming an unwelcome and unwanted tradition, questions regarding the identity of the offense is again front and center, as the Trojans have now scored just one touchdown, yes Matilda, in eight quarters against two Top 10 opponents. To put things in migraine headache prospective, ten years ago (2006), Pete Carroll’s Trojans thrashed Stanford 42-0 here in Stanford Stadium. My, how times have changed.

The evaluation – Part 2: With the loss to the Cardinal (2-0, 1-0 Pac-12), the Trojans are staring at a potential 1-3 record early in 2016 unless they can somehow find a way on offense against undefeated Utah (3-0) next Friday night in Salt Lake City. And did we mention starting the Pac-12 season 0-2? The difficult beginning to the season was not entirely unexpected; however, the way the Trojans offense is sputtering and the defense giving up “explosion plays” is certainly distressing nonetheless, and that’s an understatement. Outside of a teaser 9-play, 75-yard touchdown drive by the Men of Troy to start the second half against Stanford, the offense has looked disjointed and unsure.

Offensively speaking: Who could have predicted the Trojans scoring just one touchdown against Alabama and Stanford combined? When asked how the Trojans could look so USC-like on their punishing 75-yard scoring drive to start the second half at Stanford, Trojans junior offensive guard Viane Talamaivo said he wished his team would run the ball more, but he admitted that game situations dictate the play-calling.It would seem that the 75-yard scoring drive to open the second half against Stanford could and should be the template for the offense, which has been unable to consistently find itself.

Defensively speaking: It would be unfair to put all the blame on the defense because the offensive inconsistencies have put the defense on the field far too long. However, there are times when the defense just doesn’t completely shut the opponent’s offense and eventually gives up “the big play.” Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s defense can shut down or limit an opponent’s offense and at times looks like a formidable unit, but invariably an “explosion play or chunk play” eradicates all the good effort.

Special teams speaking: If there’s a silver lining thus far in 2016, it has to be the Trojans kicking game and special teams. Junior placekicker Matt Boermeester has done a remarkable job on kickoffs (touchbacks), field goals, and PATs, and on Saturday he connected on a 47-yard field goal in the first quarter to narrow Stanford’s lead to 7-3. And for the most part, sophomore punter Chris Tilbey has been effective when asked to do some surgical placement on punts and when asked to can boom punts into the stratosphere. Both Boermeester and Tilbey have been very consistent in their play.

The bottom line: Even though Trojans fans know the 2016 schedule is a brutal one, there are big issues on the identity of the offense and its inconsistent execution as well as some eyebrow raising play-calling and defensive lapses that have led to big-play scoring moments for the opposition. With another loss, Clay Helton’s record as the permanent Trojans head coach is now 1-4. Not exactly what the popular coach had in mind. If likeability counted for wins, Helton would be 5-0, but it’s all about winning and winning big at storied USC. You have to wonder what Trojans first-year athletic director Lynn Swann (photo above) was thinking as the Stanford game came to a disappointing conclusion.

The bottom line – Part 2: Almost every player I talked to after the Stanford game said the problems lie not with Clay Helton but in the execution of the team and individual responsibilities. As of now, the Trojans themselves along with two strong opponents (Alabama and Stanford) have combined to make the beginning of the 2016 more exasperating that it should be. If things aren’t corrected quickly in preparation for Utah next Friday night in Salt Lake City, a 1-3 record is a very frightful possibility, and that’s not to mention the possible damage to their chances of getting to the Rose Bowl since Friday night’s game is a Pac-12 South Division affair.

USC head coach Clay Helton postgame comments: Congratulations to Stanford on a very well-played game. I thought the tale of the tape was really in the first half in two phases. Really, third-down efficiency of what they were able to accomplish. They were 55 of 8 in the first half, compared to us being 0 for 4, and that led to ball control and really giving up a couple big plays. One, a wheel route, and the other an ability to get a big run there that’s split by Christian McCaffrey.

“The other thing was we had seven penalties in the first half. We had one in the second, that’s seven penalties for 51 yards, really stopped drives. You look up and it’s 17-3 at halftime.”

Stanford head coach postgame David Shaw comments: “First of all, a nice team win. I thought we played well, not exceptional, but we played well in all three phases. Special teams-wise, we knew Adoree’s (Jackson) a special football player, so kicking game-wise I thought we did a good job with the direction of our kicks. Got a chance to return one. Got a little nervous there for a second, but really good coverage on that. Besides that kicking game, I thought we were very good.

“We don’t use anyone but us to set our standards, right? USC’s got a proud tradition and they’ve got a good football team. Now that football team isbetter than the one that everybody thought they saw against Alabama. Alabama played really well that game. This is a good Trojan football team. But we set our standard based on us. It doesn’t matter that it’s USC or UCLA, Notre Dame, whoever it is. Our standards are high. When we play well, we expect to win.”

The game changer: Late in the first quarter, the Trojans defensive was caught by a wheel route from Stanford All-America tailback Christian McCaffrey, who came out of the backfield and wasn’t covered. Cardinal senior quarterback Ryan Burns connected with McCaffrey on a 56-yard scoring pitch-and-catch for a 7-0 lead that the Cardinal used to springboard to a 27-10 Pac-12 victory.  

McCaffrey speaks: On the 56-yard first quarter touchdown reception, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey said, “I saw the safety roll down. It was my job to run by him. (Ryan)Burns threw a great ball and from there it’s history. Yeah, just catch and run. Burns made a good throw, so made my job easy just catching the end of it.”

Adoree’ speaks: On the wide open 56-yard touchdown pass to Christian McCaffrey, Trojans junior All-Pac-12 corner Adoree’ Jackson said, “They ran (wide receiver) Michael Rector into the safety and picked him off, and there was nobody to cover McCaffrey.”

Max speaks: Asked afterward about the frustrations of the Trojans offense, quarterback Mac Browne said, “Yeah, it’s tough. We’re going to look at the film. We realize we did a lot of great things. Coach Helton mentioned the run game, passing game was there. At times we were just stabbing ourselves in the foot towards the end of drives. The name of the game is touchdowns, so we have to correct that and it’s a big thing moving forward.”

Smith says: Asked to comment on Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey and the challenge of tackling him and containing him, Trojans standout sophomore linebacker Cameron Smith, who had six tackles, said, “Yeah, he ran hard. He was exactly what I expected.”

Smith says – Part 2: Later Cameron Smith was asked about the huge game next week at Utah and how his team will handle this loss to Stanford, Smith said, “Come back tomorrow and get better. That’s all we can do. I think it’s (Utah) a good test for us. But we’ve just got to keep moving forward and get better.”

Clancy says: On Stanford’s third quarter 56-yard touchdown run on a reverse by wide receiver Michael Rector, Trojans defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said afterward, “We felt that there would be a reverse at some point, they made the play, and it worked.”

Clancy says –Part 2: On the issues with the defense, Pendergast added, “We have to get off the field after third downs.”

Sam says: With the Trojans finding touchdowns hard to come by against quality teams, Trojans redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold said, “We have to execute on third down. It seems somebody messes up. We’ll watch the film of the game, and we have a quick turnaround (Utah) for our next game. My interception (late in the game) I should have put it in a better spot. You have to take your shots when it’s there.”

Sam says – Part 2: Asked about the state of unity on the team after a tough 1-2 start, Darnold commented, “Nobody questions our leaders or coaches. Personally, I think we have to finish games, play the quarter by quarter. Everybody loves Coach Helton.”

The comparison: Asked to compare the physicality of Alabama and Stanford, Trojans safety Chris Hawkins said, “They are about the same, but I think last season’s Stanford team was more physical.”

Top tackler: Senior linebacker Michael Hutchings led the Trojans defense with 7 tackles, five of which were unassisted.

The infirmary: None were reported, however, Trojans center Nico Falah was checked after the game for what appear to be some sort of hand or arm injury. It didn’t appear to be serious.

From the press box…

Irony: Undefeated Utah (3-0) in Salt Lake City will be the Trojans next opponent, a Pac-12 South Division biggie. It was a quirk of scheduling that while the Trojans were battling Stanford here in Palo Alto on Saturday night, down Highway 101 Utah was defeating San Jose State, 34-17, at CEFCU Spartan Stadium.

Counting the house: Saturday’s Stanford Stadium attendance was announced at 48,763. FYI, a Stanford Stadium sellout is 50,000. So, with the lack of a sellout, is it a case of (1) No matter how good Stanford is, they will never have the following to match their recent years of success? (2) The Trojans aren’t the big draw they used to be? (3) The fan base for both programs took advantage of ABC’s live national telecast of the game?  Actually, the Trojans had a nice turnout for the game, and Cardinal and Gold fans were very spirited when it warranted it.

Five-in-five: Granted the Trojans offensive line has had five coaches in five seasons and players have had to adjust different styles and techniques of coaching, but at what point do you say that not all those coaches were that horrendous. The only constant remains the players.

Scouting the talent: NFL scouts at Saturday’s game included representatives from the Cleveland Browns, Oakland Raiders, San Francisco 49ers, and the Canadian League’s Ottawa RedBlacks.

Bowl visitors: There were no listed bowl representatives listed or visible in the Stanford press box on Saturday.

Headliner: Before Saturday’s game, the San Jose Mercury ran this headline on game day: “Pac-12’s new normal: USC a dog at Stanford.”

Headliner – Part 2: In its game story, the Ralph Russo wrote, “Stanford as a comfortable favorite against USC does not even seem weird anymore. These days, it is more notable when the Trojans beat the Cardinal than the other way around.”

The post-game report…

Sonny side up…not: In the local Bay Area papers, Cal’s head football coach Sonny Dykes, whose Bears upset No. 11 Texas 50-43 on Saturday night in Berkeley, made a recruiting evaluation as it pertains to both the Trojans and UCLA. Dykes said, “Look at the Pac-12 when USC and UCLA aren’t as good. It usually results in somebody else getting players they normally don’t get.”

Sonny side up…not – Part 2: Expanding on his recruiting evaluation, Dykes said, “So it (recruiting) is about evaluation. There are 100 kids in the country that everybody knows will be really good, and after that, it’s a lot of guessing. The next 300 guys are really similar. You’ve got to recruit the right guys, the ones that fit your system, fit your culture.”

J.K. comments: On the local ESPN radio affiliate in Los Angeles, former Trojans assistant athletic director and receiving great J.K. McKay appeared on the Mason and Ireland Show and gave some rather intriguing comments regarding the “real stories” behind the dismissals of Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian. McKay says the real reasons for their dismissals have not been told but will in the future. Hmmmm.

J.K. comments – Part 2: McKay also said he fully supported the hiring of Clay Helton then and now, and feels he knows Helton from many angles – one of which was that Clay’s father, Kim, once coached under J.K.’s legendary dad, John McKay, in the NFL.

J.K. comments – Part 3: J.K.’s compelling arguments regarding Helton is that he needs time to prove he is the right man for the job. McKay said his own legendary father needed time to build the program, and he reminded listeners that his dad’s first couple of seasons produced records of 4-6-0 and 4-5-1 (1960 and 1961). J.K. added that while Helton lost to Alabama 52-6 recently, his father was blasted by Notre Dame in the Coliseum 51-0 in 1966.

More bobble: It appears that the Marcus Allen bobblehead giveaway for the home opener against Utah State was quite a success. So, the next question: Who will be the next Trojan to be a bobblehead giveaway? I suggest a single base, double statue of Trojans Heisman quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart.

Bobble for sale: Apparently seizing the opportunity, the “Trojans Official Marketplace” is offering for those that didn’t get a free Marcus Allen bobblehead at the Utah State game a chance to now purchase one. For those that didn’t attend the game or just plain didn’t get one, you can purchase a Marcus Allen bobblehead for $25 plus $10 for shipping and handling.

The Call-In Show numbers…

Power outage: The Trojans scored 10 points against Stanford on Saturday. Prior to Saturday’s game with the Cardinal, the Trojans were averaging 25.5 points per game.

Defensive reduction: The Trojans defense allowed 27 points to Stanford on Saturday. Prior to the Cardinal game, the Trojans were allowing 29.5 points per game.

Getting down: The Trojans had 10 first downs compared to Stanford’s 27.

Offensive production: The Trojans had 353 yards in total offense against Stanford on Saturday. Prior to the Cardinal game, the Trojans were averaging 308.0 yards in total offense per game.

Defensive reduction: Against Stanford on Saturday, the Trojans defense allowed a total of 404 yards. Prior to the Cardinal, the Trojans were allowing 359.0 yards per game.

Rush hour: Against Stanford, the Trojans rushed for 117 yards. Prior to the Cardinal, the Trojans were averaging 121.0 rushing yards per game.

Rush hour – Part 2: Against Stanford on Saturday, the Trojans defense allowed 295 net yards rushing. Prior to the Cardinal, the Trojans were allowing 145.5 net rushing yards per game.

Passing fancy:  On Saturday against Stanford, the Trojans passed for 236 yards per game. Prior to the Cardinal, the Trojans were averaging 187.0 passing yards per game.

Air defense: On Saturday against Stanford the Trojans defense allowed 109 passing yards. Prior to the Cardinal, the Trojans were allowing 213.5 passing yards per game.

The red zone: The Trojans were 4 of 12 in the red zone while Stanford was 6 of 13.

Sacking out: Trojans quarterbacks were not sacked once by the Stanford defense while the Trojans sacked the Cardinal QB 1 time (9 yds.).

The flag is up: The Trojans were penalized 8 times for 56 yards on Saturday afternoon. Prior to Stanford, the Trojans were averaging 48 yards per game in penalties per game.

The last word: Considering they now both share the Coliseum, how ironic is it that the Trojans and the Rams could be a combined 1-4 after this weekend? Of course, that’s assuming that former Trojans head coach and Seattle Seahawks current head coach Pete Carroll has his way against the Rams in the Grand Old Lady on Sunday afternoon.

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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