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IMHO Sunday: Simply put in Palo Alto

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

IMHO: Simply put, the USC offense couldn’t score touchdowns and Stanford scored two. Simply put, the Trojans pass receivers couldn’t consistently catch the ball to maintain drives and Stanford’s receivers could. Simply put, the Trojans couldn’t score a touchdown in the red zone (0-2) and Stanford did it twice (2-3) and added a field goal. Simply put, during the Clay Helton era, converting touchdowns in the red zone have been challenging and has some play-calling that has left many scratching their collective heads. Simply put, even when Stanford’s running game was stopped, they kept pounding away, but the same could not be said of the Trojans, whose running attacks through collegiate history have been legendary.

IMHO -Part 2: Simply put, one positive takeaway from the game was the Trojans played with great effort as a team right till the bitter end. Simply put, the Trojans’ defense began to show the type of play that was preceded by preseason hype. Simply put, JT Daniels made some “freshman” mistakes like a fumble and two interceptions but not from a lack of trying (215 yards through the air). He isn’t solely the reason the offense couldn’t score touchdowns. Simply put, Stanford made plays and the Trojans didn’t.

IMHO – Part 3: Simply put, the Men of Troy played the Cardinal on an even playing field physically. Simply put, against Stanford there is little margin for error on either side of the ball. David Shaw’s teams rarely beat themselves. Simply put, the Trojans made one critical fumble turnover in the first half that led to a late first half TD and Stanford didn’t commit a turnover. And, in the end – simply put – No. 10 Stanford’s well-coached team defeated a determined No. 17 USC Trojans club 17-3 at Stanford Stadium, and did we mention Troy didn’t score a TD in a game for the first time since Alabama in 2016 and the Cardinal defense held USC to its fewest points in this series since a shutout in 1941? Yikes!

IMHO – Offensively: No touchdowns, but things will get better. We repeat, no touchdowns, but things will get better. Really. If you’re looking for why the Trojans did not score offensively, it wasn’t because of the offensive line, which asserted itself for the most part although it did give up four sacks. It wasn’t because of the running backs, they all ran hard and with purpose but couldn’t break a big one. It wasn’t simply because of the play calling. Okay, the Trojans should have run the ball much more and tried to move the chains. Simply put, the Trojan receivers couldn’t catch the ball consistently from tight ends to wide receivers to sustain drives and even managed to have a penalty for an illegal shift. You have to play error free football to beat the Cardinal – at least offensively – and the Trojans didn’t.  As for JT Daniels, yes, he made a fatal fumble in the first half, which led to a late Stanford score. However, JT did get hurt in the first series of the game but showed guts by returning later in the first half. Simply put, if this Trojans’ offense is going to be effective the rest of the way, they’ll need to do it with long, error free, methodical drives until they can discover the big play. Is the Trojans’ offense a lost cause? No, but obviously there is now a sense of urgency when you don’t score a touchdown.   

IMHO – Defensively: In Stanford’s first scoring drive, they didn’t waste time attacking Trojans’ aggressive linebacker Porter Gustin, burning him with a counter-option pitch and then going after inexperience redshirt freshman safety Isaiah Pola-Mao, who suffered a dislocated shoulder in the early going and didn’t return. After the first Cardinal drive, the Trojans’ defense settled down and played a good first half but was put behind the eight ball when Daniels fumbled late in the first half on 4th and two at the Stanford 40. Should the Trojans have punted? We don’t think so, but obviously the play call was self-destructing and finished by a Daniels’ fumble.

For the most part, we thought the defense did its job. Hey, holding a Stanford offense to 17 points for the game should be a winner’s reward. However, Stanford tailback great Bryce Love, who was stopped a number of times, did finish with 136 yards but no TDs. It was asking a lot for Clancy Pendergast’s defense to hold up against a Cardinal offense that doesn’t have many weaknesses. The Cards offense is well coach and don’t make many mistakes or drop passes for that matter. And the threat of tailback Bryce Love is always lurking to set up play-action passes. Just when you think you’ve got the Heisman hopeful’s number, he pops a big one. Oh, and those marvelous Stanford tight ends. Kaden Smith and Colby Parkinson don’t miss many throws and are NFL bound in the future. It was painful beauty watching the Cardinal coaching go to their big horses throughout the game. However, the Trojans’ defense did show have some welcoming performances, especially by redshirt freshman DB Greg Johnson who showed great promise. Senior DB Iman Marshall also showed up strong with six tackles. One problem, of course, was that the Trojans D-line didn’t get to Stanford QB KJ Costello (16 of 27/183 yds./1 TD/ 0 PIs) very often and didn’t sack him once. Not good. Not good at all.

IMHO – Special teams: Last week against UNLV, Trojans’ placekicker Chase McGrath was 5 of 5. On Saturday night, McGrath was 1 of 2, missing on a long 53-yard attempt but converting on a 35-yarder. No, Chase wasn’t a goat by any means. In an interesting change senior punter Chris Tilbey (Australia) replaced Reid Budrovich to start the game, but Reid came in later to do the punting. For the record, Tilbey averaged 40.8 yards per punt compared to Budrovich’s 27.0 yards per punt. In fairness Tilbey was punting for distance and Budrovich was more strategic directional kicking. The Trojans did come close to blocking a couple of punts, but you know how that goes. Close is only good in horseshoes and grenades.

Bottom line: Given Stanford’s offensive prowess, the Trojans defense gave a good accounting of itself. If somebody told you Stanford would be held to 17 points, you’d like the Trojans’ chances. Defense wins championships, but you still have to score points and the Trojans’ offense showed against Stanford’s defense, they have some learning to go. So where does this team go from here? The Trojans are still early in the season, but the weaknesses are obvious and already discussed, so now we’ll find out what the 2018 team and coaches are all about as the team heads next Saturday to Texas. Can this team bounce back in Austin under what figures to be a very hostile crowd – not to mention the weather and Longhorns revenge from last season’s game against UT.

Tackling the issues: Senior linebacker Cameron Smith led the Trojans with nine tackles.

The infirmary: Safety Isaiah Pola-Mao (shoulder dislocation), JT Daniels (bruised right throwing hand).

Next Saturday night: The Trojans travel to Austin, Texas, to play unranked Texas (1-1 overall, 0-0 Big 12) in Darrell K. Royal Stadium (7 p.m. CT/5 p.m. PDT). On Saturday night, the Longhorns, who were ahead 21-0 at half, held on at home against visiting Tulsa 28-21, thus setting up a real test for both the “Horns” and the Trojans. Texas will be looking for revenge after last season’s double overtime loss to the Trojans in the Coliseum.

The Trojans/Stanford quote book…

Trojans head coach Clay Helton comments: “Very proud of our kids and how they played tonight. I thought they competed like warriors. I know it’s not the outcome that we hoped for but was very enthusiastic about how they fought to the bitter end. Obviously, there’s some mistakes that we will clean up over the next week, this is an early game in the season against a Top-10 team and all our hopes and aspirations and dreams are still out there, and our team understands that. They were great in the locker room and they’re ready to move forward and to continue to work and get better.”

Clay Helton comments – Part 2: Asked whether Stanford presented any surprises, Helton said, “No, we have been facing each other now, this is my ninth year, this is our third time in the last year competing against each other. We have a lot of respect for that team and how they played, I thought they really played well in the backend tonight. We tried to get some explosive plays and they were making us go the long way. We never felt like we could get the field flipped during the game. They did a great job of playing clean football, didn’t see turnovers by them, didn’t see a ton of penalties and I think our defense did a great very good job of holding up and giving us an opportunity to stay in the game through the entirety of the game.”

Clay Helton comments – Part 3: On what has to happen to finish long drives, Helton said, “We had a long field the majority of the night. We got it down there. We missed some opportunities to be able to hit some one-on-ones. Some of it was protection, some of them we didn’t get to the correct side in the passing game. It was a variety of things. I look forward to watching the tape and seeing more, but obviously we have to be able to push it in and get better in back-to-back games.”

Stanford head coach David Shaw comments: “It was a good game. It was a good game, it was a physical game. We talked about how difficult it was going to be. Two pretty evenly matched teams. And I don’t know if you saw my post game comments right after the game, we can’t help it, right. I noticed a lot of people can’t help it, that it is the tough guys at Stanford against the athletes of USC. But I think athletically we’re pretty evenly matched. I think the game, some guys made some big plays, from the defensive secondary.”

Stanford head coach David Shaw comments – Part 2: “A lot of credit to USC. They made it really, really difficult. The game, with the corner blitzes and the guys in the A gaps and the movement, they did a great job. Coach Carberry, Coach Tavita Pritchard, I thought helped with a good game plan, and then we always know there are going to be adjustments. We had to make a lot of adjustments not just at halftime, kind of quarter by quarter. Did a great job.”

David Shaw on Trojans’ QB JT Daniels: “I don’t know that we confused him. We tried to pressure him. Now, what I will give Clay and his staff a lot of credit for is Tee Martin, the offensive coordinator, they ran the ball well. They ran the ball well. And that’s what you want to do to take some pressure off a quarterback. You run the ball well. They were getting chunks, they were moving the ball. They gave him some quick, some easy passes, they gave him some play action passes where he was fully protected and the kid made some plays. And I have all the respect in the world for him. Wait until this kid plays four or five more games. He’s going to get better and better and better.”

JT speaks: Asked about what he learned from the Stanford loss, Daniels said, “You have to break down the film, see where things went wrong on certain plays. (On his fumble at the end of the half) “I didn’t think that was a big turning point in the game. We didn’t play well the whole game. We left a lot of things on the board. We didn’t make plays we should have made, a lot on my part. We need to correct what needs to be corrected for a strong (next) opponent like Texas.”

Teeing it up: Asked to comment regarding the Trojans offense in the red zone, OC Tee Martin said, “One time we got in the end zone, but the receiver got pushed out of bounds with the catch (in the end zone) and the other time it was an (end zone) interception. Those are the two times we got down there. We need to get there (red zone) more times and put the ball in the end zone. I’d like to see overall improvement in execution. It all starts up front with protections. We gave up four sacks today and we’ve got to get the ball out, too. Can’t blame the young quarterback, there were tough lessons for him to learn. We have to execute at the end of the day, like I said earlier, it was like one thing (breakdown) at a time, one person here and one person there. It’s so out of character (the offense) that I think it took a moment to settle down. I am proud of the guys for fighting hard.”

Captain defense: Asked if he was satisfied that the Trojans’ defense held the potent Stanford offense to under 20 points, USC senior linebacker and co-captain Cameron Smith said, “Well, yeah, I feel like the defense played just lights out and just like a lot of credit to them and, yeah, that’s pretty much it.”

Captain defense – Part 2: Questioned where the Trojans go from here after the opening conference loss to Stanford, Cameron Smith said, “We need to get better week-in and week-out. I think most the whole team we’re ready to get back tomorrow and start watching some film and move on, grow from this experience and so I think that’s all I really can do.”

Trojans offensive guards O-line success: According to Trojans starting offensive guard Chris Brown, “I know that we had plays that broke, so we were getting good movement on the line of scrimmage, pass protection was good. It just felt like on a drive we would go 40 or 50 yards and then we’d have one guy on each play wouldn’t do their job. It’s about consistency and all the guys doing their jobs.”

Beating the Trojans:
Asked about how it feels to beat USC, Stanford junior quarterback KJ Costello said, “The plan is always to go 1-0 every week. And I mean this win is big. Since I’ve been here I’ve played SC three times. I’ve been on the sideline for two of them and then loss in the PAC-12 championship. So, it felt really good personally and as a team to beat these guys. They had our number for the past couple times and we don’t like it when it’s that way.”

Mr. Improvement: The Trojans appeared to get good play from redshirt freshman corner Greg Johnson. Asked about the challenge of stopping the Stanford offense, Johnson said, “They’ve got great receivers on that side of the ball. It’s always a challenge when you go against guys like that. We’ve got to keep preparing and getting better and better each day and look forward to this next road game against Texas. (On trying to stop Bryce Love) “He’s a great back, it’s tough. He’s really shifty and strong. I felt our secondary played good, but we can always play better.”

From the press box…

Temperature: The Palo Alto kickoff temperature was a sunny 80 degrees.

Counting the turnstiles: Official attendance was 42,856. Stanford Stadium’s official capacity is listed as 50,000. A reminder Stanford students don’t return to class until later in the month.

Battle of the bands: Both the Trojans and Stanford bands went at it on Saturday. During the pregame, the Stanford band was performing and the USC Marching Band was yelling in unison, “We can’t hear you!”

The prediction: Before the game, San Jose Mercury’s respected college football and Pac-12 expert Jon Wilner predicted that Stanford would win 31-17, adding “The Trojans, eager to exploit perceived matchup advantages in the passing game, won’t establish the run early, thereby letting Stanford gain control.”

Scouting: NFL scouts in attendance included the 49’ers, Raiders, Steelers, Cardinals, Vikings, Packers, and Jets.

Bowling: Bowl representatives in attendance included the Senior Bowl.

The post-game show numbers…

Oy Veh: Against Stanford, the Trojans scored three points. Prior to the Cardinal game, the Trojans were averaging 43.0 points per game.

Respectable: Against Stanford, the Trojans allowed 17 points. Prior to the Cardinal game, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 21.0 points per game.

Way down: Against Stanford, the Trojans had 332 yards in total offense. Prior to the Cardinal game, the Trojans were averaging ­­­­­­501.0 yards in total offense per game.

Way down – Part 2: Against Stanford, the Trojans defense allowed 342 total yards in offense. Prior to the Cardinal game, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 405.0 total yards per game.

Way down – Part 3: Against Stanford, the Trojans had 114 net yards rushing. Prior to the Cardinal game, the Trojans were averaging 219.0 rushing yards per game.

Way down – Part 4: Against Stanford, the Trojans allowed 159 net rushing yards. Prior to the Cardinal game, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 308 net yards rushing per game.

Way down – Part – 5: Against Stanford, the Trojans had 218 yards passing yards. Prior to the Cardinal game, the Trojans were averaging 282.0 passing yards per game.

Way up: Against Stanford, the Trojans allowed 183 passing yards. Prior to the Cardinal game, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 97.0 passing yards per game.

Flag waving: Against Stanford, the Trojans had four penalties for 35 yards while the Cardinal had seven penalties for 50 yards. Prior to the Stanford game, the Trojans were averaging 58.0 penalty yards per game.

The last word: So, it’s on to Texas, and the Trojans will prepare for yet another physical test against what appears to be an unpredictable Longhorns team. As they say, everything in Texas is big and so would a Trojans’ victory in Austin.

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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