15 min Read

IMHO Sunday: The bounce back

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

IMHO evaluation: Put away the 2017 USC football eulogy. Gently place the cardinal and gold panic button back in the top drawer. Tell Tommy Trojan to cancel the 911 call to the John McKay Center. The Trojans 48-17 bounce-back trouncing of Arizona State on Saturday night in Tempe puts the Men of Troy (7-2, 5-1 Pac-12 South) in the Pac-12 South Division driver’s seat and sets up a legitimate Pac-12 South Division showdown next Saturday night in the Coliseum (7:45 p.m. PT) with another South desert challenger, the Arizona Wildcats (6-2, 4-1 Pac-12), a 58-37 winner over Washington State. And did we mention that next Saturday evening’s big one is also USC’s Homecoming Game and Reunion Weekend? BTW, the Trojans are now ranked No. 17 while Arizona is No. 23.

IMHO evaluation – Part 2:  In an extraordinary show of character, grit, and determination, the Trojans, who could have folded after last week’s Notre Dame debacle, didn’t. They played like they really want that Pac-12 title and wasn’t that exciting. Yes, the Trojans have been painfully inconsistent this season to go along with unusual rash of injuries. Yes, the ball has bounced in peculiar ways at times, which many times can be attributed to their own self-inflicted wounds. And, yes, the physicality of this team has been rightfully called into question. But now the one last big remaining goal is within their grasp – a Pac-12 Championship. Win the next three games (Arizona, at Colorado, UCLA) and the Trojans will play on Friday night, Dec.1, at Levi Stadium in Santa Clara for the conference title. Clay Helton says that production is the No. 1 thing in college football industry and at this point in the season, the Trojans need to continue producing for the good of all concerned. The heat and spotlight remain squarely Clay Helton, his staff, and his players to win their division and a conference title. Failure to accomplish this goal and the season is an unmitigated disaster. It’s all or nothing at this point.

IMHO offensively speaking: A welcomed offensive explosion at ASU, both on the ground and through the air. What a refreshing sight to see the Trojans running game (341 yards rushing) come alive and the passing game was excitingly effective (266 yds.). After an opening drive sack of Sam Darnold (photo above), the Trojans proceeded to drive the ball 75 yards, capped by a 32-yard TD pass to Deontay Burnett (49 yds., 1 TD) and things snowballed the rest of the way. The Trojans’ young receivers finally emerged as a group and really showed outstanding promise, especially Tyler Vaughns (126 yds., 2 TDs) and Michael Pittman (23 yds.). The Trojans’ offensive line had a challenged beginning, but by the second quarter tailback Ronald Jones ll was looking like an All-Pac-12 selection, exploding for a game-high 216 yards to go along long with two TD jaunts of 67 and 63 yards, respectively. However, Darnold was sacked three times early into the second quarter, but who’s quibbling? OC Tee Martin had Sam Darnold (19-35-0 for 266 yds. and 3 TDs) rolling out more than ever to buy time, and the effect allowed Sam to work his magic. Darnold even had an impressive 39-yard run on an option read in the second quarter to further confuse and frustrate an aggressive and stunned ASU defense. The Trojans offense did get some ASU help throughout the game, as the Sun Devils were called for numerous undisciplined penalties. The plethora of Sun Devils penalties (99 yds.) was ironic since ASU was one of the least flagged teams in the country heading into Saturday night’s game. The Trojans were not able to only take advantage of the ASU flags, but some incredibly poor Sun Devils tackling, as well. All in all, a great night for the Trojans’ offense.

IMHO defensively speaking: A welcomed defensive performance – especially by the Trojans front 7 – after being flogged last weekend at Notre Dame. Of course, the Trojans front wasn’t facing the Irish’s NFL-bound offensive line, which was probably why the Cardinal and Gold allowed ASU only 79 yards rushing. Clancy Pendergast’s defense allowed a manageable 357 total yards, and take into consideration 47 of those yards came on a Hail Mary TD pass as time expired in the first half. Obviously, the Hail Mary was not a positive highlight and brought back horror memories of the ASU Hail Mary pass that beat the Trojans in 2014. The Trojans secondary played better on Saturday, but it did give up some deep pass plays. Despite the Trojans injury problems along the D-front, give Kenechi Udeze’s D-line credit for stepping up and pressuring ASU QB Manny Wilkins (250 yds. passing and 2 TDs), who was sacked a whopping six times. Ouch! The Trojans’ defense had Wilkins frustrated throughout much of the game and it showed. The big news of the night was the return of junior outside linebacker Porter Gustin, who played a good number of snaps. With Christian Rector out for the season (hand), it’s imperative that Porter regain return to his early season form because he is such a force, especially on passing downs. And let’s give some credit to junior CB Isaiah Langley, who filled in admirably for injured Iman Marshall (knee) and had six tackles. Although it was in the final moments, how about DB Ykili Ross’s 37-yard TD interception return? It was icing on the cardinal and gold cake, and it certainly was a good confidence builder for Ross.

IMHO special teams speaking: Some standout punting by Reid Budrovich (48.0), especially in the first quarter by nailing a punt at the ASU 1-yard line. On the other hand, the Trojans had two holding penalties on one punt return play, which was hard to fathom. Placekicker Chase McGrath was 2 of 3 in field goal opportunities, hitting on a 51-yard and 37 yard attempts, although he did miss one from 38 yards away. Neither the punt or kickoff return team did any damage and that remains an area of concern, especially with three critical games to go in the Trojans’ quest for a divisional and conference title. You’d hate to imagine that deficiency could be the difference a Pac-12 Championship Game against a team like No. 12 Washington, which has superior special teams in those particular areas.

IMHO -The bottom line: Obviously, the Trojans needed this victory as badly as any thus far in the season. You were probably tired of hearing about injuries, youth, depth, and those preseason expectations, and it was time to put up or shut up. The fact remains that the Trojans have positioned themselves through a “fight on” spirit to accomplish their conference goals. Let’s face it, this coaching staff is being paid handsomely to do a job and fulfill some of the preseason expectations. You don’t have to be a Trojans football expert to know that missing on a Pac-12 Championship would automatically qualify this season as a failure, given the preseason expectations. If the Trojans do win the Pac-12, they can still play in a respectable bowl game, which at this point would be an accomplished rebound after disappointingly bowing out of the national championship picture way too early.

Tackling the issues: Senior linebacker Uchenna Nwosu led the Trojans with 8 tackles followed by junior inside linebacker Cameron Smith with 7 tackles.

The quote book…

Trojans head coach Clay Helton comments: “By far tonight was maybe our best team effort all the way across the board. I commend the men up front in the trenches for the way they performed, both helping our running game and getting a good offense in Arizona State off the field. Good victory on the road. When you’re trying to win a championship, you have to have one of these victories where you come to another team’s place in a hostile environment and be able to stay in first. This is what these players and coaches were able to do. I’m extremely proud of them.”

Clay Helton comments – Part 3: On the Trojans ground game, Helton said, “I thought the offensive line took a challenge this week. I thought they really controlled the line of scrimmage. When you have great runners like Ronald Jones III and his crew behind him, it makes it all go together. I know I use the word balance all the time but that was balance. When you have 300 yards rushing, it makes it easier for a quarterback and the group of wide-outs to get open.”

Clay Helton comments – Part 3: On watching tailback Ronald Jones’s big rushing evening, Helton said, “It was really fun and I really enjoyed it. When you’re around such special players and Ronald is one of them, it takes you back to how neat it is to be around this group of kids and how neat it is that they can drown out all the outside noise and play their best when they’re needed the most in fighting for a Pac-12 title. They put their best foot forward.”   

ASU head coach Todd Graham comments: “We played very, very poorly. Obviously, you have to give them credit. They whipped our butts. They out-coached us and outplayed us. We’re very disappointed with our performance. We appreciate our fans being out there like they were. It was a great atmosphere. We just didn’t show up to play. We were absolutely awful in the first half. We had two first downs in the first half. We gave up big plays when we haven’t been giving up big plays like that. I think they converted like four third down and 10+ in the early going. We just didn’t show up to play well.”

Having the drive: Asked about the performance of the Trojans offensive line, junior offensive guard Chris Brown said, “We had a great week of practice, and we were firing off the ball, the double teams looked good. We kind of did a really good job of imposing our will with the running game early-on in the game and did that the rest of the game.”

Porterville: Trojans outside linebacker Porter Gustin returned to action after weeks of rehab and was pleased with the defense’s performance. Gustin said, “I think that everybody was staying in their rush lanes and keeping the quarterback (Manny Wilkins) in the pocket. We were pushing the pocket back there and he didn’t know where to go. We ended up with quite a few sacks (6).”

The opposition: Reflecting on the game, ASU quarterback Manny Wilkins said, “You know I do think we played very hard, the dominos just didn’t fall our way tonight. You know that being said, I give all respect to (USC) playing the way they did. They came out, they play hard, they wanted it. We just have to make sure there is not volatility on our side of the football.”

Sam speaks: On the emergence of redshirt freshman wide receiver Tyler Vaughns, Trojans quarterback Sam Darnold said, “Tyler has been a big part of the passing game for a while now. I think the way he works and the fact that every single play the ball is coming to him is huge. That’s a really great mentality to have as a receiver. I think our whole receiving crew thinks like that and I think leaders like Tyler, Jalen Greene and Steven Mitchell really set the example in the beginning of the year and in the offseason on how to attack every day like it’s our last day of football. We all love the game so much and it’s easy when you love the game so much to practice and just work hard for your guys.”

Sam speaks – Part 2: On the effectiveness of the Trojans running game, Darnold said, “Whenever we have the run game going, we’ve rushed for over 300 yards I think. Whenever we can do that, it helps me out a lot. It leaves some pressure and some holes in the secondary. It was just a great team win.”

RoJo comments: Asked about his two long touchdown runs, Trojans explosive junior tailback Ronald Jones ll said, “We had great offensive line play up front with receivers taking away the corners and safeties for me, so just splitting it and it comes out to a race.”

RoJo comments – Part 2: On breaking a few tackles that aided to one of his long touchdown runs, Jones said, “Tyler Petite sealed that block for me and I just came off his butt, so I just took it to the house. Coach Helton always talks about getting 11 guys to do their job and when we do things like that we’re hard to stop.”

RoJo comments – Part 3: Regarding the Pac-12 South Division race and being in first place, Jones said, “It’s really important. Obviously, we control our own destiny, so we’ll just wait to see who’s going to win the (Pac-12) North, but we just have to take it one game at a time. So, we’ve got to win the next game (Arizona).”

The infirmary: RB Vavae Malepeai (knee)

From the press box…

Up and way: The USC Marching Band was placed at the highest level of Sun Devils Stadium, but the TMB can’t complain too badly since visiting team bands in the Coliseum are placed at least 30 past the peristyle end zone.

Turnstiles: Although the game was being touted as a sellout, there were still empty seats, especially as the scoreboard tilted towards the Trojans. Official attendance as listed as 53,446. Capacity is listed at 55,675.

Go Dodgers: One of the Trojans offensive sign play cards used on the sidelines was “Dodgers.”

Swann song: In his State of Troy address regarding the Notre Dame loss and prior to the ASU game, Trojans athletic director Lynn Swann said, “Unfortunately, the team is in a difficult place in terms of injuries and coming off a bad loss. It (Notre Dame) was not a close game and we did not play well. Notre Dame has improved this year and is playing much more consistently. We did our share to make them look really good.” Without making a comparison, one should take seriously Swann’s comments that “Notre Dame has improved this year and is playing much more consistently.” You don’t need ESP to read between the lines, but the Trojans improvement on Saturday night following the Irish defeat will greatly help.

Swann song – Part 2: The AD added, “We do not want to make the injuries an excuse. This is where the depth of a team comes into play, and that takes time to build, and that’s where we are. When you have injuries and players unavailable, and you don’t have depth quite like you need it, it shows up in a game like this. When you make mistakes, it amplifies it. Our freshmen found out what this rivalry is all about. This was a bowl game atmosphere with national implications. That’s part of the history of this game. But I am confident our coaches will make the necessary adjustments to help our team bounce back as they contend to win the Pac-12 South.” The key line here is “I am confident our coaches will make the necessary adjustments to help our team bounce back as they contend to win the Pac-12 South.” The final three games will put Swann’s statement regarding the coaching staff to the test.

Pac-12 South Division Standings:

  1. USC (5-1 Pac-12, 7-2 overall)
  2. Arizona (4-1 Pac-12, 6-2 overall)
  3. ASU (3-2 Pac-12, 4-4 overall)
  4. UCLA (2-3 Pac-12, 4-4 overall)
  5. Colorado (2-4 Pac-12, 5-4 overall)
  6. Utah (1-4 Pac-12, 4-4 overall)

Pac-12 North Division Standing:

  1. Stanford (5-1 Pac-12, 6-2 overall)
  2. Washington (4-1 Pac-12, 7-1 overall)
  3. Washington State (4-2 Pac-12, 7-2 overall),
  4. Oregon (2-4 Pac-12, 5-4 overall)
  5. Cal (1-5 Pac-12, 4-5 overall)
  6. Oregon State (0-5 Pac-12, 1-7 overall).

The post-game show numbers…

Major increase: Against ASU, the Trojans scored 48 points. Prior to the ASU game, the Trojans were averaging ­­­­­31.88 points per game.

Healthy decrease: Against ASU, the Trojans allowed 17 points. Prior to the ASU game, the Trojans defense was allowing 26.88 points per game.

Major yardage increase: Against ASU, the Trojans had 607 yards in total offense. Prior to the ASU game, the Trojans were averaging 459.4 yards in total offense per game.

Modest reduction: Against ASU, the Trojans’ defense allowed 357 offensive yards. Prior to the ASU game, the Trojans defense was allowing 385.4 total offensive yards per game.

Major ground attack: Against ASU, the Trojans rushed for 341 yards. Prior to the ASU game, the Trojans were averaging 167.5 rushing yards per game.

 Major rush stoppage: Against ASU, the Trojans allowed 79 net rushing yards. Prior to the ASU game, the Trojans defense was allowing 175.5 net yards rushing per game.

Below the clouds: Against ASU, the Trojans had 266 passing yards. Prior to the ASU game, the Trojans were averaging 291.88 passing yards per game.

Air defense increase: Against ASU, the Trojans allowed 278 passing yards. Prior to the ASU game, the Trojans defense was allowing 223.88 passing yards per game.

 Flags on point: Against ASU, the Trojans had 8 penalties for 60 yards. Prior to the ASU game, the Trojans were averaging 60.88 penalized yards per game.

The last word: So, now the Trojans turn towards the Arizona Wildcats, who have been a conference surprise team. The good news is that this will be the Trojans’ Homecoming Game and Coliseum should be rocking. And given the circumstances and the time of the year, this is the biggest game of the season. It appears the stars may be aligning for a satisfying finish to the regular season.

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.

More Articles By Greg