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IMHO Sunday: The magic number

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

IMHO evaluation: It wasn’t pretty, well executed for the most part, or even consistently entertaining until the final exhilarating 15 minutes – thanks to a whopping 123 penalty yards from the home team that constantly disrupted play – but the No. 17 USC Trojans emerged a 49-35 victor over the No. 23 Arizona Wildcats on Saturday night at the Coliseum, thus placing the No. 17 Men of Troy (8-2, 6-1 Pac-12 South) within one game of winning the Pac-12 South Division. Although the Trojans still have two games to play (at Colorado/UCLA), a victory over the Buffaloes next Saturday afternoon in Boulder will clinch the Pac-12 South title. Given their division leading position and holding tie-breaker scenarios, the Men of Troy will have to pull a real “el foldo” not to seal the deal in one of the final two contests of the regular season. Using baseball terminology, the magic number is one.

IMHO evaluation – Part 2: Yep, a Trojans’ win over Colorado (5-5, 2-5 Pac-12 South), a 41-30 loser on Saturday night at ASU, and the South Division is cardinal and gold clinched. If not, a win over hapless UCLA in the Coli on Nov. 18 would also do the trick. FYI, the Pac-12 Championship Game will be played on Friday night (5 p.m. PT), Dec.1, in Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. FYI, the Trojans are now ranked No. 15 in the latest AP poll.

IMHO evaluation – Part 3: Now, as far as the Arizona victory, the Trojans’ inconsistent play on offense and a tiring defense made the contest into a late-game thriller in what should have been a complete blowout. As it was, the Men of Troy squandered a 22-point lead, as the Wildcats clawed their way back into the uneven game in the second half, thanks to the explosive play of quarterback Khalil Tate. However, the Trojans backfield of quarterback Sam Darnold and tailback Ronald Jones (photo above) – along with backup running back Aca’Cedric Ware – finally put the Wildcats to sleep in the fourth quarter. For the most part, the Trojans win was as important as it was ugly. While the Trojans were up 21-6 at the half, Arizona actually outscored the Cardinal and Gold in the second half 29-28. However, the Trojans outscored UofA 21-15 in the final quarter to seal it.

IMHO offensively speaking: Give the Trojans’ offense credit for being good when it counted, which was the fourth quarter. However, the problem was that the offensive inconsistencies for much of the game were glaring, the constant penalties deflating to both the team and the fans in attendance, and some of the execution of plays and the play-calling was truly head scratching and that’s being kind. It took the full effort of quarterback Sam Darnold (20 of 26 for 311 yds./2 TDs) to again work his magic and the violent running of tailbacks Ronald Jones ll (195 yds./3 TDs) and Aca’Cedric Ware (129 yds./1 TD) to elevate the Trojans from the jaws of potential defeat. Let’s face it, the scariest words currently in the Trojans’ offensive lexicon – 1st-and goal at the 1or 4th-and-1 from anywhere on the field. It’s an adventure. For example, in the first quarter, the Trojans proved again that they can’t move the ball in from the opponent’s 1-yard line. BTW, whatever happened to the old “student body sweep”? Or, whatever happened to Darnold just keeping the ball at the 1-yard line after a fake handoff and running around the end? Whatever became of a Power-I formation or two-back set? Instead, the Trojans elected to throw (yikes) the ball from the 1-yard line, which resulted in Sam Darnold’s 11th interception of the season. Let’s turn our attention to the offensive line and give credit the bulldozers, which when not being called for holding, finally wore down the Wildcats overmatched defensive front and impressive true freshmen linebackers.

IMHO defensively speaking: The Trojans defense gave a brilliant effort of containing Arizona’s dangerous quarterback Khalil Tate – for a half. Trojans’ defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast should be credited in scheming a plan to limit Tate’s ability to hurt the Trojans, and it worked for the first 30 minutes. Of note, the Trojans’ defense had 5 sacks on the evening. In the first half, Tate had only 42 yards rushing and just 37 yards passing. The second half became a much different story, as Tate started ripping off big chunks of yardage. The emerging national star quarterback finished with 307 total yards. Highly impressive considering in the first half alone, the Tate had only 57 yards in total offense. The Trojans second half defense, however, became as leaky as it was suffocating in the first half. Play in the second half became weird, as Trojans DBs Jack Jones and Ajene Harris were both called for unsportsmanlike conduct on the same play (snapping pretend selfies away from the action but in front of an official). Before the next play could be actionized, Jones was called for another penalty for offsides. Jones left the field for a 0ne-play scolding but returned on the ensuing play. On a positive perspective, linebackers Uchenna Nwosu and Jordan Iosefa played outstanding games of containing and pressuring Tate. The biggest defensive play of the game and the biggest Arizona offensive blunder of the game came late when Arizona was driving on the ground to perhaps win the game, and Wildcats’ head coach Rich Rodriguez elected to throw deep. Khalil Tate did complete a bomb…to Trojans DB Ajene Harris. It was reminiscent of Penn State throwing deep in the Rose Bowl and putting the Trojans in position to win that thriller.

IMHO special teams speaking: Thanks to Michael Pittman’s punt block and recovery by Jalen Greene who took it into the end zone (11 yd.return), the Trojans got a first quarter gift touchdown on special teams. It should also be acknowledged that punter Reid Budrovich again was exceptional and was a difference maker with his directional punts (42.8 avg.). Budrovich’s punting has been a real strategic weapon during the course of the game.

IMHO -The bottom line: So, it’s one victory away until Trojans fans can seriously start booking flights, hotel room(s), and securing tickets for the Pac-12 Championship Game. While the Trojans will try and wrap up the Pac-12 South next Saturday at Colorado, the Pac-12 North Division race is also in the elimination process, especially after Washington State (5-2 Pac-12, 8-2 overall) edged Stanford, 24-21, in snowy Pullman on Saturday. While it looks more and more like the North Division title will probably be settled when No. 19 Washington State visits No. 9 Washington (5-1 Pac-12, 8-1 overall) on Nov. 25, Stanford (5-2 Pac-12, 6-3 overall) will have one last gasp this Friday night in Palo Alto when the Cardinal hosts the Huskies.

The quote book…

Trojans head coach Clay Helton comments: “Good win for our football team. Great team effort through the night. Very proud of our offensive line and runners on the night. I thought they set the tone for the football game, and they really had an attitude about them tonight. They, I think, they wanted to show they could run the ball, too. Big win for us as far as the Pac-12 South goes. That leaves us in control of our own destiny; we have a great opportunity next to go to Colorado and try to seal things up.”  

Clay Helton comments – Part 2: “I thought they (offensive line) were opening up holes for the runners. I credit Ronald (Jones), but the hidden gem also was Ced (Ware). One runs for 194 yards in RoJo and 122 with Ced. I thought both runner got to the second level, broke tackles, and finished runs. It was a very aggressive run plan. I thought Tee (Martin) did a good job really leaning on it tonight. And credit to the kids. Players win ball games, and they won it tonight.”

Clay Helton comments – Part 3 (On Sam Darnold’s performance and the 33-yard pass to Ronald Jones late in the fourth quarter): “He’s a kid (Darnold) that always wants the ball in his hands. I could say that about a lot of kids on this team. I can’t tell you how hard a throw that is when you’re going to your left to lob that ball up to RoJo. When he threw it and completed it, even I was like ‘Whoa, that’s about as bigtime as you get.’ That was probably the biggest play of the game because it was a third-down play. Kind of a must-make situation.”

Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez comments (On any adjustments in the second half and the play of QB Khalil Tate): “We had played so poorly in every phase. Hard to play much worse. We played a little better (second half), executed a little better. He (Tate) tried to make plays. There were a lot of mistakes. It’s everyone’s fault. He’s a competitive guy. But we just didn’t play well. You have to give them credit for it, too. We missed some shots downfield, but you have to give them credit.”   

Looking ahead: Afterward, Trojans’ tailback Ronald Jones ll addressed his team’s position in the Pac-12 South. Jones said, “It’s great knowing we control our own destiny, so we’re really looking forward to going to Colorado and competing to be in the Pac-12 Championship Game.”

Comfort zone: On the Trojans state of mind when they were up big, tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe said, “When you’re up like that, the natural thing to do is feel relaxed. You don’t want to be the team that blows the lead.”

Brotherly love: Playing against how old Serra High School teammate Khalil Tate, Trojans linebacker John Houston said, “I think it was fun. He’s an athletic guy, and I’ve know that since high school. So, it was fun playing against a quarterback that was on my team.”

Sam speaks: Talking about his team and the importance of the win on Saturday night, Trojans quarterback Sam Darnold said, “It was nice to find a rhythm (in the fourth quarter). We had a rhythm most of the first half. I thought their defense did a great job of stopping us when they did. It was nice late in the fourth quarter when they tied it, and we had one touchdown and trying to score another to put us up by two scores. It was nice to convert some huge first downs (late in the game).”

Sam speaks – Part 2: On his late deep pass to tailback Ronald Jones ll in the fourth quarter, Darnold said, “When I threw it, I was hoping RoJo would catch it. I knew I put it in a good area, especially when I am on the move. I try my best to be as accurate as I can. Sometimes I can’t tell where the ball is going to end up in terms of short or long. I put it in a good spot and RoJo made a heck of a catch.”

The interceptor: Speaking to his huge interception late in the fourth quarter to end Arizona’s hopes, Trojans safety Ajene Harris said, “I saw the opportunity to get the ball and went to go get it. I knew I had a good position. The receiver ran a fade from the No. 2 position and the quarterback threw it inside, so I speed-turned and got the ball. I was waiting for them to come at me all day and waiting for that deep ball. That was my opportunity to make a play.”

The big victory: Asked about the meaning of the victory over Arizona, Trojans’ wide receiver Michael Pittman said, “It’s just another step on our path to be the Pac-12 champs. We want to be Pac-12 champs.”

Pressurized: On returning to his hometown of Los Angeles facing the Trojans, Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate, who attended local Gardena Serra HS, said, “No extra pressure. We just stuck to our game plan and tried to be efficient. I wasn’t as sharp on my reads and off on a lot of my throws. We saw some tendencies in the (USC) defense that we tried to capitalize on.”

Tough to defend: Regarding USC’s running game, Arizona true freshman linebacker Tony Fields ll said, “Toward the first half, obviously they were running the ball a lot. We started being more aggressive toward the run, and that’s when we got hit with the RPO’s (run-pass options).”

Marvell tells: Assessing the reason his defense was effective against Arizona’s star quarterback Khalil Tate, Trojans’ outstanding safety Marvell Tell lll said, “That was one of the fastest offenses in the country, and I think we did a great job. We played assignment football and everybody filling and playing their gap. Tonight’s win was huge.”

Tackling the issues: Linebacker John Houston Jr. led the Trojans with 10 tackles followed by linebackers Jordan Iosefa and Uchenna Nwosu and safety Chris Hawkins with 8 tackles each.

The infirmary: TE Tyler Petite (shoulder), OT Toa Lobendahn (lower body), WR Joseph Lewis (calf), and ILB Juliano Falaniko (quad)

From the press box…

Hall of Fame favorites: Loudest applause at halftime for the introduction of the new Class of 2017 USC Hall of Fame was for strong safety Troy Polamalu followed by Traveler, the Trojans renowned mascot.

Tunnel runner: Former Trojans standout wide receiver and USC broadcast analyst John Jackson led the Trojans out of the storied Coliseum tunnel prior to kickoff.

The turnstiles: Attendance for the Trojans’ Homecoming Game was announced at 70,225.

The temp: The night temperature at kickoff was 64-degrees with a pronounced breeze.

Cover boy: Trojans’ linebacker Cameron Smith was on the cover of the game program.

Unity: As the Trojans team was heading out of the locker room to descend down the Coliseum tunnel to start the game, linebacker and co-captain Cameron Smith shook each players’ hand.

NFL evaluators: NFL scouts in attendance on Saturday night included the Giants, Jets, Bears, Vikings, Bills, Texans, Seahawks, and Chargers.

Bowling: Bowl reps in attendance included the Alamo, Holiday, and Sun Bowls.

Pac-12 South Division Standings:

  1. USC (6-1 Pac-12, 8-2 overall)
  2. Arizona (4-2, Pac-12, 6-3 overall)
  3. ASU (4-2 Pac-12, 5-4 overall)
  4. Utah (2-5 Pac-12, 5-5 overall)
  5. Colorado (2-4 Pac-12, 5-4 overall)
  6. UCLA (2-4 Pac-12, 4-5 overall)

Pac-12 North Division update:

  1. Washington (5-1 Pac-12, 8-1 overall)
  2. Washington State (5-2 Pac-12, 8-2 overall)
  3. Stanford (5-2 Pac-12, 6-3 overall)
  4. Cal (2-5 Pac-12, 5-5 overall)
  5. Oregon (2-5 Pac-12, 5-5 overall)
  6. Oregon State (0-6 Pac-12, 1-8 overall).

The post-game show numbers…

 Upward bound: Against Arizona, the Trojans scored 49 points. Prior to the Arizona game, the Trojans were averaging ­­­­­33.67 points per game.

Unhealthy increase: Against Arizona, the Trojans allowed 35 points. Prior to the Arizona game, the Trojans defense was allowing 25.78 points per game.

Substantial increase: Against Arizona, the Trojans had 642 yards in total offense. Prior to the Arizona game, the Trojans were averaging 475.8 yards in total offense per game.

Slight reduction: Against Arizona, the Trojans’ defense allowed 380 offensive yards. Prior to the Arizona game, the Trojans defense was allowing 394.7 total offensive yards per game.

Major ground assault: Against Arizona, the Trojans rushed for 331 yards. Prior to the Arizona game, the Trojans were averaging 186.8 rushing yards per game.

Too much ground: Against Arizona, the Trojans allowed 234 net rushing yards. Prior to the Arizona game, the Trojans defense was allowing 164.8 net yards rushing per game.

Modest increase: Against Arizona, the Trojans had 311 passing yards. Prior to the Arizona game, the Trojans were averaging 289.0 passing yards per game.

Air defense decrease: Against Arizona, the Trojans allowed 146 passing yards. Prior to the Arizona game, the Trojans defense was allowing 229.89 passing yards per game.

Flags remain on point: Against Arizona, the Trojans had 14 penalties for 123 yards. Prior to the Arizona game, the Trojans were averaging 60.78 penalized yards per game.

The last word: Considering it’s November, the Trojans couldn’t be happier that the kickoff for next Saturday’s game at Colorado is 2 p.m. Mountain Time (1 p.m. PT). The early long-range weather forecast in Boulder calls for morning showers with a high of 46 and a low of 29, 56 percent humidity, and 30 precipitation. 

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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