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IMHO Sunday: The moment of South Bend truth

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

IMHO evaluation: Your Honor, the evidence is conclusive, the closing arguments in Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday night crystal clear. Without much room for debate, No. 13 Notre Dame (6-1) has gotten better each week and No. 11 Trojans (6-2, 4-1 Pac-12) – albeit injuries play a part – have not. Hence, the final crushing score, Notre Dame 49, USC 14, the most Irish points against a USC team since 1977, which was the fabled ND green jersey game. Saturday night underscored each team’s current state of affairs. Of course, it was fairly obvious to the 77,622 in attendance and a national television audience that the Irish are on their way up the CFP ladder and the Trojans are now careening to who knows where. And for the Trojans’ most authoritative onlooker, you have to wonder what was going through Trojans’ athletic director Lynn Swann’s mind as he watched the carnage in Notre Dame Stadium unfold. The Trojans’ winning record belies a team that has issues on both sides of the ball, which includes players and coaches. But I suppose the good news is that the Trojans’ waxing taken in South Bend doesn’t damage the Trojans’ chances of winning the Pac-12 Conference. But then again, this USC team was supposed to be a major national championship contender with a Heisman Trophy frontrunner and not thoughts of a Pac-12 championship “consolation prize.” And, poof, as of Oct. 21, there will be no further national championship run for 2017.

IMHO evaluation: Although not overly surprising at all, Notre Dame physically dominated the Trojans, something that Lynn Swann and Trojans fans everywhere find hard to accept and digest. For Trojans head coach Clay Helton, who raved in spring and summer training camp how much more physical his team appeared, reality set in that they fall dramatically short of actually dominating or equalizing a physical opponent. Let it be said, however, the Men of Troy did play hard for most of the game against ND, but showed signs of early stage fright only to have their spirit finally broken in the final quarter. The only question was would the Irish go over 50 points and would the Trojans hit a 20 marker. It was a lethal brew of the Irish being way too good and the Trojans self-destructing and unable to punch back with much or any authority. This is not the brand of storied football that would be acceptable to Howard Jones, John McKay, John Robinson, and Pete Carroll.

IMHO offensively speaking: Remember that Sam Darnold – before Saturday – had never played a game in Notre Dame Stadium, but he had seen two games in South Bend as a young spectator. Notre Dame Stadium, even for a veteran, can be unforgiving, especially once the Irish student body gets cranked up along with their team. On the very first play of the Trojans’ offense to open Saturday night’s game, Darnold (20 of 28 for 229 and 1 PI) received a high but manageable snap but promptly fumbled to the Irish. To make matters worse, Darnold was sacked five times! So, Saturday’s loss underscored the offensive issues such as fumbles, interceptions, sacks, and, of course, play calling. However, let’s give credit to the Trojans offense for coming back in the first series of the second half with a 77-yard scoring drive, which did breathe some life into the USC futile cause. Obviously, it was too late as the game was effectively over in the first half. Bright spots on offense would have to be the continued good play of redshirt freshman wide receiver Tyler Vaughns, who was not only effective but played with a lot of heart. And so, did Deontay Burnett (photo above), who finished with 113 yards, including a 16-yard TD reception to lead all Trojans receivers. And BTW, no tight end receptions or didn’t you notice?

IMHO defensively speaking: What domination by the Notre Dame offense. You knew going in that the Trojans were hurting on the defensive line even before they played an Irish offensive line that may have two first-round draft picks. The Trojans were predictably vulnerable to a ground attack, and all Saturday proved was the expected. The Irish carved up the Trojans on the ground either by tailback Josh Adams (194 yds., 3 TDs) or quarterback Brandon Wimbush 117 yds., 2 TDs). Both were nearly unstoppable and Wimbush was on target for some exceptional throws (9 of 19 for 120 yds. and 2 TDs). The Irish offensive line lived up to its billing as one of the nation’s finest, brutalizing the Trojans defense almost on every play (8.0 avg.) on the ground. The Trojans had no answer along the front, but that wasn’t exactly unexpected. As they say, “Past is prologue.” The Irish had 143 yards rushing by the middle of the second quarter and finished on the ground with 377 yards – yikes! Rushing defense has been a major issue for the Trojans on the edges, but the Irish took it a step further by punishing the Men of Troy inside the tackles. In fact, it was a tough outing for all three levels of USC’s defense. Trojans’ defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast was unable to come up with a defense concept that could stop the unrelenting Irish. The Trojans secondary also had its hands full with an array of Irish receivers, led by local SoCal product Eqanimeous St. Brown, formerly of Anaheim Servite High.

IMHO special teams speaking: Trojans placekicker Chase McGrath, too, was affected by the negative vibes, missing a 27-yard attempt in the early moments of the second quarter. You know when the normally reliable McGrath misses, it’s not your night. And did we mention Jack Jones’s punt return fumble on the Irish 9-yard line in the second quarter, which lead to the third ND touchdown? Then there were some questionable kickoff returns by Velus Jones that could have spelled trouble. All in all, not a night to remember for special teams coach John Baxter.

IMHO -The bottom line: Reality won out over perception. The Trojans aren’t a bad team, but they just aren’t the national title contender they were trumpeted in preseason publications and may be in for a rude awakening in taking on some much-improved Pac-12 South contenders (ASU, UA). If that’s the bad news, the good news is that the Men of Troy are still in good position to win the Pac-12 South Division and play for the conference title. A real question, is how is the current season playing out in the eyes of Trojans athletic director Lynn Swann? Swann has his own expectations, knows the expectation of the fan base, and is aware that with Coliseum renovation a hotly discussed issue, how will this affect Clay Helton’s future in the eyes of his athletic director? Swann earlier said he was disappointed the team wasn’t undefeated, so you can only imagine how Saturday’s shellacking is playing out inside the John McKay Center.

Tackling the issues: Inside linebacker Cameron Smith led the Trojans with 10 tackles followed by fellow inside linebacker John Houston with 8 stops.

The quote book…

Trojans head coach Clay Helton comments: “Good win for Notre Dame. Credit their football team and their coaching staff for the job they did. They came out and executed I thought a flawless game plan. Started with their run game. They were extremely physical tonight. We’ll watch this tape. Obviously, there are several corrections we have to make before we get back to Arizona State and Pac-12 play. Got a sad football team in there right now. We’ll live and learn from this. There’s a lot of football left to be played. Great opportunity to move on to Arizona State, try to fix some of the stuff that happened tonight.”

Clay Helton comments – Part 2: “I knew they were very physical up front, especially their offensive line. This was the most experienced offensive line that we faced. Going into the season they had four kids that played 18 games or more. Knew that the two runners, both Josh (Adams) and (Brandon) Wimbush, were ultra-dangerous. To see them live, they’re a terrific combination. They got us today. They did a terrific job. Credit to them and their staff, their players. They played a heck of a game.”

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly comments: “Well, I’m really proud of my players and coaches. We were prepared. We knew we needed to get off to a great start. And we certainly have a great deal of respect for USC. And this rivalry is one where our guys were excited about it. We made them aware of the history and tradition of it. We actually spent a little bit more time on how important this game was. But never did we take away from our preparation and how important that is. So, it was important to get off to a great start, as I said. And I think the (USC) turnovers, obviously, were key for us in the first half.”

Talking reality: Following the game, Trojans free safety Chris Hawkins said, “It didn’t look like we were ready to play. We didn’t come out with the fire we needed in this rivalry game. I felt like we were ready, but coming out feelings can be different. We didn’t come out ready and they attacked us from the beginning. They’ve got two All-Americans up there (the Irish offensive line), so why would anybody be surprised? We have to regroup, it wasn’t a Pac-12 game, we’re still in first place in the Pac-12 (South). We still control our own destiny to get to the Pac-12 championship. That was the goal of our season.”

Hurting quarterback: Sam Darnold, who was revealed to have been nursing an ankle injury suffered during the Washington State game, assessed his ankle issue and said, “I am good. I am just going to go into rehab tomorrow and try to ice it (the ankle). Do what I have to do to make it better. It’s just a little bump in the road. I’ll be fine.”

Hurting quarterback – Part 2: On his opening offensive play fumble and turnover, Darnold said, “It put us in a bad spot. It doesn’t give our defense a break. We have to craft and continue to fix and get ready for next week and move forward.”

Hurting quarterback – Part 3: On the physicality of the Notre Dame defense, Darnold said, “They prepared really well for us. They have a big D-line, six or seven. We knew it was going to be tough. We got it going a little bit there in the second half. They’re just a great defense. I have to see what happened on that snap, I think starting with the turnover in the first quarter is not a good start. That’s something we need to get better at. When you get down 28-0, it’s tough to come back from. It’s a great Notre Dame football team over there. We knew they were going to be up for it. They were too much to handle tonight.”

On the defense: On the Notre Dame offensive physicality, co-captain and inside linebacker Cameron Smith said, “They have a very experienced O-line, but we knew that coming in. We had young guys coming in and stepping in to play. I can’t say what the future will bring, but we need to get better at that. Physically, I think we were prepared for this game, things come and don’t go our way. We have to come out faster. They were just better than us.”

Receiving comments: On the game, Trojans wide receiver Deontay Burnett said, “We are going to have to look at the film and correct our mistakes. We can’t turn the ball over. We played a good team. They came out with the victory, but it’s just time for us to take the next step. I thought we’ve made improvements, but we knew tonight it was going to be tough. We just have to eliminate turnovers.”

The infirmary: Sam Darnold (ankle), Andrew Vorhees (lower back), Chuma Edoga (ankle), Michael Pittman (ankle), and Iman Marshall (knee).

From the press box…

IMHO: If I were Sam Darnold, I would strongly consider returning for his junior season. A great first season and a shaky second season up to this point tells me another year of seasoning would be a positive thing. Of course, I am not making the decision and Sam and his family are. There are those that have believed for the past several weeks that something was physically wrong with Darnold, as Sam came out of Saturday’s game late in the third quarter only to return later. Regardless, another year would be a prudent decision for No. 14.

Classless: IMHO, Irish head coach Brian Kelly showed no class with his club up by dozens and the game no longer in doubt and giving his approval for a “flea-flicker” call late in the game.

Speaks for itself: Notre Dame’s 28-0 halftime lead was the second biggest halftime lead in the series. The previous biggest halftime lead was ND’s 31-0 halftime in 1966, a game that the Irish went on to eventually win 51-0 in the Coliseum. Afterward, legendary Trojans’ head coach John McKay said basically that this will never happen again during his time at USC and it never did. Will Clay Helton be able to say the same thing?

Notre Dame renovation: Seeing first-hand the expansion of Notre Dame Stadium, the new “monstrosity” buildings, one on the South end zone and a new press box and suites on the east side, are both a major outer shell eyesores. You can barely tell there’s a football stadium inside all the newly outer structures. However, what was sacrificed on the outside has still left the inside still looking mystical and intimidating.

The heater: The official temperature in Notre Dame Stadium at kickoff was an unseasonably warm 71 degrees.

Rock on: The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame group Chicago performed at halftime with assistance from the Notre Dame Marching Band.

Recruits everywhere: Notre Dame treated their rivalry with USC as a fertile recruiting weekend that included prospects from California. Two of those recruits said to be in attendance from SoCal were Mater Dei receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, whose brother is ND WR Equanimeous St. Brown, and teammate and middle linebacker Solomon Tuliaupupu.

The ticket counter: Saturday night’s game between the Trojans and the Irish was the highest-priced ticket on the secondary market, specifically the Vivid Seats website. The average ticket was selling for $298.

SoCal spellout: If you attended the Dodgers’ pennant clinching win over the Chicago on Thursday night at Wrigley Field, there was a taste of USC spirit. After yelling, “Let’s go Dodgers” after the game, a large group of L.A fans added the famous USC “Southern Californnnnnnnia” spell-out. In fact, some USC fans wore Dodgers jerseys and USC caps or vice versa.

Scouting the talent: NFL representatives in attendance night in Notre Dame Stadium press box included the Chiefs, Bears, Browns, Broncos, Rams, Saints, Jets, and Jaguars.

Pac-12 South Division Standings: 1. USC (4-1 Pac-12, 6-2 overall) 2. Arizona (3-1 Pac-12, 5-2 overall) and ASU (3-1 Pac-12, 4-3 overall) 3. UCLA (2-2 Pac-12, 4-3 overall) 4. Utah (1-3 Pac-12, 4-3 overall), 5. Colorado (1-4 Pac-12, 4-4 overall).

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

The post-game show numbers…

Major decrease: Against Notre Dame, the Trojans scored 14 points. Prior to the Notre Dame game, the Trojans were averaging ­­­­­34.43 points per game.

Major increase: Against Notre Dame, the Trojans allowed 49 points. Prior to the Notre Dame game, the Trojans defense was allowing 23.71 points per game.

Decreasing yardage: Against Notre Dame, the Trojans had 336 yards in total offense. Prior to the Notre Dame game, the Trojans were averaging 477.0 yards in total offense per game.

Major increasing numbers: Against Notre Dame, the Trojans’ defense allowed 497 offensive yards. Prior to the Notre Dame game, the Trojans defense was allowing 385.4 total offensive yards per game.

Rush hour gridlock: Against Notre Dame, the Trojans rushed for 76 yards. Prior to the Notre Dame game, the Trojans were averaging 180.6 rushing yards per game.

Ground assault: Against Notre Dame, the Trojans allowed 377 net rushing yards. Prior to the Notre Dame game, the Trojans defense was allowing 146.7 net yards rushing per game.

Below the clouds: Against Notre Dame, the Trojans had 266 passing yards. Prior to the Notre Dame game, the Trojans were averaging 296.43 passing yards per game.

Air defense decrease: Against Notre Dame, the Trojans allowed 120 passing yards. Prior to the Notre Dame game, the Trojans defense was allowing 238.71 passing yards per game.

The flags still going down: Against Notre Dame, the Trojans had 7 penalties for 40 yards. Prior to the Notre Dame game, the Trojans were averaging 63.86 penalized yards per game.

The last word: Next up, it’s back to Pac-12 South Division play on Saturday with streaking Arizona State (3-1 Pac-12, 4-3 overall) first up. It’s a 7:45 p.m. (PT) kickoff, and the game will be telecast on ESPN.



Greg Katz
Author
Greg Katz

Now in his 58th 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 staff writer 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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