In my humble opinion, cardinal and gold thoughts on what I see, what I hear, and what I think.
IMHO evaluation: Let’s face it, you thought it, I thought it, and the American people thought it – the USC Trojans (6-1, 4-1 Pac-12 South) were going down to the Utah Utes (4-2, 1-2 Pac-12) after a 21-7 first half deficit from hell. But a funny thing happened along the way to self-destruction in the Coliseum. At halftime, somebody shined the Captain Comeback searchlight over the City of Los Angeles, and Trojans’ quarterback Sam Darnold awoke and saw the dire, frantic call and along with a defense that stopped a potential game-winning two-point conversion with seconds to play, the Trojans survived 28-27 over a relentless and physical Utah club before 72,382 and a national television audience, all of whom had to check their collective pulses and blood pressure after the final tackle. Would we have been surprised by a different outcome? Probably not and there is a message there somewhere.
IMHO evaluation: Forget about the No. 11 USC Trojans’ overall record, sometimes it’s not all about winning and losing but how you play the game. And this team flirts both with glory and disaster, depending on the moment and the quarter. But why? Well, everybody has a theory, but one thing is certain, the Trojans’ College Football Playoff hopes are still very much alive and dreams of a Pac-12 title game appearance are absolutely on target. With the heart pounding victory over Utah, the Trojans’ Pac-12 South title aspirations have increased immeasurably, and the Men of Troy have clearly established themselves as the heavy favorite to win the division crown. With South Division games left with improving ASU, scary Arizona, disappointing Colorado, and rival UCLA, the Cardinal and Gold know a sweep of those four division challengers and it’s on to the Pac-12 title game in early December. So, as head coach Clay Helton continues to say, “Destiny is in our own hands.” A word of caution: Based on the body of evidence of the first 7 games, it won’t be easy but is very doable.
IMHO offensively speaking: No question the fourth quarter was the Sam Darnold we know and love. However, the first half was very much the Sam Darnold that has left us scratching our heads for a good part of the season and Utah made 7 points off his first quarter fumble. Saturday night’s awakening performance in the fourth quarter appeared to have returned confidence back in Sam’s game, something that has been clearly lacking in recent games. Now, about the running game. Obviously, Ronald Jones, whose explosive and determined 11-yard touchdown run up the middle with 4:54 remaining was the difference along with Chase McGrath’s PAT, is a major threat with the ball (113 yds. on 17 carries). More than a few Trojans fans would like to see RoJo carry the ball more – which includes your humble scribe. As John McKay said about concern regarding the large number of carries for Heisman Trophy winning tailback O.J. Simpson, “He doesn’t belong to a union.” As for the offensive line, there are still issues, but in the fourth quarter, there was a lot of determination and maybe that’s what has been lacking – just plain attitude. And the O-line allowed no sacks! And the good news is that two tight ends, junior Tyler Petite and true freshman Josh Falo, had scoring receptions, and, yes, sophomore TE Daniel Imatorbhebhe did see significant action, although he didn’t catch a pass. If only the offense played with the same sense of urgency for four quarters as they did in the final quarter against Utah. After all, the Trojans did outscore Utah 21-6 in the second half and eventually racked up 532 yards in total offense. And kudos to wide receiver Deontay Burnett, who looked like his old Rose Bowl self with eight receptions for 99 yards and nice to see Steven Mitchell Jr. (photo above) have a productive evening (64 yards on 3 receptions) .
IMHO defensively speaking: We’ll leave the defensive specifics for WeAreSC defensive guru analyst Kevin Bruce, but let’s just say had the Trojans not won the game, Trojans defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast would had some tough questions to answer on why the Utes were able to march in the end some 75 yards in 11 plays in only 4:12. The defense, however, certainly wasn’t helped by the first half mistakes by its offensive teammates. The Men of Troy still need to apply more pressure on the opposition quarterback, and, mamma mia, the tackling at times was Pop Warnerish at best. And teams like Utah have decided to throw deep on the Trojans’ corners feeling that a pass interference call is just one heave away. The good news, however, is that linebacker Cameron Smith is a beast and, boy, is he the glue of the defense. The additional good news is that the Trojans defense recorded four sacks for combined losses of 16 yards. The Trojans’ defensive line remains vulnerable to the rush, which is a major red flag with the ground oriented and extremely physical No. 13 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (5-1) on the horizon. BTW, Notre Dame’s only loss was by 1-point (20-19) to undefeated and No. 3 Georgia (7-0).
IMHO special teams speaking: Talk about a mixed bag. The good news is that punter Reid Budrovich averaged 42.5 yards per punt (4) and placekicker Chase McGrath converted all five PATs, although he never attempted a field goal. Chase also recorded two touchbacks on kickoffs. The bad news is that the Trojans’ punt return is almost non-existent. There are way too may indecisions being made by returner Ajene Harris, the hero in stopping Utah’s 2-point conversion attempt at the end of the game. There’s a lot of work to be done on punt returns.
IMHO -The bottom line: Would you rather have an ugly win or a beautiful loss? You’re right, it’s a rhetorical question, so be happy and on to the Irish.
Tackling the issues: Trojans’ junior inside linebacker Cameron Smith led the Trojans with 16 tackles, seven of which were solo.
The quote book…
Trojans head coach Clay Helton comments: “Great job by our team. Players win games. Our play made decisions to define our football team there in the second half in a critical conference win. Credit to Kyle Whittingham and his team. Every time we play them it’s everything that we get. They are truly a terrific football team. And really, thank you to our fans. They were right there with us in the second half. The crowd noise, they were right there with us all the way.”
Clay Helton comments – Part 2: On getting into a rhythm in the second half, Helton said, “I thought the balance of the run game coming together. And you feel just the start of wearing the (Utah) defensive line. It was hard sledding early in the run game, and all of a sudden, they started to pop. Play-wise, I think we hit our mark with 80 plays. It just started to feel like all of a sudden and those runs were starting to hit. I thought the defining moment of the game was the defense coming out and getting the stop and the offense coming out and getting a 98-yard drive in that third quarter.”
Clay Helton – Part 3: Was the Trojans’ head coach surprised that Utah went for a 2-point conversion at the end of the game, Helton said, “I’m never surprised with Kyle (Whittingham); he’s a very gutsy coach. We knew last year they went for it on fourth-and-1 four times last year to win the game. That’s Kyle’s mentality and it’s a beautiful mentality and aggressive mentality. At the timeout (when Utah first lined up for the 2-point conversion), I wanted to get Clancy and the defense every opportunity to communicate what they saw by formation and personnel, so they could make the best possible call. And our kids went out there and performed.”
Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham comments: “We came up one play short to win the game. They made the play at the end to win the game and we didn’t. That’s the short version. I would not have switched the decision at the end. We played about 80 snaps on defense and major problems stopping them. (Sam) Darnold was on fire, and I thought that was the percentage play and if I had to do it again, I’d do the same thing.”
The game saver: On his game saving tackle on Utah’s 2-point conversion attempt to win the game, Trojans’ nickel back Ajene Harris said, “I’ve got confidence in my tackling and took the best angle possible. I shot my gun and wrapped up. The whole mindset of the defense was to get a stop. There was a ‘bunch look’ (formation) over there and I had a feeling come to me and I had to stay patient. The tight end route came to me and I just keep reading the quarterback and I saw him (Troy Williams) tuck it in start to run and put his head down, and I ran him down. When I saw him go down, I said, ‘We did it!’”
The hawk soars: Trojans senior safety Chris Hawkins said, “I knew what they were going to run because of my film study. They were going to roll out to the right and throw it back across the field. I saw it and I jumped the receiver. He (QB Troy Williams) saw he wasn’t open and had to take off. They don’t usually use their tight ends, so they knew we knew that. They would use them as a decoy, but I knew they were going to come back and try to hit him. This was our first division game, and it sets the tempo for the rest of the season.”
The adjustment: According to Utah quarterback Troy Williams, the Trojans made some defensive adjustments in the second half. Williams said, “They started playing a lot of zone. They were getting hurt playing man-to-man. They went to zone and slowed us down. It was a matter of one play. It was a great game. (On the 2-point conversion), “It was supposed to be a play-action, the tight end sneaking out to the other side. They covered him pretty well, and I just tried to make a play at the end.”
The captain speaks: During halftime, Trojans co-captain and linebacker Cameron Smith said, “He (Clay Helton) obviously approached us and got us going. Uchenna (Nwoso) stepped up. The message was go out there and have fun. We started out pretty flat on both sides of the ball, and that’s not how football should be played. It kind of revamped us. I saw Sam (Darnold) get fired up the last couple drives. We need that spark.”
Sam evaluates: On his performance against Utah, Trojans QB Sam Darnold said, “I just didn’t really get in rhythm in the first half. That’s just me making mistakes and turning the ball over. You’re not supposed to win football games when you turn the ball (over). I think if I can just control the ball, then we’ll be able to match up with any team in the country.”
Secretary of defense: On Utah’s final touchdown drive and stopping the 2-point conversion attempt, Trojans standout sophomore defensive end Christian Rector said, “I would have went for it (the 2-point conversion) too. They were converting on fourth-and – short and they did it twice. And last year, they were 4-for-4, but I think this year we really stepped up. Clancy (Pendergast) made all the right calls (on Utah’s final scoring drive). We just needed to execute them. Utah was a team on our schedule that we knew we had to win. That’s what it came down to. Last year, it left us out of the Pac-12 Championship Game. I hate the expression, but we still control our own destiny.”
Jack Jack: Reflecting on his team’s victory, Trojans’ sophomore corner Jack Jones said, “We can do whatever we want if we put our minds to it. We told ourselves at half time we had to stay high and not come down. We have our backs against the wall. We had to go out in the second half like it was zero to zero. A win is a win in my book, whether it’s by a half of a point or ten points, a win is a win.”
Hail to the Chief: In the Trojans’ locker room area after the game and reflecting on the excitement of the game at the end, USC President Max Nikias said, “I need oxygen for my heart.”
The infirmary: No reported injuries.
From the press box…
Pac-12 South Division Standings: 1. USC (4-1 Pac-12, 6-1 overall) 2. Arizona (2-1 Pac-12, 4-2 overall) 3. ASU (2-1, 3-3 overall) 4. Utah (1-2 Pac-12, 4-2 overall) 5. UCLA (1-2 Pac-12, 3-3 overall) 6. Colorado (1-3 Pac-12, 4-3 overall).
Pac-12 North Division update: With Washington’s 13-10 loss at ASU on Saturday night, Stanford now leads the Pac-12 North Division at 4-1 followed by Washington and Washington State at 3-1.
Sock it to me: Abandoning the recent tradition of white socks, the Trojans elected to wear black socks for Saturday’s game. Go figure.
The thermometer: The official temperature at kickoff was 84 degrees and hazy.
Mr. Interception: Trojans linebacker Cameron Smith had his fourth career interception in the first quarter. All have come against Utah, three as a 2015 freshman.
Tunnel entrance: Former Trojans’ All-America offensive tackle and Dallas Cowboys’ All-Pro Tyron Smith led the team onto the field prior to kickoff.
Cover boy irony: Trojans’ senior safety Chris Hawkins was on the cover of Saturday’s game program.
Scouting the talent: NFL representatives in attendance included the Raiders, 49’ers, Jets, and the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders.
The post-game show numbers…
On the decrease: Against Utah, the Trojans scored 28 points. Prior to the Utah game, the Trojans were averaging 35.50 points per game.
On the increase: Against Utah, the Trojans allowed 27 points. Prior to the Utah game, the Trojans defense was allowing 23.17 points per game.
Increasing yardage: Against Utah, the Trojans had 532 yards in total offense. Prior to the Utah game, the Trojans were averaging 467.8 yards in total offense per game.
More increasing numbers: Against Utah, the Trojans’ defense allowed 436 offensive yards. Prior to the Utah game, the Trojans defense was allowing 377.0 total offensive yards per game.
Under rush hour: Against Utah, the Trojans rushed for 174 yards. Prior to the Utah game, the Trojans were averaging 181.7 rushing yards per game.
Increased rushing it: Against Utah, the Trojans allowed 169 net rushing yards. Prior to the Utah game, the Trojans defense was allowing 143.0 net yards rushing per game.
Impressive increase: Against Utah, the Trojans had 358 passing yards. Prior to the Utah game, the Trojans were averaging 286.17 passing yards per game.
Air defense increase: Against Utah, the Trojans allowed 267 passing yards. Prior to the Utah game, the Trojans defense was allowing 234.0 passing yards per game.
The flag continues going down: Against Utah, the Trojans had three penalties for 35 yards. Prior to the Utah game, the Trojans were averaging 68.67 penalized yards per game.
The last word: Next up, the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame (5-1) in South Bend. Here come the Irish; Here come the Irish!