14 min Read

IMHO Sunday: The savior

Greg Katz – WeAreSC.com

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

Evaluation: Let’s dispense with the word play. With Sam Darnold (photo above) at quarterback for the Trojans, the transformed Cardinal and Gold offense gives Clay Helton’s club have a fighters and/or punchers chance for victory in each of the remaining gauntlet of future games. The Trojans (2-3, 1-2 Pac-12) smashing 41-20 victory over previously undefeated ASU (4-1, 1-1 Pac-12) proved that with Darnold anything is possible, even winning the Pac-12 South Division. Yes, thanks to Cal’s exciting 28-23 upset of Utah in Berkeley on Saturday night, the Trojans and Darnold are again in the thick of Pac-12 South Division contention with a legitimate shot at getting to the conference’s title game. Would you have said that after last weekend’s devastating loss at Utah?

Offensively speaking: Not to sound overly effusive in praise of Sam Darnold, but, folks, really, with this kid at the throttle of the USC offense, all things are possible. If his unpredictable defense doesn’t break completely, it appears the Trojans offense – if it doesn’t self-destruct – can still be one of the conference’s best. Sudden Sam can take a broken play, bad snap, questionable strategy, and turn disaster into success. Aside from Darnold’s mind-blowing performance (23 of 33 for 352 yards and three touchdowns), Saturday night was a great night for Trojans fans.

Offensively speaking – Part 2: It was exhilarating to see senior tailback Justin Davis (129 yds./8.8 avg.) score on that 37-yard TD run around the right side near the end of the half. And let’ not forget JuJu’s scintillating performance of 123 yards of receptions and that electrifying 67-yard catch-and-run TD. Granted the ASU defense isn’t the second coming of Alabama and the Trojans offensive line continues to be a work in progress, the Trojans will gladly take this confidence building victory and look ahead to next Saturday afternoon’s Coliseum battle (1 p.m. PT) with surprising Colorado (4-1, 2-0), which currently sits alone on top of the Pac-12 South Division by having already beaten conference foes Oregon and Oregon State.

Touchy subject: This week in practice, Clay Helton said he would like to get running back Justin Davis between 20 and 25 “touches.” Last night against ASU, carried the pigskin 14 times and had two receptions. Okay, that totals 16 “touches,” but it’s an election year and promises are abundant like weeds in an unkept backyard garden.

Defensively speaking: Although the Trojans defense makes you hold your breath at times to the point you feel you’re going to pass out, against ASU the Trojans secondary made some outstanding plays and while the pass rush won’t make you forget the Wild Bunch, they were inspired on Saturday and not only did they sack ASU quarterbacks three times for a total of 25 yards, they also managed – thanks to defensive end Rasheem Green, knock  Sun Devils quarterback Manny Wilkins out of the game near the end of the first half.

Defensively speaking – Part 2: Obviously, the Trojans will be challenged in the Pac-12 by more lethal offenses than the “heralded” ASU’s collection of talent, but at least on Saturday night Clancy Pendergast’s unit played hard and smart. Even the defensive penalties were kept to a minimum. And to prove its newfound defensive enthusiasm, the held ASU to just 75 yards rushing and 228 yards passing for just 303 in total offense. At least on this night, the Trojans defense didn’t give up a late first half score and only looked vulnerable late in the game with the backup troops in the game.    

Special team speaking: While there were no lightening returns by Adoree’ Jackson, there were also no irritating returns on kickoffs or punts by ASU. Placekicker Matt Boermeester continued to be impressive with a career long 49-yard field goal in the second quarter followed later in the same quarter with a 46-yarder. While kickoff and punt coverage for the most part was good, the Trojans again had an issue getting the correct number of players on the field on occasion.

The bottom line: Despite practices this week that were more quiet than USC’s Doheny Library, the Trojans came to play with an edge and it showed. They played for four quarters and didn’t self-destruct like in previous weeks. They didn’t wilt in the fourth quarter nor did they give up a late first half score. It was a sign for those in the Coliseum or watching on national television that this win – because of Sam Darnold – could be a turning point in the season. Of course, the defense must improve so that the future games don’t just become shootouts and you know how that can go.

After an extremely rough and disappointing start to the season, there is hope that the Trojans can still make it to Pasadena on New Year’s Day. The reality is that only time will tell, but this team will now either walk the walk or let Saturday night’s victory over ASU be just a one-game happy ending. As far as the Coliseum faithful, an announced throng of 72,214 (wink, wink), those in attendance gave Clay Helton’s team the type of ovation after the first half 27-6 performance that was a welcome audio sensation.

The quote book…   

Trojans head coach Clay Helton comments: “When adversity hits, it reveals your character. The character of this team is something I’m extremely proud of. As a coach, you have to ask yourself if you’re improving each and every game. And I can honestly say going from Alabama to Stanford, going from Stanford to Utah, and from Utah to Arizona State that this team is improving.”

More Helton: “Offensively, I thought the balance of a 100-yard rusher (Justin Davis) and a 300-yard passer (Sam Darnold) playing a very clean turnover game was just what the doctor ordered. Defensively, Clancy (Pendergast) really, really challenged our guys to get to the quarterback. That was with a four-man rush and pressure. I am very proud of Clancy for the schemes he instituted this week, which I thought really put pressure on the (ASU) quarterback.”

Trojans head coach Clay Helton comments – Part 2: “September is what I don’t want to remember (losses to Alabama, Stanford, and Utah), and this was an important game for us. To be able to come home after a tough loss to Utah, as a staff I commend them for holding our kids together, keep on getting them believing, and keep them getter better. It paid off today and it was a relief (to get a win).”

Trojans head coach Clay Helton comments – Part 3: On whether the ASU game might be a turning point in the season, Helton said, “I am hoping it is a turning point. I saw a change last week. I know it was a loss and the nation doesn’t see it, but as a coaching staff and players we saw it. Then to build on that this week and come out to perform the way we know we can. Now the challenge to them, I told them, now you have shown the world who you are, and now you are accountable to do that every week.”

ASU head coach Todd Graham comments: “You have to give them credit, they were the better team tonight. We just played poorly. We couldn’t run the ball and we couldn’t do much. We didn’t have much offense at all. Give them credit. They did some pressure. Give them credit. They shut us down defensively. We didn’t win any phase tonight. They took ownership and we played poorly.”

Sam speaks: Trojans redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold commented on the importance of the win over the Sun Devils. Darnold said, “Without turning the ball over this game, how we executed, I thought we did a really good job.”

Praising Sam: ASU defensive tackle Tashon Smallwood was very complimentary of the play of Trojans quarterback Sam Darnold. Smallwood said, “He did a great job of capitalizing on our mistakes. He made great reads and he made great throws. Their great receivers made great plays. They did a good job.”

Adoree’ says: Trojans stellar junior corner Adoree’ Jackson was asked, too, if this win could be a turning point in the season. Jackson said, “We really didn’t have much to lose, so it was one of my messages that I told them to just go out there and have fun, let’s have a party, and just play ball like we’re capable of playing. It showed today.

(On Sam Darnold) “It’s exciting to see a guy like that. He’s able to run the ball and throw the ball and run while he’s throwing. We get fired up because he does it in practice and now we see it in games. He gets us all fired up, juiced up, and it’s all about that momentum and we like it.”

More Adoree’: “There isn’t a sense of relief that we won, but it was good to get a win. It’s still not nothing, it’s just one win, two or three now. We can’t just go celebrate and have a jolly old time because we won a game. We’ve got to keep out there and at the end of the day we have to go back to the lab and get ready for next week. Tonight could be a (turning point game). With these things we never know what could happen, but it could be a turning point. We’re just going to try and keep this momentum going and go forward from there.”

The pressure: Trojans sophomore defensive end Rasheem Green, who knocked ASU quarterback Manny Wilkins out of the remainder of the game late in the second quarter, reflected upon stopping the vaunted ASU running game. Green said, “I felt like our team (defense) was more rested because we just had to stop the run and we got some fresh bodies in. Their drives weren’t long, so that always helps when drives are short. Our ‘2s’ are just as good as our ‘1s’.” We were able to stop the run pretty much by technique and playing in our gaps. That was a big key in getting their backs down.”

A turning point: Trojans senior running back Justin Davis (14 carries for 129 yards (8.8 avg.), two receptions, and a touchdown) said, “First, the one thing that gets on my nerves so much is that we couldn’t put this altogether the past week (at Utah) because this was the team I saw in training camp, the explosiveness that we have and all the playmakers that we have. I am just glad we were able to show just a little bit (of that) today. Oh, yes, this could be (a turning point) for us. Coach Helton said coming to the game that this is where the new era starts. Whatever has happened in the past is the past. We know we still have one of the best teams. We have the ability, it’s just a matter of us putting it altogether. I am glad we took a step in the right direction today.”

Quiet time: During the week, veteran observers were concerned just how quiet and unemotional the team was looking in practice for ASU. After the victory over the Sun Devils, Justin Davis said, “There was something different in the way we prepared this week (compared to previous weeks). We really paid attention to detail this week and had one of our best Friday practices. During practices, we were really dialed in so much that any talking was irrelevant. Stick to what we were trying to do and make sure you were doing your assignment right. That’s what I’ve been trying to preach to these guys the whole entire time that once we get our assignments right and stop making mistakes and focus on our part, and the man next to you has to get his part done. Having it all come together this game, it was beautiful to watch.”

From the press box…

Lockett up: One of the bright spots on defense during the game was the play of former Mater Dei High corner Jonathan Lockett, who had an interception and five tackles to lead the Trojans.

Say what? Somebody needs to explain to me why ASU thought they could single cover Trojans All-Pac-12 receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. The other teams the Trojans lost to didn’t single cover him, in fact bracketing him. So ASU shouldn’t be shocked that the former Long Beach Poly superstar had seven receptions for 123 yards and three touchdowns, including the brilliant 67-yard catch and run to paydirt. Don’t expect the same strategy from Colorado.

Just for kicks: Continuing to be a shining star has been placekicker Matt Boermeester, who again is booming touchbacks as he did last week in air-thin Utah. On Saturday, the left-footed kicker had four more touchbacks. Thus far this season, Matt has 17 touchbacks for the season.

The infirmary: There were no reported injuries of note.

The introductions: Prior to kickoff, there was the standard introduction of the offensive and defensive starters for the Trojans. However, in the past, USC players have introduced themselves on the giant video board. On Saturday, the Coliseum public address announcer provided the intros.

Tunnel vision: Leading the Trojans out of the Coliseum players tunnel prior to kickoff was Allyson Felix, she of six Olympic gold medals.

The post-game report…

Cover boy: Trojans sophomore corner Iman Marshall was on the cover of the official USC/ASU game program.

Bowling time: There were no bowl representatives in attendance.

Call time: To remind fans and to avoid long security lines, a loud set of fireworks are being exploded at 60 and 30 minutes prior to kickoff.

Scouting the talent: NFL representatives in attendance on Saturday night included the New Orleans Saints, Washington Redskins, San Diego Chargers, and from the Canadian Football League the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

The thermometer: Temperature at kickoff in the Coliseum was 77 degrees with clear skies.

The Call-In Show numbers…

Top tackler(s): Trojans corners Adoree’ Jackson and Jonathan Lockett led the Trojans defense with five tackles each.

Exceeding the average: The Trojans scored 41 points against ASU on Saturday. Prior to Saturday’s game with Sun Devils, the Trojans were averaging 22.0 points per game.

Defensive reduction: The Trojans defense allowed 20 points to ASU on Saturday. Prior to the Sun Devils game, the Trojans were allowing 29.2 points per game.

Getting down: The Trojans had 23 first downs compared to the Sun Devils 16.

Offensive production: The Trojans had 523 yards in total offense against ASU on Saturday. Prior to the Sun Devils game, the Trojans were averaging 358.8 yards in total offense per game.

Defensive totals: Against ASU on Saturday, the Trojans defense allowed a total of 303 yards. Prior to the Sun Devils, the Trojans were allowing 394.5 yards per game.

Rush hour: Against ASU, the Trojans rushed for 157 yards. Prior to the Sun Devils, the Trojans were averaging 143.0 rushing yards per game.

Rush hour – Part 2: Against ASU on Saturday, the Trojans defense allowed 75 net yards rushing. Prior to the Sun Devils, the Trojans were allowing 194.8 net rushing yards per game.

Passing fancy:  On Saturday against ASU, the Trojans passed for 366 yards per game. Prior to the Sun Devils, the Trojans were averaging 215.8 passing yards per game.

Air defense holes: On Saturday against ASU, the Trojans defense allowed 228 passing yards. Prior to the Sun Devils, the Trojans were allowing 199.8 passing yards per game.

The red zone: The Trojans were 3 of 4 in the red zone while ASU was 2 of 3.

Sacking out: Trojan quarterback Sam Darnold was not sacked on Saturday night while the Trojans sacked ASU QBs five times.

The flag is up: The Trojans were penalized seven times for 68 yards on Saturday. Prior to ASU, the Trojans were averaging 50.5 yards per game in penalties per game.

The last word: After stopping ASU on the initial kickoff, a Trojans wide receiver-type special teams member ran off the field and in his excitement appeared to chest bump teammate Zach Banner, the Trojans 6-foot-9, 350-pound All-Pac-12 offensive tackle. After the collision, Banner fell backward onto his backside, which of course drew a vocal response by those that witnessed the event. Timber!

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