In my humble opinion, cardinal and gold thoughts on what I see, what I hear, and what I think from South Bend, Indiana.
IMHO: First, after witnessing the Trojans squashing of the Arizona Wildcats, we may be witnessing the return of LenDale White and Reggie Bush, but this time they go by the names of Markese Stepp and Kenan Christon (photo above). Although Stepp’s third quarter injury allowed Christon to exhibit his God-given speed and talent, this much is clear: Even pass-happy OC Graham Harrell and head coach Clay Helton may have to sit down and take out video of White and Bush highlights and learn how to properly incorporate this extraordinary combination of talent into their Air Raid attack. And, no, we haven’t forgotten the other running backs, Stephen Carr and Vavae Malepeai, both of whom may not be available for some time due to injury.
Now to the basics.Even after last weekend’s 30-27 loss at Notre Dame,USC Trojans’ head football coach Clay Helton again insisted his USC Trojans were a good football team, even though his club’s 3-3 record at the time didn’t support his assertion. On Saturday evening in a major Pac-12 South encounter against the Arizona Wildcats in the Coliseum, Helton’s team gave some credence to their coach’s confidence in them by dominating the invitees from Tucson, 41-14, before an announced Homecoming turnout of 53,826.
IMHO – Part 2: So now the Trojans (4-3 overall, 3-1 Pac-12 South) have five games remaining on their schedule, which will spell success or failure for the 2019 season. The No. 1 goal right now for the Trojans is to win the Pac-12 South, and hopefully then compete for the Pac-12 title in Santa Clara, which with a win would send the Cardinal and Gold to the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day. Farfetched? Maybe, but who knows? It won’t be easy, but the Trojans control their own destiny. The balance of the schedule is at Colorado, Oregon, at ASU, at Cal, and UCLA. Clay Helton’s claim of being a good team will bear itself against the aforementioned challengers.
IMHO – Part 3: Right now, with the win over the impressive victory over the Wildcats (4-3 overall, 2-2 Pac-12 South), the Trojans have taken the right hand of Lady Momentum, and with the victory over Kevin Sumlin’s team on Saturday night, it was a big first step. Whether the Cardinal and Gold are on the cusp of a dramatic run for the South Division title or just seeing fool’s gold, we will find out with the remaining weeks of the conference season. It all ties into the uncertain future of Clay Helton. It remains to be seen how fans of USC really feel about the whole deal if the Trojans go on a title run, which could very well mean the retention of Helton for another season as the USC head football coach. If the Trojans do go on a run, it could produce a lot of scenarios that will cause a lot of thought. If the Trojans could get to the Rose Bowl, would fans celebrate a New Year’s trip to Pasadena if it meant another season of Clay Helton as head coach?
IMHO offensively: The Trojans’ offense started slow against the porous Wildcats’ defense, and more than a few onlookers were turning their attention to the Coliseum press box in search of offensive coordinator Graham Harrell, whose offense hasn’t exactly been a whirlwind of wind or points as was expected. Ironically, things began to change rapidly when junior running back Stephen Carr went out with a hamstring injury in the last drive before halftime. As I have commented – rather pleaded – in stepped in redshirt freshman back Markese “Thunder” Stepp and can this kid ball or what? In the first half in nine carries, Stepp had 41 yards and a 4.6 average, which included a 12-yard TD blast up the gut. In the third quarter, it was almost cruel that out went Stepp out with what was ankle injury. He tried to come back, but the Indiana kid showed toughness by trying to gut it out but to no avail. Moments later, in popped heralded true freshman running back Kenan “Lightening” Christon (103 yards rushing/ two TDs/ 12.9 avg.), who exploded for what seemed longer than just a 7-yard run.
In the fourth quarter, Christon literally brought the Homecoming crowd to its feet with an electrifying display of speed with a 55-yard TD dash. Mouths were dropping at his – dare I say it – Reggie Bush-type speed. You can tell this is another very special running back with rare top-end speed. Not long after the big long TD sprint that he put on display again that incomparable speed with a 30-yard touchdown run. Now, what in the world will Graham Harrell do with a potential Reggie Bush-type back when all he wants to do is pass the ball first. John McKay must be lighting up a cigar and laughing in heaven’s version of the John McKay Center over Grahams’ conundrum. As for Kedon Slovis, he was workmanlike (19 of 28 for 232 yds/ 2 TDs of 9 and 5 yds, /0 interceptions). Needless to say, when you have a Kenan Christon in one’s backfield, the offensive line is going to look much more efficient. For the record, the O-line gave up two sacks. The offense was 7 of 15 in the red zone.
IMHO defensively: The Trojans’ defense played an exceptional game, as they stifled the Arizona offense throughout the cool evening. Using a game plan blueprint courtesy of the Baltimore Ravens along with an assortment of young secondary performers, it was somewhat surprising that Clancy Pendergast’s defense was able to contain QB Khalil Tate and his teammates in impressive fashion. The D-line even had a resounding seven sacks to go with their effort. In fact, the containment of the Wildcats’ offense might have been the defense’s most impressive part of the Trojans’ victory.
In the third quarter, UofA coach Kevin Sumlin tried to inject some juice in the Wildcats’ offense with the insertion of Texas freshman Grant Gunnell, which didn’t exactly make a dent against the Trojans’ aroused defense. One player that should get the attention of the coaching staff and fans was the play of sophomore inside linebacker Kana’i Mauga, who really showed why he is the former Hawaii Player of the Year. I’ll go as far as to say he should be considered a starter, moving current starter Palaie Gaoteote to the edge. I think that Palaie’s talents would be best served outside, as Mauga’s talents certainly on display on the inside with a game-high 13 tackles. In terms of players showing increased production, let’s give out a rose to DL Caleb Tremblay, who continues to make strides. And let’s also give major props to the secondary coach Greg Burns on the performance of his patchwork secondary, which for most of the game played admirably. Given the injuries and what’s coming up for the Trojans in the remaining five games, Burns “youngsters” who lost a leader, safety Talanoa Hufanga with yet another shoulder injury, played extraordinary for the most part given their inexperience and youth. Yes, sir, you probably hadn’t heard much of the likes of Kaulana Makaula, Chase Williams, Jordan McMillian, Dorian Hewett, and Adonis Otey. Get ready, folks, they may be wet behind the ears, but they’ve got some game. The Trojans had 13 points off turnovers.
IMHO special teams: Trojans placekicker Chase McGrath continued to have an impact in games, as the sophomore connected on two field goals (31, 38 yds.) and converted on five extra points. Punter Ben Griffiths continued to look more like what we’ve seen in practice as the Australian had six punts for 266 yards, which translates into a 44.3 average. On the other hand, there were again no real kickoff return thrills, and the punt return game only netted 19 meager yards.
Bottom Line: Considering the Trojans ended the first half of the season with a very average 3-3 record and the last game of the first half of the season was a tough loss at Notre Dame, to get a win on the first game of the second half of the season is noteworthy. In fact, if the Trojans can get a win at Colorado next Friday night in cold Boulder, it would set up a titanic game with No. 12 Oregon in the Coliseum on Nov. 2. What will be interesting is how Clay Helton deals with the young starts that rose to the occasion against Arizona. If he can make Markese Stepp and Kenon Christon part of the mix, things could get very exciting on offense. And if Helton and Clancy Pendergast can find a way to showcase sophomore inside linebacker Kana’i Mauga, that too could be a gamechanger. What it all adds up to is a very intriguing final five games of the season and perhaps only Nostradamus knows how it will all end for sure.
The infirmary: SS Talanoa Hufanga (shoulder), RB Stephen Carr (hamstring), DE Drake Jackson (ankle), OLB Abdul-Malik McClain (shoulder), WR Munir McClain (knee), Markese Stepp (ankle)
Next up: The Trojans return to the road for a Friday night tilt with the host Colorado Buffaloes in another huge Pac-12 South Division battle. Kickoff time is 6 p.m. PDT (ESPN2) and 7 p.m. Boulder time (MST).
The Trojans/Arizona quote book…
Clay Helton comments: “Good night for our kids in the second half of the season. We talked about winning one at a time and being 1-0 tonight play-ing a team that was at the top of the pack in the Pac-12 South along with us. A team that controlled its own destiny as we did. We’re in playoff championship football and we’ve got to treat each game like a championship game. Obviously, a good night but a night where we had some injuries and some guys had to step up and beat the next guy up and these two guys that are up here right now were those guys. Kana’i (Mauga) not only had a great overall playing night and made a huge turnover for us in the red zone that allowed us to kind of put a stamp on the game, and then you know I credit our coaches, by doing a great job of just preparing everybody from the bottom up and you never know when your time’s gonna come. And then here’s Kenan (Christon) and he goes out there as not only his first 100-yard rushing game but two touchdowns. I’m so proud of him and proud of our boys. We’re 1-0 in the second half and now we’ve got a really short week on the road at Colorado. So, we’re right back to work first thing tomorrow.”
Clay Helton comments – Part 2: On balancing the excitement of the win and so many injuries, Helton said, “I feel terrible for those kids, you know we had six significant ones tonight that we’ll have to see where they’re at and deal with them. It’s bittersweet because the kids are playing extremely hard and you saw what they did against Notre Dame, which is a physical game on both sides and came in here tonight with a chip on their shoulder, and really something to prove and play extremely hard and I’m sad for these six kids.”
Clay Helton comments – Part 3: On Kenan Christon’s role in coming weeks, Helton said, “We’ve seen that across the board with our young players. We have a talented young bunch, and there’s a bunch of fresh-men and sophomores on this team. I’ve said it multiple times, I think this is going to be a team that’s a really good team for a long time and they’re going to grow together. There’s only eight seniors on this team, and you look at the freshmen and sophomores that are playing on this team right now. They’re very talented and we don’t lose many people, and there’s a lot of people that are going to be here three, four years. And so we’re going to see where we’re at, you know, with losing Vavae (Malepeai) this week and then losing two more backs this week, obviously, I would imagine, Kenan is going to have a pretty big role going into Colorado, as well as Quincy Jountti, and we’ll see who we get back.”
Clay Helton comments – Part 4: On what Kana’i Mauga showed tonight, Helton said, “You know, he reminds me a lot of what (Michael Pittman) did when he was a young person. This is kind of our special teams’ captain, and a guy that’s sitting right behind (Palaie Gaoteote) and getting those reps each and every day. He’s … just a guy that we can count on day in and day out, and I remember that with Pitt, you know he’s waiting for his time. And meanwhile, he’s just being so special on our special teams and that’s what Kana’i is just a true teammate, doing whatever is called upon to help the team win. And then he’s called upon to be the starter tonight. And lo and behold, an interception and tackles everywhere. It was like unleashing somebody that was just waiting for his chance, and I can’t tell you how happy I am for him and our team that we have a guy like this.”
Arizona head coach Kevin Sumlin comments: On what the USC defense did, Sumlin said, “There were blitzes that we didn’t pick up. But even during that time, they whipped us up front We couldn’t run it and then even when they didn’t blitz, Khalil (Tate) was running for his life, and when Grant (Gunnell) got in there, he got hit a bunch of times.”
Arizona head coach Kevin Sumlin comments – Part 2: On his team’s turnovers, Sumlin said, “We muffed the punt, gave them a short field, got the crowd back in the game, it’s frustrating. Then (Michael) Wiley is playing hard, trying to get another yard, and he lets one go Our defense, where they were with the short field, I still thought they were still good. They gave us a chanced, but we gave them short fields, and then couldn’t move the ball.”
Trojans’ running back Kenan Christon: On if it has been tough to stay ready, Christon said, “It’s not tough at all. I’m here to help the team. Wherever they want me to go, I’ll go and play. I’m just trying to stay focused.”
Trojans’ running back Kenan Christon Part 2: On his first touchdown, Christon said, “I was just being patient and following my blockers, and the O-line opened up a huge hole for me, and I just finished.”
Trojans inside linebacker Kana’i Mauga: On the defensive mindset, Mauga said, “Key to the game was to contain the quarterback as much as we could. Our DBs did a very good job of plastering to their man and getting to their zones.”
Trojans inside linebacker Kana’i Mauga – Part 2: On any extra motivation tonight with guys hurt, Mauga said, “I feel like our mindset is always the same every game.”
Trojans inside linebacker Kana’i Mauga – Part 3: On if the forced fumble was a boost for the team, Mauga said, “I believe that our defense is all together. So, when one makes a play everyone makes a play. So, everybody was hype on the sideline. It was just a great atmosphere.”
QB Kedon Slovis: On
his assessment of the offense, Slovis said, “Whenever you score 40 points you
have to be happy, but we left a lot of points out there and could have done a
lot better in the first half. A lot of that is on me. I didn’t do my job and
wasn’t very disciplined. I missed a lot of opportunities, but the biggest thing
is not making mistakes and turning the ball over.”
Trojans freshman defensive tackle De’jon Benton: On seeing his first action as a Trojan, Benton said, “It’s a blessing I can’t explain. I was able to concentrate and zoned out all the noise. I was able to make some plays and contribute to my team. This was the highlight of my life. Out there is way more like playing chess than playing checkers. It’s a mental game.”
Trojans’ DT Caleb Tremblay: On his defense improvement, Tremblay said, “We work hours and hours. It’s about keeping it simple, and everybody doing their job. We have to think and concentrate about the next game like Colorado. We’ll celebrate tonight and then it’s on to the next game.”
Trojans center Brett Neilon: On his assessment of the offensive line, Neilon said, “We started off a little slow and picked it up. We ran the ball and had 200-plus yards. We passed protected well for the most part and gave up one or two sacks, I think. I thought we did well.”
Isaac Taylor-Stuart: On
stopping Arizona QB Khalil Tate, ITS said, “We kept him from scrambling, and
you see the scoreboard. We did what we had to do. I felt we did a great job in
the first half. We had to keep up the tempo and keep it moving.”
Trojans S Dorian Hewett: On being out there for the first time for extended play, Hewett said, “You know coming from Texas, a big state that loves football, the crowd and the community helped me calm down. Coach Clancy and all them do a great job in making sure everybody is getting reps in case something goes down and you have to step up. In my case, I have been working as the No. 2 corner for this while season. For me, I had to show that could come in and contribute to the team and hold down my position.”
Arizona running back JJ Taylor: Discussing the USC blitzes, Taylor said, “We have six blockers and they bring seven. We can only block six of them, so there’s one man free. We just to game plan for that next time. We just have to execute and then we get the motivation.”
From the press box…
Temperature: The Coliseum kickoff temperature was clear and 69 degrees.
Fly zone: Prior to kickoff, fans were treated to a “flyover” by an F-16 fighter jet.
Cover boy: On the cover of the game program was senior defensive end Christian Rector.
Turnstiles: The “renovated” Coliseum lists capacity at 77,500, so it was interesting to say the least that the announced crowd was 53,826. Consider that the USC campus was a basic ghost town with the new “fall” break, which began on Thursday and obviously affected the student body turnout.
Strike up the band: Arizona brought is full band, 250 members, to Saturday night’s game. This is the first time in almost 30 years that its full band attended a SoCal football game. The band also performed this weekend at Disneyland.
The umpire: Saturday night’s game umpire was Rick DiBernardo. For those old enough to remember, DiBernardo was once a 1980 Parade All-America linebacker and two-time All-CIF Southern Section selection celebrant from local Huntington Beach (Calif.) Edison High. “DiBo” played his college ball at Notre Dame and later had a career in the NFL.
Sign of the times: In order for both teams to know how much time is left in a television commercial, there is a new electronic digital marker that counts down the minutes and seconds for all to see.
NFL draft: NFL scouts in attendance included the Raiders, Giants, Chiefs
Let’s go bowling: The NFLPA and East/West Shrine Bowls had reps in the press box.
The menu: The Coliseum press box pregame “dinner” menu included chicken fillets, string beans, pasta, salad and cookies.
The post-game show numbers…
Tackling the issues: Sophomore Kana’i Mauga led the Trojans with 13 tackles followed by senior ILB John Houston with 8 tackles.
Upward trend: Against Arizona, the Trojans scored 41 points. Prior to the game with the Wildcats, the Trojans were averaging 29.0 points per game.
Downward trend: Against Arizona, the Trojans allowed 14 points. Prior to the game with the Wildcats, Trojans’ defense was allowing 25.67 points per game.
Upward trend: Against Arizona, the Trojans had 448 yards in total offense. Prior to the game with the Wildcats, the Trojans were averaging 428 yards in total offense per game.
Downward trend: Against Arizona, the Trojans defense allowed 385 total yards in total offense. Prior to the game with the Wildcats, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 421.7in total yards per game.
Upward trend: Against Arizona, the Trojans had 201 net yards rushing. Prior to the game with the Wildcats, the Trojans were averaging 142.8 rushing yards per game.
Downward trend: Against Arizona, the Trojans allowed 142 net rushing yards. Prior to the game with the Wildcats, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 197.2 rushing yards per game.
Downward trend: Against Arizona, the Trojans had 247 yards passing yards. Prior to the game with the Wildcats, Trojans were averaging 286.0 passing yards per game.
Upward trend: Against Arizona, the Trojans allowed 243 passing yards. Prior to the game with the Wildcats, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 224.5 passing yards per game.
Time of possession: The Trojans had the ball 29:58 minutes while the Wildcats had the ball for 30:02minutes.
Upward flag waving: Against Arizona, the Trojans had 10 penalties for 100 yards while the Wildcats had five penalties for 31 yards. Prior to the Arizona game, the Trojans were averaging 64.83 penalty yards per game while the opposition was averaging 59.83 penalty yards per game.
The post-game call-in show:
Caller No. 1: Katz man, what’s the latest rumors regarding the USC athletic director position? Depending on who you are listening to, two recently mentioned candidates have one thing in common – Urban Meyer. According to Yahoo Sports columnist Peter Thamel, former Florida AD Jeremy Foley is a real possibility and is available. Foley was the AD when Meyer was successful with two national titles at Florida. Another candidate is Washington State AD Patrick Chun, who worked for 15 seasons at Ohio State and apparently knows Meyer well. The two questions that haven’t been answered is whether Meyer would even want to come out of his gig at Fox and walk the sidelines after such a short coaching “vacation”, and whether Dr. Folt would give her stamp approval if Meyer was presented to her.
Caller No. 2: GK, of the remaining games, which one do you think will have the biggest impact on the Pac-12 South Division? If I was a betting man – and I am not – I think the Trojans visit to ASU on Nov. 9 will have a major South Division impact and indication on the season outcome. The Sun Devils (5-2, 2-2 Pac-12) got stuffed by Utah (6-1, 3-1 Pac-12), 21-3, Saturday in Salt Lake City. However, the Trojans still have to play Oregon (6-1, 4-0 Pac-12 North) in the Coli, and Cal, which was upset at home on Saturday by improving Oregon State, 21-17. The Trojans play in Berkeley, and neither the Ducks nor the Bears games will be easy.
Caller No. 3: Mr. Katz, you constantly say that running back Markese Stepp reminds you of former Trojan great LenDale White. Is there a former NFL back that Stepp also reminds you? I won’t take credit for this one, but former WeAreSC columnist and journalism legend Steve Bisheff told me this past week that Stepp reminds him of former Notre Dame great and Los Angeles Rams battering ram Jerome Bettis. I thought that was a great comparison.
Caller No. 4: Now that it appears that the Trojans may have lost running back Vavae Malepeai for possibly the season and Stephen Carr for who knows how long, what happens now with the running backs situation? The Trojans still have two young but elite running backs in Markese Stepp and Kenan Christon. Kenan could play in the remaining five game, thus burning his freshman season of eligibility. Another name to keep an eye out for further support is junior Quincy Jountti (Bakersfield, Calif./Liberty) who has shown he is no lacky when it comes to carrying the pigskin, although he did fumble against Arizona.
Caller No. 5: Gregger, were you shocked or surprised regarding the lack of Trojan fans in attendance at last week’s game at Notre Dame? No, not really. Many USC fans elected to save money and not get themselves into a downer mood, knowing the Cardinal and Gold would probably come back to Los Angeles with a loss. I totally agree that a loss to the Irish is never acceptable, but the effort to compete was one that USC fans should be proud. Does that mean the 3-3 record in the first half is okay? Not at all, but as the Arizona game showed on Saturday night, this Trojans team has some grit and is currently playing as though there is still something on the line, which there is – a Pac-12 title.
Caller No. 6: Mr. G, do you really think that Clay Helton thinks his 4-3 team is really good? I think that deep down he knows at 4-3 is not acceptable by any stretch. Look, the record says what you are. It doesn’t matter if this or that had been different in specific losses. The key is the three losses on the road do not indicate that this is a “special” team. The scoreboard record is exactly who it says you are, no question, and no matter Helton says his team is. There is a long way to go for Helton to be out of the woods, and maybe only a Pac-12 title will save him.
Caller No. 7: Gregmeister, do you think it was good that Dr. Carol Folt was on the Trojans’ sideline at Notre Dame? Yes, I think it was great. Dr. Folt is getting some valuable information should Clay Helton need to be replaced. First, she now fully gets the intensity of a Notre Dame game, an important element she will have to consider when looking for an elite coach that can beat the Irish. Secondly, she’s getting a real education about the level of expectations for the USC football program. The passion of the USC fans in attendance reminds her that she is the CEO of a storied football program. Folt also knows that if a change is to be made, it better be somebody that will knock your socks off, the “it” factor, or she’s going to also be responsible for the direction of the program in the eyes of the fans and supporters.
Caller No. 8: Sir, if you had your choice of kickoff times, what time would you like to see kickoffs? I know the kickoff times I don’t like – namely 6, 7, or 7:30 pm, which is a disaster for writers. However, I digress. I would prefer 4 p.m. kickoffs because it allows some quality tailgate time and a chance to get home before the freeways start doing their overnight roadwork.
Caller No. 9: Mr. Katz, you saw where the university in 2020 will have the option whether to welcome back Reggie Bush from excommunication. Would you be upset if USC welcomed him back with open arms? No, I think that would be acceptable to me IF Bush would address the situation behind a podium in front of the cameras and did some sort of an apology for causing such damage to the football program. In other words, show some contrition or ownership of what he and his family caused. Do the manly thing, and I think in most cases people deserve a second chance. I’d would find it appalling if Bush stood before the cameras and acted like he did nothing wrong.
Caller No. 10: Sir, you mentioned you’re a big fan of Disneyland and Disney World. If you were to have to decide between going to one or the other, which theme park would you pick? Now, Disneyland has Walt’s personal touch and I remember as a young boy seeing him walk the park and talk with visitors. However, I actually prefer Disney World because it is a true vacation destination and so much to see and do. Yes, Disney World is expensive, but in my opinion, you get the bang for the buck.
The last word: And now on to another dreaded Friday night game (Colorado) and a road game to boot. It’s the worst of both worlds for USC fans. Since the Trojans are winless on the road this season (0-3), something has got to give. How about the Boulder thermometer, which could dip in the 30s by the end of the game. Then again, if the Trojans could get the win against a reeling Buffaloes team, it would provide some great momentum heading into the Oregon game.