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IMHO Sunday: The Slovis era has arrived

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

IMHO: Did you see this one coming? Come on, no you didn’t. Let’s hook you up to a lie detector test and see if you electrocute yourself. Nobody saw this coming – except maybe the players and coaches on the 2019 USC team. With true freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis (photo above) showing tremendous poise and understanding of his offense, the USC Trojans (2-0, 1-0 Pac-12) pulled themselves off the JT Daniels depression mat, and fought valiantly, physically, and impressively in a resounding 45-20 Saturday night victory over a stunned and beaten Stanford Cardinal team (1-1, 0-1 Pac-12) on United Airlines Field at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

It was type of win that screams the announcement that this USC team is not necessarily ready to prematurely pack it in and desperately wants to be relevant in the Pac-12 race to Pasadena. If you weren’t proud of the Trojans’ performance, well, you couldn’t have been watching the same game I was watching. The team actually fought like Trojans, and even Traveler appeared to be breaking into a smile after the game while going up the legendary Coliseum tunnel. As for Clay Helton, in his post-game press conference he looked like he had just gotten a reprieve from the governor before heading off to the firing chair.

IMHO – Part 2: Offensively in the first half, Trojans freshman prodigy quarterback Kedon Slovis was borderline brilliant, passing for 249 yards (17-of-20) and two touchdowns. The key would be could he continue the barrage the second half? The answer was he was equally impressive, finishing the game with 377 yards, a remarkable 28-of-33 passes with no interceptions, and three pro-like touchdown passes. The running game was workmanlike efficient (115 yds.) in helping keep Stanford’s defense off balance while the receiving corps lived up to its lofty perceptions. We also got to see true freshman Drake London get his first start, and he gave a good account or himself (62 yds.). As for the offensive line, they actually looked like they’re getting better, and O-line coach Tim Drevno had quite a smile on his face after the game. The O-line did good and gave up only one sack. As for total offense, the Trojans had 492 yards of it. All in all, it was quite a night for the offense. Let’s see, however, how things shake down next Saturday against a tough BYU team in Provo that upset Tennessee in Knoxville in double overtime.

Trojans’ offensive line coach Tim Drevno (photo above) was pleased with his units performance against the Stanford. .Cardinal

IMHO – Part 3: Defensively, there were some rough spots in the beginning, as Stanford was able to run on the Trojans. However, the defensive staff made some adjustments in the second quarter and order was restored for the balance of the game. Tackling still left a lot to be desired but seemed to improve in the second half. The D-line became more aggressive and assertive as the game progressed in the second half, which bodes well for the future. As it was, the Trojans recorded three sacks for the game. The Trojans held the historically vaunted Stanford rushing offense to just 98 net yards, and who can remember that happening in recent times? And the Trojans secondary was able to handle Stanford’s passing game, although it would have been much more challenging had Stanford starter KJ Costello played. There were some throws by Cardinal redshirt sophomore Davis Mills that Costello probably wouldn’t have missed that would have been touchdowns. Mills threw for 237 yards and one touchdown and had one interception (Greg Johnson). The Trojans had 10 tackles for losses, which showed their aggressiveness in the front seven.       

The Trojans defense limited Stanford redshirt sophomore quarterback Davis Mills (photo above) to 237 yards passing.

IMHO – Part 4: Special teams had some positives and some areas that could use some improvement. Placekicker Chase McGrath did kick a 23-yard field goal early in the first quarter and made all five of his PATs. Punter Ben Griffiths improved his boots from the Fresno State game by averaging 42.0 per punt (2 punts). Unlike last week against Fresno State, there were no long kickoff returns by Velus Jones, who was held in check, and kicker Alex Stadthaus had eight kickoffs, three of which went for touchbacks. Since Stanford only punted one time, Trojans’ punt returner Tyler Vaughns had only one chance to do damage but was held to a 14-yard return.   

Bottom Line: Make no mistake about it, the way the Trojans dominated Stanford will certainly send a notice to the remaining teams on the Trojans’ schedule. As important as the game was in terms of record and conference, Saturday night’s win provided the USC fans hope and right now it is much needed. Nobody can say for sure that Kedon Slovis is the second coming of Sam Darnold, but nobody can also say that he isn’t in his own way. One thing for sure, the perception of a difficult schedule gathered some positive sunlight, and it looks like this USC team could become the surprise team in the conference and perhaps the country. Caution is a good word to use against a Stanford team that was missing KJ Costello, who many feel is the best QB in the conference. However, it looks like the Trojans have the makings of quite a quarterback as well, and 2019 suddenly becomes all that more interesting. There is still one glaring issue and that is the issue of penalties (93 yds) – there were way too many, and some were of the ugly personal foul nature. It may come back to bite the Trojans in the worst way if it isn’t cleaned up. Clay Helton said this is his area of responsibility, so we’ll see how that goes.

The infirmary: None reported

Next up: The Trojans travel to play the BYU Cougars (1-1) next Saturday afternoon (1:30 MT/12:30 pm PDT) in Provo, Utah. On Saturday, BYU upset Tennessee 29-26 in double overtime in Knoxville. 

Next up for the Trojans will be a trip to BYU (1-1) and Lavelle Edwards Stadium (photo above) next Saturday. On Saturday night, BYU upset Tennessee in double overtime, 29-26, in Knoxville.

The Trojans/Stanford quote book…

Clay Helton comments: “A really nice win by our football team. Really proud of them. We have this saying ‘So what? Now what?’ and at the beginning of that game we had to say, ‘So what?’ and not blink and not flinch and just keep fighting and know that the plays would come if we executed. And it started with this guy, (Kedon Slovis). In the first half we needed a spark and No. 8 (Amon-Ra St. Brown) did that for us. Really proud of a young quarterback and his first opportunity to be out there, to play and do exactly what we said — to play with poise and don’t try to force things, use your athleticism and let your playmakers make plays. Defensively, we were bend-but-don’t-break. I thought third downs were the key. I think they were 0-for in third downs in the first half and did a nice job in the second half to allow us to separate from a good Stanford team. First conference game feels good to get under our belts. Thank you to the fans, I thought they were incredible tonight with great energy.”

Clay Helton (photo above) was very pleased with his teams performance against the Stanford Cardinal on Saturday night.

Clay Helton comments – Part 2: On his confidence in Kedon Slovis: “We knew his talent and we understood the type of players our quarterbacks are. Graham (Harrell) is kind of loose and lets the kids have fun and play fast and play aggressive. Even though he’s young, we named him the No. 2 for a reason. Let’s go cut him loose. That’s not hard for Graham because he’s always ready to cut it loose. It was fun for me to watch.”

Clay Helton comments – Part 3: (On the offensive line’s protection) Helton said: “Coming into the season I thought they were our best-kept secret, our most improved position and part of our offense. We’ve been waiting for those kids to grow up for three years. We signed them all together — Austin Jackson, Elijah Vera-Tucker, Brett Neilon, Andrew Vorhees, Jalen McKenzie, and I’ll throw in Drew Richmond as a senior transfer — they’re just playing really mature right now. We saw a bunch of pressures, and they kept the quarterback upright. The quarterback did a nice job of using his legs and creating for us. They’re playing great ball right now. We’ll go as far as they take us.”

Stanford head coach David Shaw comments: “Give a lot of credit to USC. We thought we had them on the ropes in the 1st half, but they made some plays and stayed in it. Give credit to Clay Helton as well. He has heard a lot of crap but think he’s one hell of a football coach. He’s got a really good football team, they were well prepared, his staff was well prepared, and I think they are going to be a tough team to beat down the road. For us, the game boiled down to missed opportunities. We had guys open for touchdowns, we settled for some field goals, we missed some field goals. And they took advantage of their opportunities. Bottom line is, we got in the red zone five times and scored two touchdowns, you can’t beat a good football team that way.”

Stanford head coach David Shaw (photo above) was very complimentary of the Trojans, especially USC head coach Clay Helton and quarterback Kedon Slovis..

Stanford head coach David Shaw comments – Part 2: On inability to get pressure, Shaw said, “It didn’t have to do with the air raid or anything, it has to do with us rushing the passer. Style offense didn’t matter because the ball wasn’t coming out that quick. He (Kedon Slovis) was still able to go back and go through his reads. We’ve just got to beat guys one-on-one. We got to him a couple times, but not enough.”

Trojans’ offensive coordinator Graham Harrell: On Kedon Slovis’s performance, Harrell said, “It’s what I expected him to do. I’ve told you from the beginning that he’s special. We have a lot of confidence in him when we put him in there, and that’s what we expect him to do. He did his job and he did it well.”

Kedon Slovis: On his timing and connections with Amon-Ra St. Brown, Slovis said, “I still got a lot of reps in the spring. And just credit coach Graham (Harrell) for spreading it to all the quarterbacks. They make it so easy on us. There’s a large margin of error with those guys on the other end.”

Trojans true freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis (photo above) played liked a veteran in a stunning starting debut against Stanford.

Kedon Slovis – Part 2: On his feeling going into the game, Slovis said, “Pretty good. It was nice to get the last half of the other game. For me it was honestly… just don’t take it away from these guys, just get it in their hands and let them do it.”

Kedon Slovis – Part 3: On his performance tonight, Slovis said, “I thought it was pretty good. But at the same time, how good is it with these guys? It doesn’t show how well I did but how good a team we have.”

WR Amon-Ra St. Brown: On what Slovis proved today, St. Brown said, “We all knew Kedon was a great quarterback and then saw him in the spring and he looked great. He wasn’t a highly touted recruit coming out of high school, so we didn’t know much about him. But after the first day, we saw he could sling the ball. Going into the spring and fall it was QB competition, and we didn’t really have a starter named, and repped all the quarterbacks. We didn’t care who was out there, the receivers just were catching balls.”

WR Amon-Ra St. Brown (photo above No. 8) was euphoric in his 39-yard touchdown reception against Stanford and had high praise for his quarterback Kedon Slovis.

Stanford QB Davis Mills: On if USC surprised Stanford at all, Mills said, “We prepared very well this week and weren’t surprised by anything. We thought we were going to come in and they were going to throw stuff at us, but I mean we picked it up pretty well and played a good game overall; it could have been better though.”

Stanford LB Casey Toohill: On not having film on USC QB Kedon Slovis, Toohill said, “We had enough film on the offense, he played great props to him. I don’t think that was our issue. I really do feel like we prepared well. We did not come out and do what we were supposed to do. At the end of the day, that’s all that matters.”

Trojans’ defensive line coach Chad Kauha’aha’a: On his line’s pressure on the Stanford offense, Coach K said,This is how it should be (pressuring the Stanford offense). We’re rotating, we’re playing defensive line by committee, and so when the teams come in, they shouldn’t miss a beat. (On Stanford’s short yardage attempts) Tonight, Jay (Tufele) was Jay. He played sound assignment, technique, snapped off blocks violently. There was a bunch of times Jay was in the backfield. (On the improvement in the first half against Stanford) We felt confident on their (Stanford) run game. What we did at halftime, I told Coach Nansen we should make a few adjustments in the pass rush, and we turned them loose.”   

C Brett Neilon:
On the performance of the offensive line, Neilon said,“I thought we did a great job. We made a point all week. We took this week very seriously. I am really proud of the guys up front. You can see that we’re starting to jell together pretty nicely.”

Center Brett Neilon (photo above) was quite pleased with the performance of his offensive line against Stanford.

C Brett Neilon – Part 2:
On Kevon Slovis, Neilon said, “He’s a special talent. Everybody in the locker room believes in him, the coaches, he’s a great kid, a great player as you guys can see.”

DT Conner Murphy:
“I thought it was a great effort along the whole defensive line. You saw that rotation. We’re older and we finally have some depth. This my fourth year, and it’s time for the seniors to step up. The junkyard dog, he’s off his chain now.”

Defensive lineman Connor Murphy (photo above) was excited with his line’s performance against Stanford.

DB Greg Johnson:
On the secondary, Johnson said, “We play our game and we play for each other and nobody can play with us. So, we came out here and stuck to the game plan, and we made the plays that were presented to us.We’re a young corps, and we try to hold each other accountable day in and day out.”

S Isaiah Pola-Mao:
On Kedon Slovis leading the Trojans Marching Band after the game, Pola-Mao said, “I was super happy for him. Everybody was talking bad about him. Everybody was doubting him. He is someone who is to be reckoned with. He’s going to take control of this offense.”

Trojans true freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis (photo above) got the rare honor after the game of leading the Trojans Marching Band in a rendition of Conquest.

RB Vavae Malepeai:
On Kedon Slovis, Malepeai said, “I was talking with Stephen (Carr) and said to him ‘Kedon came out and really did his thing!’ Honestly, it was no surprise because we see it Monday through Friday (in practice).”

From the press box…

Temperature: The Los Angeles kickoff temperature was clear and 75 degrees.

Turnstiles: Saturday night’s attendance was announced as 62,109. Coliseum capacity is listed as 77,500.

Tunnel leader: No celebrity or Trojans official led the Cardinal and Gold out of the Coliseum tunnel prior to kickoff. However, the first Trojan player out of the legendary tunnel was true freshman running back Kenan Christon. For the record, Stanford head coach David Shaw led the Cardinal out of the tunnel.

Cover boy: Junior tailback Vavae Malepeai was on the cover of the game program. For the game, Malepeai had 12 carries for 46 yards and two touchdowns (4&6 yds.)

The Trojans have a pair of outstanding running backs, which includes Vavae Malepeai and Stephen Carr (photo above), who scored on a 25-yard touchdown run in the second quarter against Stanford.

Just the 5th: Kedon Slovis became just the fifth USC true freshman to start a game at quarterback, joining JT Daniels (11 starts in 2018), Matt Barkley (12 starts in 20090, Carson Palmer (5 starts in 1998), and Rob Johnson (1 start in 1991).

Slovis records: Slovis connected with soph WR Amon‐Ra St. Brown on a 39‐yard TD pass in the second quarter for his first career TD strike. He connected on 2 TDs to St. Brown and one to redshirt junior WR Tyler Vaughns. Kedon finished with 28 completions, 3 TDs, an 84.8 completion percentage and 377 passing yards…all records by a USC true freshman making his first career start. His 377 passing yards tonight were the most by a Trojan QB since Sam Darnold had 397 yards passing vs. Texas on Sept. 16, 2017 and ranks 26th on USC’s single‐game passing leaders list. His 377 passing yards tonight are the second‐ most ever in a game by a USC true freshman QB behind Matt Barkley’s 380 passing yards at Notre Dame on Oct. 17, 2009.

Heroes salute: One ofSaturday night’s special recognitions was for “It’s Joint Forces Day” in the Coliseum, with more than 10,000 military families in attendance and 10 Navy Seals were saluted for their service.

Being honored: During the game, Trojans junior golfer Gabriela Ruffels, who last month won the U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship, was honored on the field. The Trojans’ 1999 women’s water polo team, which won the first of the program’s six national championships, was also recognized on the field on their 20th anniversary.

Scouting: NFL scouts in attendance included the Chargers, Titans, Cardinals, Falcons, Eagles, Colts, and Bears.

Bowling: Representatives from the Holiday Bowl were in attendance.

The post-game show numbers…

Tackling the issues: Sophomore strong safety Talanoa Hufanga led the Trojans with 10 tackles.

Strong safety Talanoa Hufanga (photo above – No.15) led the Trojans with 10 tackles against Stanford.

Upward trend: Against Stanford, the Trojans scored 45 points. Prior to the game with the Cardinal, the Trojans were averaging 31 points per game.

Downward trend: Against Stanford, the Trojans allowed 20 points. Prior to the game with the Cardinal, Trojans’ defense was allowing 23.0 points per game. 

Upward trend: Against Stanford, the Trojans had 492 yards in total offense. Prior to the game with the Cardinal, the Trojans were averaging 447.0 yards in total offense per game.

Downward trend: Against Stanford, the Trojans defense allowed 335 total yards in total offense. Prior to the game with the Cardinal, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 462.0 total yards per game.

Downward trend: Against Stanford, the Trojans had 115 net yards rushing. Prior to the game with the Cardinal, the Trojans were averaging 175.0 rushing yards per game. 

Downward trend: Against Stanford, the Trojans allowed 98 net rushing yards. Prior to the game with the Cardinal, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 206.0 rushing yards per game.

Upward trend: Against Stanford, the Trojans had 377 yards passing yards. Prior to the game with the Cardinal, Trojans were averaging 272.0 passing yards per game.  

Upward trend: Against Stanford, the Trojans allowed 237 passing yards.Prior to the game with the Cardinal, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 256 yards per game.  

Flag waving: Against Stanford, the Trojans had 8 penalties for 93 yards while Stanford had 7 penalties for 60 yards. Prior to the Stanford game, the Trojans were averaging 35.0 penalty yards per game while the opposition was averaging 51.0 penalty yards per game.

The post-game call-in show:

Caller No. 1: Greg, given all that has gone down with the quarterback situation, what do you think in hindsight of Clay Helton putting Jack Sears as No. 4, which lead to his departure from the team? Kedon Slovis makes it somewhat of a moot point after what he did to the Stanford defense. However, caller No. 1,with all due respect to all the principals, the football gods must not have been happy with how it all went down either. I thought it was a huge mistake to name Jack Sears No. 4 at the time because I thought clearly given the makeup of the offensive line and what Jack brought to the table – which includes intangibles like leadership, respect of his teammates, mobility, etc. – was dramatic. Helton and Graham Helton obviously disagreed and cited “consistency.” Well, I am here to tell you if that was the case, it wasn’t what I saw in practice, and you add to that what I saw when Jack nearly helped upset ASU last season in the Coliseum. Having been a coach, I know I was not in the film room to get that side of the QB competition story. Bottom line, however, is the Sears decision, which I thought and just my opinion, would come back to bite the program hard. I think it was unfair the way the pecking order at the time was announced. I believe that Sears was named No. 4 in order to not have JT looking over his shoulder at Jack and distancing Sears to avoid a potential quarterback controversy, which Helton wanted no part. Right now, it’s hard to argue after what Slovis did to the Stanford defense on Saturday night. The kid was great. I just didn’t like the way the whole thing was handled.  

Caller No. 2: Katz, do you think that Jack Sears should return to the team if asked? I don’t think that it’s an option at this point. It’s really Jack’s call if Clay Helton asked him, and I don’t think at this point that is going to happen. I know that Jack loved his teammates and USC in general, and he is the ultimate team guy and a warrior, but if it was me – and it isn’t – I would politely decline unless I was told I could compete for the starting job, and then again I’d have to trust Helton, which I wouldn’t based on recent events. No, if I was Jack, I would continue to complete my academics, take trips to potential playing destinations, and politely decline the offer.

Caller No. 3: Grego, how do you think the injury to JT and the probability of Daniels taking a redshirt year affects the verbal of Mater Dei senior QB commit Bryce Young? Boy, that’s a loaded question, Caller No. 3. I think the Trojans QB situation is a hornet’s nest due to the Daniels injury, the Sears handling, and what we saw Kedon Slovis do against Stanford. Turning to the future, it’s how Bryce Young views the stability of the USC program, the tenuous situation of head coach Clay Helton, and the direction of the program – like can it compete for a national title? And there is now the Kedon Slovis element. Even if Bryce always wanted to be a Trojan – and there are others like him that don’t like what they see – he might just might turn those Alabama rumors into a reality. From my perspective, anything could happen since it’s recruiting.

Caller No. 4: Okay, Mr. Kitty, let’s get it out of the way. What was the press box menu on Saturday night for the Stanford game? Caller No. 4, last Saturday night against the Fresno State it was taco meat, rice, beans, shells, salad, popcorn, and soft drinks. On Saturday night, the menu was BBQ chicken, mostaccioli, broccoli, salad, and a cookie tray.

Caller No. 5: Mr. G, the Trojans head out next week on the road against a BYU team that is 1-1, did you think that BYU record is a good or bad sign for the Cardinal and Gold? My thought, Caller No. 5, even before the season was that BYU was a true trap game, and nothing has changed my mind. My preseason prediction an overtime victory with JT. Now, there is no JT, but Kedon Slovis brings a whole new element – although we don’t’ have any idea on how he will handle a very hostile BYU crowd.  Lavelle Edwards Stadium is a big-time atmosphere, and the Cougars fans will be ready to rock and roll, especially against a storied program like USC no matter the circumstances. It’ll be a big deal in Provo, trust me, especially have the Cougars big win at Tennessee. Will Kedon Slovis be able to maintain his poise and what about the rest of the team? Those are big questions. BYU is very physical team and has a tremendous sophomore quarterback in Zack Wilson, who runs an offense that at times looks similar to the Trojans. In preseason, I picked the Trojans to win in overtime with JT Daniels quarterbacking. The Trojans will really have their hands full and getting out of Provo with a victory will take a true team effort. If the Trojans can escape with a win, kudos to Clay Helton, his staff, and the resolve of the players.

The last word: So, the Trojans are 2-0 and a 1-0 Pac-12 record under their belt as they head out on their first road trip (BYU). It’s possible the Trojans will be nationally ranked this week after the big Stanford victory. It was important that true freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis got a full game under his belt in a tense but friendly confines of the Coliseum. Now comes an acid test, Kedon’s first road game. While attention will be paid to that fact, attention should also be paid to how the rest of the team will react in their first road game of the season, albeit a non-conference game.

On to Provo!

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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