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IMHO Sunday: Trojans barely avoid yet another potential train wreck against a decided underdog

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

IMHO: As expected, the No. 20 USC Trojans, a 12 ½ -point favorite, took the University of Arizona Wildcats to the woodshed and pounded the hosts, 45-17, on a comfortable sunny Saturday in Arizona Stadium. The Trojans did what they wanted, mostly when they wanted, ran the ball with machine-like proficiency in short yardage, played with Marine-like discipline, and the game had all the suspense of watching a television test pattern. You hate to use the word “boring”, but that about sums it up.

IMHO – Part 2: Oh dear, my bad, my apologies, the above was the USC/Arizona game that was played on paper. Unfortunately for the Trojans, games are not played on paper. The actual game in Arizona Stadium saw the Trojans (2-0 overall, 2-0 Pac-12 South) literally survive for a second consecutive weekend with a tense and unpredictable 34-30 victory over unranked Arizona Wildcats (0-1 overall, 0-1 Pac-12 South). And make no mistake about it, the Trojans continue to live on the edge and could easily be 0-2 with Clay Helton submerging into deeper and deeper do-do. If not for a classic Trojans’ final 75-drive, capped by an inspired 8-yard TD run by senior back Vavae Malepeai with just 25 seconds remaining, the Trojans would have lost to what many considered before the abbreviated conference-only season as the Pac-12 football worst football team.  

IMHO – Part 3: The fact that USC had already played a game last week against ASU and Arizona had not played in 350 days (last week’s Utah game cancelled due to COVID-19) made Saturday’s game even more dumbfounding. Yes, the Trojans earned the victory with the clutch drive and came from behind – again, but Arizona could also have earned the victory because they made the Trojans look outplayed, outcoached, and definitely out-disciplined for a majority of the game. Oh, you didn’t like the Trojans being penalized 11 times for 110 yards? And you want to say the problem was it’s the Trojans’ first road game? Please…there’s nobody in the stands unless you get intimated by artificial crowd noise.

IMHO – Part 4: And how about the three-plus hours of FOX announcers Gus Johnson and Joel Klatt questioning – with good reason – what the heck the Trojans were doing or should we say not doing on offense, especially ignoring the running game. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of USC offensive coordinator Graham Harrell. If you heard Urban Meyer before the game on the FOX pregame show, the legendary coach did a full dissection of the Trojans woes – specifically the Air Raid offense and the offensive lines this season and the previous. However, more on that down below in our press box section.     

Trojans offensive coordinator Graham Harrell (photo above) has come under firing for his perceived neglect to the running game.

IMHO – Part 5: In terms of the national picture, the Trojans started the weekend as the No. 20 team in the country and could remain there or could drop out of the Top 25 when the AP rankings are released later on Sunday. Beating ASU with a miracle ending to open the season and barely surviving an Arizona club doesn’t exactly make a national statement. In fact, it will probably take some upsets ahead if the Trojans make a significant move in the rankings…if they don’t stumble along the way. If there is a major thrust up the rankings, it will probably come in the conference game if the Men of Troy play an undefeated Oregon team in the conference championship game, probably, IMHO, in Eugene.

IMHO offensively: Turning back to Saturday’s victory over Arizona, offensively the Trojans were their own worst enemy. It seemed like an act of second half desperation that offensive coordinator Graham Harrell gave more gas to the rushing game. Oh sure, Harrell and Helton can point to 173 yards rushing, but 86 yards came in two separate runs by sophomore Markese Stepp (49 yds.) and senior Stephen Carr (37 yds.). The good news is that Carr also had a 19-yard run coming off a draw play – yes, I am not kidding, an actual draw play. Harrell, however, was going to remain committed to his passing circus through much of the game although like every defense the Trojans seem to see on a weekly basis dares the Trojans to run the ball against a three-man front while dropping eight back for pass defense. Of course, Harrell would tell us it’s all about the Trojans executing the passing game and not what the opponent’s defense does. For all the naysayers of that philosophy, Harrell can point to the Trojans’ 498 total offensive yards to prove there’s nothing wrong with the offense, which would be, of course, misleading. It’s all about points.

Against Arizona, sophomore running back Markese Stepp (photo above) led the Trojans in rushing with a team-high 82 yards (6.8 avg.) and one touchdown. (photo by John McGillen via USC Athletics)

The good news is that the Trojans’ offensive line didn’t give up a sack although they again had major issues trying to get a yard on 3rd or 4th-and-1 situations.  Along with that issue, Trojans sophomore quarterback Kedon Slovis (30 of 43 for 325 yards, 1 TD, 0 interceptions) looked as if he was suffering from some sort of throwing issues, appearing either out of rhythm or fundamentally unsure. His passes were often off target, and the ball was wobbly in flight. Afterward, Slovis claimed his arm felt “great” and he was fine. In the end, however, when it counted the most, Slovis was 13 of 15 for 144 yards in the final two drives, which included the winning 90 seconds for Kedon to traverse the length of the field for the comeback winning score. It should be noted that junior wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown had an outstanding game with seven receptions for 113 yards followed by senior Tyler Vaughns (70 yds.) and sophomore Drake London (68 yds). Redshirt freshman Bru McCoy showed continued promise with 25 yards on three catches.

 IMHO defensively: It’s pretty apparent that first-year defensive coordinator Todd Orlando’s aggressive defense and violent nature is a feast or famine situation. It just seems like the Trojans can’t stop the run with consistency or they get a big tackle-for-loss reward. Arizona had 158 net rushing yards (4.0 avg.) for the game. Without sacks and penalties, UofA had 191 yards. Early-on, the Trojans were having all sorts of challenges with young Arizona quarterback Grant Grunnell (24 of 36 for 286 yards, 3 TDs, 1 PI), and were especially burned when Grunnell ran out of the pocket (66 yds.) That changed when Todd Orlando decided to put a “spy” on Grunnell with Trojans’ sophomore linebacker Raymond Scott (3 tackles) doing the honors. It was a good move and really slowed Grunnell’s scrambling and finding running lanes. Like the week before, sophomore OLB Drake Jackson made his presence felt later in the game with two sacks and two tackles for losses.  

Trojans defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu (photo above – No. 93) had a team-high eight tackles against Arizona on Saturday. (photo by John McGillen/USC Athletics)

Again, the Trojans had a tough time stopping an opponent’s rushing attack. Arizona senior running back Gary Brightwell ran for 113 yards on 21 carries (5.3 avg.). In terms of pass defense, the Trojans continued to be flagged with pass interference calls, and the defense in general allowed Wildcats drives to continue due to flags being thrown. Again, the Trojans were burned in their pursuit angles of ball carriers after the catch, and the secondary gave up touchdown passes of 34, 75, and six yards. It would seem that we should get a better idea of the overall defense when the Trojans complete their third game at Utah. True freshman defensive lineman Tui Tuipulotu, brother of Marlon, continues to impress, recording five tackles, four that were solo strikes.     

IMHO special teams: In the battle of placekickers, Arizona’s Lucas Havrisik connected on three field goals (42, 25, 32, and 51 yds) while missing one (42 yds.), while the Trojans true freshman kicker Parker Lewis was good on two of his three attempts (30 and 28 yds.), the lone miss, a 28-yard attempt. In terms of kickoffs, Lewis had seven attempts and three landed in the end zone for touchback. Punter Ben Griffiths booted three for an impressive 47.7 average, the long a 61 bazooka. There was nothing eventful on kickoff returns, but Amon-Ra St. Brown did return a punt for 17 yards. 

Trojans’ true freshman placekicker Parker Lewis (photo above – No. 48) connected on two critical field goals of 30 and 28 yards against Arizona. (photo above by John McGillen via USC Athletics)

Bottom Line: One glaring issue, which continues to be the hallmark of a Clay Helton team, is the amount of penalties and yardage. The Trojans were flagged 11 times for 110 yards with variety of penalties – not a good sign looking to win a championship. However, when it’s all said and done, it’s about wins and losses, and the Men of Troy are 2-0 and their South Division hopes still intact, barely.  

Infirmary: Talanoa Hufanga (thigh), Palaie Gaoteote (head)

Game highlights: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8GFwY7GjZ-0

Next Saturday: The Trojans travel to Salt Lake City to play the University of Utah Utes (0-0 overall, 0-0 Pac-12 South). Kickoff time is set for 8:30 p.m. MST (7:30 p.m. PST/ESPN).

USC/Arizona quotebook…

Clay Helton comments:

Opening statement: “Those kids had a lot of heart today and looking at our football team, offensively, we showed up late again. We missed some opportunities in the red zone that I thought could separate us in the second half. Being inside the 15-yard line twice coming away with no points, it left a good team in (the game). Credit to their kids offensively. I thought they did a nice job of spreading the ball around and making some big plays down the field. At the end, our kids did what they did last time. I didn’t see any panic. They showed great poise. We had a little over a minute on the clock with three timeouts. We felt extremely comfortable. It’s what we do at practice each and every week and the guys executed to perfection. A Pac-12 win on the road, 1-0 on the week and 2-0 on the season. We will get back home and get prepared for next week.”

Trojans head coach Clay Helton (photo above) was impressed with his team’s effort in USC’s narrow 34-30 win over Arizona on Saturday.

On the difference of when things are working offensively vs not:
“It’s one of those games where you are going to look up that we had somewhere around 500 yards. It was our execution in the red zone that stood out to me. Any time that you get it inside the 15 twice and come away with no points is an opportunity to separate yourself in the game. That’s something we improved a little on this week, but we need to work a little more on. I’m really happy with the run game and how that is going. That’s really the difference in us this year compared to last year. We are fortunate to get out of here with a win. We improved in some areas and some other areas we need to keep improving in. I’m proud of these kids and how tough they are.”
On how concerned they are coming out of this game:
“We are 2-0, so we are going to go back home and continue to improve each and every week and find a way to get 1-0 next week against a good Utah team. I know our kids really deal with reality well. They deal with the truth well. There are some things that we need to get better at, but we celebrate all the wins. Conference games on the road that you come out with, celebrate.”

On the performance of the Trojans’ offensive line: “I don’t think we gave up a sack and we rushed for our mark of 175. So, are there a couple things that we could do better? Yes, we had a I think a missed assignment on the one fourth and short that I would like to have back. But you give up zero sacks on the day and you hit our mark of 175, they met a goal. They kept our quarterback upright and they’ll always say we want to get better; we want to get better. But I saw improvement from Week 1 to Week 2.”

Arizona head coach Kevin Sumlin comments:

Overall, what did you think your team showed or proved today? “I don’t know that we proved anything. You win or lose. I thought that we had some experienced guys that we expected to play well, and we had some newcomers, whether they are transfers or young guys that played well, but not well enough to win. That’s the bottom line. As I told them in the locker room, our effort was great and was where it should be. Athletically, we’ve improved in all three phases, but to win close games like that it comes down to some situational football and some things that we can clean up. We have to go back on Monday and fix those things. Those things are fixable, but athletically, we’re better and I thought our guys gave effort. We have to be smarter in some situations to get over the hump. Ultimately, in those kinds of close games, it comes down to making plays and doing your job. We had a couple of breakdowns in those areas, but that can be fixed.”

Like Clay Helton, Arizona head coach Kevin Sumlin (photo above) was impressed with his team’s effort.

What were your overall impressions on the defensive side of the ball? “
I thought in the first half we did a good job. We only had three penalties in the first half, but they were three third down penalties. One questionable call and then some others that gave them first downs to keep some drives alive. The rotation up front has improved, particularly in our run defense. They started running some more stretch zone and it took us a while to get that shut down in the second half. Overall, we’re better. We didn’t force a turnover today, but that’s credit to USC as well. We have some things that we can build off of. Certainly, up front, our D-line against the run has improved.”
What was the defensive strategy and thought process on USC’s final drive?
“We were down a couple safeties. We had some mix ups there. Number one, Jaxsen Turner had left the game a couple times and was out. Our safeties were thin there anyways. We had a couple DBs that were out. So, the ability to play man to man or tighter coverage right there with our seconds or thirds, we were a little bit out of that. That was the position we were in and obviously USC took advantage of that.”

Trojans quarterback Kedon Slovis on whether his arm is healthy: “My arm feels fine. I think at times my mechanics get sloppy. I don’t know if like Coach was saying, dryness, or maybe it’s the ball. I don’t know what it is, but I’ll get it fixed next week. We got a lot of time to get it fixed and my arm feels great, so I just need to get it fixed mechanically.”

Some have questioned the arm health of Trojans’ quarterback Kedo Slovis (photo above – No. 9), who says he feel fine. (photo by John McGillen via USC Athletics)

Trojans safety Talanoa Hufanga on general thoughts on the game: “(Arizona) likes to spread the ball out and to take shots down the field and make their plays. Overall, we just need to continue to work and bring the intensity next week so we can go 1-0 next week. We want to celebrate for 24 hours and move onto the next one. We are just excited for this opportunity to keep on going.”

More Hufanga: On what changed in the second half and how they adjusted: “We moved to different personnel, bringing in that bigger guy that we could keep our eyes on. We just had to trust our personnel in the back end. We wanted to bring more pressure and give more opportunities to make our plays as a defense. For us, we had a bunch of guys that were able to step up into big time roles, guys who can just come in and do their jobs. We are proud of them.”
Last add Hufanga: On the mood after such a dramatic comeback: “It’s a blessing for sure. At the end of the day, we celebrate all wins. Today was a win. We celebrate tonight, and then prepare for Utah (next week). They are a great team that is looking to come out with a good season opener.”

Shaking off a deep tight bruise, Trojans junior safety standout Talanoa Hufanga (photo above – No. 15) was a force against Arizona. (photo by John McGillen via USC Athletics)

Arizona Quarterback Grant Gunnell on how he would describe the overall mood of the team coming out of a game like this: “Obviously we’re disappointed. I take full responsibility for throwing that pick early in the game that screwed us up later down the line. There’s definitely some disappointment here that comes with a loss, especially when it’s that close and everyone was saying we were the underdog.”

More Grant Gunnell – On what was the thought process on the final sequence: “After I took that sack, it put us at a 70-yard throw so we settled for rugby, which is pitching the ball and it didn’t work out.”

Arizona linebacker Rourke Freeburg on what he saw out there on the field today as far as the game went and his overall takeaways: “A lot of ups and downs. I felt like in the first half we did a good job of minimizing plays, tackling well, stopping the run. Getting off the field on third down was something we struggled with today. Those are the four keys that Coach Rhoads had said we needed to do to win the game and I feel like we did a pretty good job of that until the second half. Our offense runs a very similar scheme, so to be honest with you, it was almost like we were playing against our offense today. I felt very comfortable. I was nervous all day, it was my first start, but once I got out on the field, it was like second nature to me.”

Trojans running back Vavae Malepeai on his game-winning touchdown run: “It was great blocking, no doubt. At the end of the day, Coach made a great call. The O-line did a great job communicating. At the beginning, miscommunication here and there. But as the game went on, when we needed it, we got the job done. Give credit to the O-line, and the wideouts on the edge, just blocking. It’s a team effort. It’s about the team’s success. I just really grabbed the ball and walked it into the end zone. It was the guys around me that pushed me into the end zone. I’m grateful for that.”

Over his career, Trojans running back Vavae Malepeai (photo above) has been a dependable ball carrier near the end zone. (photo by Jordon Kelly)

From the press box…

Pac-12 Weekend Results

Saturday, Nov. 14
USC 34, at Arizona 30
Cal at ASU (cancelled due to COVID)
Colorado 35, at Stanford 32
Oregon 43, at WSU 29
At Washington 27, Oregon State 21
Utah at UCLA (cancelled due to COVID)

Sunday, Nov. 15
At UCLA 34, Cal 10

Pac-12 Standings (as of Sunday, Nov. 15)

South Division
Arizona St…0-1

North Division
Oregon St…………0-1
Washington St….0-1

Temperature: Tucson kickoff temperature was sunny and 73 degrees.

Urban speaks: In the FOX pregame show before the Trojans and Arizona game, former college football coaching legend Urban Meyer gave this assessment of USC:“Every conversation around USC is about throw and catch. Throw and catch doesn’t win championships by itself.”

College football coaching legend Urban Meyer (photo above on far right\) gave a critical evaluation of the Trojans on the FOX pregame show prior to the USC/Arizona kickoff.

Urban speaks – Part 2: Meyer continued, “What about defense, what about toughness, what about special teams? What about running the ball when you have to run the ball? This is still USC. I go back to the glory days of when you guys (Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush) played. Yeah you threw and caught but you ran the darn ball and the offensive line came smoking off the line of scrimmage. This is still football.”

Urban speaks – Part 3: Meyer continued, “I want to see USC get the big tough guys up front, move guys off the line of scrimmage. At the end of the day, football is still football. Yes, throwing and catching is really important. By itself, you’re not going to win a championship.”

Urban speaks – Part 4: Right before kickoff of the Trojans and Arizona, Meyer completed his USC assessment by saying, “At the end of the day, when you start talking college football playoff, which you should at USC every year, at the end of the day, you have to start talking about other things besides throwing and catching. For a year and a half, all we’ve heard about is throwing and catching and the great receivers. Last time I checked, the correlations between catching the football and winning is not that high. There is so many other things like how is our special teams? How’s our defensive play? When is our big hits going to happen? And finally, probably the most important position on the whole field is the offensive line? Are they going to control the line of scrimmage? If you want to start winning championships, you have to start talking about the power of the offensive line and the physicality of USC.” Amen to all that, brother.

November to remember: With the two victories in November to start the 2020 season, the Trojans are now 265-134-20.

Like Trojans linebacker Drake Jackson (photo above), the Trojans have historicaslly tackled the month of November with success. (photo by John McGillen via USC Athletics)

History Lesson:
The Trojans are now 35-8 in the series with Arizona.

History Lesson – Part 2:
The Trojans are now 15-4 in games played at Arizona.

History Lesson – Part 3: In road openers, the Trojans are now 83-31-8.

No grass:
With the Trojans victory over Arizona on FieldTurf, the Men of Troy are now 45-30-1 on artificial turf. 

Trojans’ junior wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown enjoyed his time running on Arizona Stadium’s FieldTurf to the tune of 113 yards on seven receptions (John McGillen via USC Athletics)

The post-game show numbers…

Tackling the issues: Against Arizona,junior defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu led the Trojans with eight tackles followed by junior nickel back Greg Johnson and linebacker Ralen Goforth with six tackles each.

Upward trend: Against Arizona, the Trojans scored 34 points. Prior to the Arizona game, the Trojans were averaging 28 points per game.

After the Arizona victory, the Trojans’ offense ( photo above) increased its seasonal scoring average from 28.0 points per game to 31.0 points per game. (photo above John McGillen/USC Athletics)

Upward trend: Against Arizona, the Trojans allowed 30 points. Prior to the Arizona game, the Trojans were allowing 27.0 points per game. 

Downward trend: Against Arizona, the Trojans had 498 yards in total offense. Prior to the Arizona game, the Trojans were averaging 556.0 yards on offense. 

Upward trend: Against Arizona, the Trojans defense allowed 444 total yards in total offense. Prior to the Arizona game, the Trojans were allowing 393.0 yards in total offensive yards per game.

Downward trend: Against Arizona, the Trojans had 173 net yards rushing. Prior to the Arizona game, the Trojans were averaging 175.0 rushing yards per game. 

Downward trend: Against Arizona, the Trojans allowed 158 net rushing yards. Prior to the Arizona game, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 258.0 rushing yards per game.

Trojans’ junior defensive end Nick Figueroa (photo above – No. 50) helped keep Arizona’s rushing yardage to just 158 net yards. (photo by John McGillen via USC Athletics)

Downward trend: Against Arizona, the Trojans had 325 yards passing yards. Prior to the Arizona game, the Trojans were averaging 381.0 passing yards per game.  

Upward trend: Against Arizona, the Trojans allowed 286 passing yards. Prior to the Arizona game, the Trojans’ were allowing 134.0 passing yards per game.

Time of possession: The Trojans had the ball 29:56 minutes while Arizona had the ball for 30:04 minutes.  

Downward flag waving: Against Arizona, the Trojans had 11 penalties for 110 yards while Arizona had seven penalties for 80 yards. Prior to the Arizona game, the Trojans were averaging 59.0 penalty yards per game.

In order for the Trojans (photo above) to become a championship team, they’ll have to cut down on the number of penalties and penalty yardage. Against Arizona, the Trojans had 11 penalties for 110 yards. (photo by John McGillen/USC Athletics)

The post-game call-in show:

Caller No. 1: Greg, are the Trojans right where you thought they would be at this point in the season?  

Caller No. 1, yes, they are, but they could easily be 0-2. They are winning, but they are expected to be undefeated. Next weekend, the Trojans will play a Utah team that is having all sorts of issues fielding a team due to COVID-19. The way things are going with the Utes, there is no guarantee that the USC/Utah game will even be played. However, if the game is played, there is no lock this USC team will come back with a victory.   

Caller No. 2: GK, where do you see at this point the strength of the offense and defense?

Caller No. 3, to no surprise, the strength on offense is the passing game. QB Kedon Slovis can dissect a defense if given time, and if he stays healthy, the Trojans’ receivers are nearly as good as it gets. Drake London is a pro. Defensively, the strength, IMHO, are the junior strong safeties – Talanoa Hufanga and Isaiah Pola-Mao, but they are making too many tackles, which means the men upfront need to do a better job of penetration and the linebackers must stay disciplined.   

To the surprise of nobody, quarterback Kedon Slovis (photo above) has been the strength of the offense in 2020. (photo by John McGillen via USC Athletics)

Caller No. 3: Katz, what are your thoughts regarding Oregon’s play up to this point?

Caller No. 3, if the Trojans get to the Pac-12 title game, while I think the Trojans could upset the Ducks, the Cardinal and Gold will be the underdog going into the title game. I liked what I saw on television of the Ducks.  

Caller No. 4: Mr. Kitty, did you see any of the television ratings for the Trojans 9 a.m. opener against Arizona State?

Caller No. 4, the rating didn’t go through the roof (shocking). The excuse was that the nation was focused on the election results. I think you’d agree that the national election was slightly (tongue-in-cheek) more important than ASU at USC at 9 a.m. PST.  

The television ratings for the Trojans 9 a.m. game against Arizona State (photo above) are in, and the ratings did not do as well as hoped. Some of the blame was that the early norning game competed with the national elections. (photo by Jose Marin / MarinMedia Pool for USC Athletics

Caller No. 5: G-man, what are you doing for Thanksgiving?  

Caller No. 5, I will be spending time with my girlfriend at her daughter’s house. I will miss being with what’s left of my family, but they have been going in more social circles than me, and we agreed – hopefully for just this Thanksgiving – that we will resume our celebration in 2021.  

The last word: So, what’s the overs and unders that the USC at Utah game will even be played next Saturday night in Salt Lake City?  

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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