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IMHO Sunday: Trojans can’t tackle the Irish in painful loss

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

IMHO: Despite a “Fight On” effort and a relentless will to compete, legendary Notre Dame Stadium again became the USC Trojans’ proverbial House of Horrors, the clown from “It” hiding under your bed at night, the terrifying trip to the dentist for a root canal. On a bitterly cold evening in South Bend, Indiana, all those nightmares were transferred into Saturday night’s 91st rivalry game between the Trojans and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. As if author Stephen King or the Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling were calling the play-by-play for NBC’s national telecast, the No. 9 Irish (5-1) painfully teased the Trojans (3-3, 2-1 Pac-12), 30-27, before 77,622 mostly green-clad and boisterous Irish fans, who provided the volume support.         

IMHO – Part 2: Look,I’ve seen both USC and Notre Dame have their ups and downs, but Saturday night didn’t turn out to be a varsity team (Notre Dame) toying with a JV team (USC). No, the Trojans were in the fight for four quarters, and you have to tip your hat to that. If you sat in the stands and froze your shillelagh off, it didn’t come close to the coldhearted physical and emotional pain the Irish eventually put on the Trojans when it was all said and done. The Men of Troy did come close to pulling off one of the all-time upsets in South Bend – almost. The Cardinal and Gold, because of a lack of offensive execution in the first half and really poor tackling on defense throughout the game were the major differences. You can debate that ND was lucky to get out with a win after they were 10 ½ -point pregame favorite status. Maybe Clay Helton did know what he was doing when decided to fly his team into South Bend on Friday night before Saturday night’s game and avoid any prolonged time in the land of the Irish. His team didn’t seem to be affected to the point that they were intimidated by the surroundings. Of course, I truly wonder what John McKay and even Pete Carroll would think of not only flying into northern Indiana on Friday night but again not going through a walk-thru the day before the game in intimidating Notre Dame Stadium. Then again, maybe I don’t want to know what the Silver Fox and Coach Charisma might think. For Saturday’s game, Clay Helton got away with it.        

IMHO – Part 3: So, where do the Trojans go from here? Well, if you take out the emotions of a difficult loss and try and look objectively at what losing to an arch-rival means, you come to the easy reality that the loss to the Irish has no meaning when it comes to the Pac-12 Conference race. However, the way the Trojans played the Irish makes one wonder if they can keep improving and be a major player in the race for the roses.  Trojans’ head coach Clay Helton, whose job security has been in hot water what seems like forever and day, has a chance to get his team ready for a successful balance of the season, which begins with that South Division titanic for a Coliseum Homecoming game next Saturday night against an improved Arizona Wildcat club, which knows a victory over the Trojans could move them into the pole position for the Pac-12 South Division race. It’s turning out to be a game of major importance.   

IMHO offensively: The Irish game plan was to take wide receiver Michael Pittman out of the game, and they accomplished that objective. Michael had four receptions for just 29 yards and no touchdowns. Of course, the Trojans scored only three touchdowns. I thought quarterback Kedon Slovis played a good game after such a long layoff due to concussion protocol (24 of 35 attempts for 255 yards, no interceptions, 2 TD passes). Not that it would have made a difference, but why wasn’t redshirt freshman running back Markese Stepp given the ball more? Was he too effective (10 carries for a team-high 85 yards and one TD)? It seems so obvious with Stepp that it’s almost criminal. And don’t tell me that Stephen Carr (47 yds.) and Vavae Malepeai (46 yds.) are vastly superior. They are very good runners, but Stepp (cover photo above – No. 30) is a load with speed and disceptive moves. A question: If Urban Meyer was the coach of the Trojans, would he use Stepp like he did Ezkiel Elliott at Ohio State? Just asking, stupid me. Speaking of studs, how about Trojans’ tight end Erik Kommenhoek? The underpublicized junior can both block and catch the ball when it is thrown his way and don’t think the NFL scouts in Notre Dame Stadium didn’t take notice. And let’s give credit to sophomore wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, who had a team-high 112 yards in receptions along with a big third quarter 38-yard TD reception from Slovis. As for the offense in general, it accounted for 426 yards against an outstanding Irish defense. After the game, offensive coordinator Graham Harrell was disappointed in his offense in the first half but thought the second half was more of what he envisioned for the season. For Harrell, he needs for his offense to play four quarters of football instead of one half if the Trojans are to be a serious threat to get to Pasadena on New Year’s Day.

Despite the loss to Notre Dame on Saturday night, it was another good outing for Trojans’ junior tight end Erik Kommenhoek (No. 84).

IMHO defensively: Again and again,missed tackles did the Trojans in, and two of those missed players were from talented strong safety Talanoa Hufanga, one turning into a 10-yard touchdown reception by junior ND tight end Cole Kmet. Then there was the late third quarter roughing the passer on Trojans ILB Palaie Gaoteote, which led to an Irish fourth quarter field goal that extended the lead shortly into the fourth quarter, 23-13. These were the kind of errors – either physically or discipline wise – that kills any effort to pull a major upset. Those combination of errors has been the bane of USC defenses during the Clancy Pendergast defensive era. Team like Notre Dame eat that stuff up and spit it out as was the case on Saturday night. Just when the Trojans appeared to be in position to possibly tie the score in the second half, another discipline flag suffocated the upset attempt. Pendergast’s defense allowed 473 total yards to the ND offense, and yet again a rushing attack scorched the Trojans – this time at the tune of 308 yards. Okay, the Trojans only allowed 165 yards of Ian Book passes and one touchdown, but who needs to pass when you’re eating up chunks of yards with power runs and some misdirection reverses? If the Trojans are going to compete for a Pac-12 South Division title, they have to something when it comes to defending the run. Offense may score points, but defense wins championships.      

Trojan defenders like CB Isaac Taylor-Stuart (photo above) held Notre Dame standout quarterback Ian Book to just 165 passing yards.

IMHO special teams: It wouldn’t be fair to say the game was won by the team with the best field goal kicker, but let’s give credit to both placekickers. Notre Dame’s Jonathan Doerer connect on field goals of 45, 52, and 43 yards in his three attempts. As for the Trojans Chase McGrath, he, too, was up to the challenge with a 2 for 2 effort of 40 and 27 yards. In terms of punting, it appears that Trojans’ punter Ben Griffiths is now being “allowed” to let it fly and had some great efforts (42.2 avg. on five punts). Griffiths won his battle with ND punter Jay Bramblett (40.3 avg.). In fact, if John Baxter’s Trojan special teams had been more alert on some of Griffith’s punts, the Trojans could have pinned the Irish inside the own 5-yard line on a couple of occasions. Of course in the end, when the Trojans needed to execute an onside kick to have one final gasp at an upset, they were able to recover the ball.   

Bottom Line: Before we address this, it should be noted that the Trojans had only two flags for a total of 44 yards. Most the most part, they were in control of their emotions except for the controversial personal foul by linebacker Gaoteote on ND QB Ian Book.Despite all the effort in South Bend on Saturday night, the reality is that the Trojans end the first half of the season at 3-3. I predicted 2-4, so they were a game ahead of me. However, the record means they are average, which is not the expectations at the University of Southern California. What does matter at this point is the Pac-12 South Division race, which really begins in earnest from this point on. The Trojans cannot afford any conference losses, especially to upcoming South Division foes. To put it bluntly, Clay Helton’s job depends on it.     

Trojans running back Markese Stepp (photo above on far left) was a bright spot against Notre Dame. Here Stepp goes into the end zone late in the fourth quarter to narrow the score to 30-27.

The infirmary: None officially reported

Next up: The Trojans return home for a Saturday night Homecoming game in the Coliseum against the Arizona Wildcats in a critical Pac-12 Division game. Kickoff time is 6:30 p.m. PDT.  

Trojans wide receiver Michael Pittman (photo above) will be ready to return to Pac-12 Conference South Division play next Saturday night in the Coliseum, which will be Homecoming.

The Trojans/Irish quote book…

Clay Helton comments: “Do I feel like we should have won? No, we didn’t do enough in the first half to put ourselves in position. The score was 30 to 27. And we’ll look at this tape, and there was enough times we had the opportunity to get a stop and we didn’t come up with it. We had an opportunity in the first half to finish drives and we didn’t do it. It’s a team game, and as a team collectively, staff, players, everybody, we came up short today. It’s our job over the next six weeks to make sure that doesn’t happen so we can win a PAC-12 title andsee at home in the Rose Bowl. We control our own destiny and we look forward to the next game.”

Clay Helton comments – Part 2: Analyzing the game, Helton said, “Stopped and pen them deep. They had a couple long drives where they had some explosives in the first half that got them two scores up and we weren’t hitting the explosives and then in the second half they came on. I asked the kids to stay in the fight for 60 minutes and I thought they did a wonderful job of fighting all the way till the last push.”

Clay Helton comments – Part 3: Regarding the personal foul by his inside linebacker Palaie Gaoteote on Irish quarter Ian Book that turned into an Irish scoring opportunity, Helton said, “Referees have very hard jobs and at full speed some calls are hard. I see it one way, another man may see it the other and you have to live with those calls and live with those calls as coaches. You know, this one got hit a little bit late also. I hope we look at it and it’s not the same thing. But it’s something that that crew out there is a pro crew. They do a great job in our league, and some calls go your way and some calls don’t. That call didn’t go our way.”

After the Notre Dame loss, Trojans’ head coach Clay Helton’s team finishes the first half of the season at 3-3.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly comments: “Well, exciting football game. Really for our guys, they prepared so well for this game because it was so unique in that we were playing a team that was presenting an offensive structure that we hadn’t seen all year, and they were coming off a bye week, and we knew that there were going to be some things that we were going to have to adjust to. So, it was interesting.

 Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly comments – Part 2: You know, we were excited as a staff to play the game, obviously, because it’s USC, but we were also — it was one of those things where, okay, what are we going to have to make adjustments to during the game. After the game in the locker room when you get a chance to kind of debrief about it, you feel really good that what you put in was going to be effective. There were a couple of plays out there that we needed to make, but we put our kids in good position to succeed tonight, took USC’s best shot. Congratulations to them. They played a very, very good football game. Clay had them playing very well.”

Trojans’ QB Kedon Slovis: “At halftime, Graham (Harrell) said we had a lack of execution and we did move the ball up until we make a bad mistake or I made a bad read. We left points on the board when we should have scored. It was a matter of executing in the second half.”

Trojans safety Isiah Pola-Mao: “To me, we were just a couple of plays from winning this game.”

Trojans offensive coordinator Graham Harrell: On his thoughts regarding his offense, Harrell said, “In the first half we didn’t make enough plays to be honest with you. Plays were there and one guy not doing his job and then we got it going in the second half and that’s what it’s going to look like if everyone does their job. We have a special unit and I am proud of the way their fought. It wasn’t for a lack of effort. In the second half, you see what happens when eleven people do their job. I am proud as hell by the way they fought. They battled, they kept fighting. We were just one guy away in the first half and that cost us some drives.”   

Trojans’ offensive coordinator Graham Harrell (photo above) says he liked what his offense did in the second half of the Notre Dame game, but he felt that the Trojans were very inconsistent during the first half against the Irish.

Trojans RB Markese Stepp: On his TD after returning to his native state of Indiana, Stepp said, “It was emotional, but I scored, but I wish we could have got the “W”. We have to clean up some things for next week (Arizona) and continue to finish our drives when we get down near enemy territory. You know, just put the ball into the end zone.”

Trojans DT Jay Tufele:
Regarding the Notre Dame offensive ground attack, Tufele said, “They (ND) just kept on pounding it down the middle. Their game plays off of it. We have just come back and make the little adjustments, and we’ll be fine. They’re a great team. We just had some missed assignments and we just have to come back from that.”

Trojans center Brett Neilon:
On the performance of his offensive line, Neilon said, “As an O-line, I thought we played well. We had a few communication errors. It was loud. Notre Dame has a great crowd and they brought it. Overall, they threw some stuff at us that we didn’t practice or had seen before, but I thought we handled it well and communicated. As a whole, we played our butts off.”

Trojans WR Amon-Ra St. Brown: Describing his third quarter 38-yard touchdown reception, St. Brown said, “It the middle of the field open. I had a middle seam read and I ran down the middle and had No. 11 (Alohi Gilman) carrying me. Kedon threw a great ball, and I made the catch and scored. We become all confident.”

Trojans’ sophomore wide receiver had a big game against Notre Dame with 112 yards in receptions and a 38-yard TD grab from Kedon Slovis. St. Brown is shown above against UW.

Notre Dame QB Ian Book on the last scoring drive:
“Yeah, it was great play calling. They were bringing pressure off the edge, so just wanted to go take it up the middle, and the line did a good job of sorting it out. They were kind of doing some games with the line, so it’s hard when you’ve got the quarterback draw, but it worked out perfectly and saw the end zone, and I knew I had to get it in there, so it felt really good.”

From the press box…

Temperature: The Notre Dame Stadium kickoff temperature was clear and 51 degrees with a wind chill factor of 46 degrees.

Official blunder: When referee Michael Mothershed announced at the end of the first half that unsportsmanlike penalties had been flagged for fighting by both teams after the end of the first half, Moethershed said, “Unsportsmanlike penalties on Notre Dame and UCLA.” Oy Veh. Sure, blame it on the Bruins and Chip Kelly! (Cue the calliope).  

Call time: A number of Trojan fans were surprised how “late” the Trojan busses were in arriving at Notre Dame Stadium. The Men of Troy got off the busses about two hours before game time for those counting such things.

Quite an entrance: When Notre Dame began its warmup with the bulk of the team, they players didn’t file out of the fame tunnel on the field but rather entered the stadium through a normal tunnel in the stands where the student body sits.

If you look closely through the press box window and its shadows, you can see the Irish coming to the field (photo above) from the stands as part of their pregame tradition to bond with the students.

Honoring Barter: USC Trojans Band director Dr. Arthur C. Bartner was honored before the game by directing the Notre Dame Marching Band with the playing of our National Anthem.   

Band seating: The Trojans’ Marching Band, which performed at halftime, used to sit in the lower end of the end zone facing Touchdown Jesus. For Saturday night’s game, the TMB was placed in the upper third of ND Stadium above the backline and corner of the end zone.

The Trojans Marching Band (photo above) was tucked away in the upper corner of Notre Dame Stadium, their present could be heard throughout the stadium.

All in the family: Once again, it was exciting from a tradition standpoint to watch the Band of the Fighting Irish perform their pregame and then do its halftime performance. Ken Dye is the director of the Irish band, and he once was in the USC band and an assistant to USC band director Dr. Art Bartner.

 There were plenty of tickets for purchase in and around the Notre Dame campus. In fact, on Friday during the rainy afternoon several “scalpers with umbrellas” were attempting to sell tickets to the game.

Even on a rainy Friday night in South Bend, scalpers (photo above) were still trying to make a profit.

In the Joyce Center, the basketball arena and athletic department offices, resides a menacing statue of a leprechaun, which a real photo op. A number of Trojan fans were seen taking their photo with the menacing figure.

Every time I drive out to Notre Dame, there is an overabundance of roadwork, and there were stretches where there was only one lane. Normally, the drive from Chicago take an hour and a half. With the roadwork, it takes even more time. 

A legend returns:
Former athletic department official and legendary wide receiver J.K. McKay was slapping hands of Trojan fans there were in the spirit line to greet the Men of Troy after they got off the bus. J.K. was on the Trojans’ sideline for the game, as well.

NFL draft: NFL scouts in attendance included the Seahawks, Titans, Texans, Dolphins, Chargers, Steelers.

Let’s go bowling: The Rose and Camping World Bowls had reps in the press box.

The Menu: The Notre Dame press box pregame dinner menu included hot dogs, chili, tortilla soup, pasta and potato salad, an assortment of cookies (chocolate chip, white chocolate, sugar, raisin), and soft drink options.

Your Notre Dame press box media menu (photo above) was your standard hot dogs and potato and pasta salad with some chili and cookies mixed in.

The post-game show numbers…

Tackling the issues: Senior inside linebacker John Houston led the Trojans with eight tackles followed by safety Isaiah Pola-Mao with seven tackles.

Downward trend: Against Notre Dame, the Trojans scored 27 points. Prior to the game with the Irish, the Trojans were averaging 29.40 points per game.

Upward trend: Against Notre Dame, the Trojans allowed 30 points. Prior to the game with the Irish, Trojans’ defense was allowing 24.80 points per game. 

Downward trend: Against Notre Dame, the Trojans had 426 yards in total offense. Prior to the game with the Irish, the Trojans were averaging 429.4 yards in total offense per game.

Upward trend: Against Notre Dame, the Trojans defense allowed 473 total yards in total offense. Prior to the game with the Irish, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 411.4 in total yards per game.

Upward trend: Against Notre Dame, the Trojans had 171 net yards rushing. Prior to the game with the Irish, the Trojans were averaging 137.2 rushing yards per game. 

Upward trend: Against Notre Dame, the Trojans allowed 308 net rushing yards. Prior to the game with the Irish, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 175.0 rushing yards per game.

Upward trend: Against Notre Dame, the Trojans had 255 yards passing yards. Prior to the game with the Irish, Trojans were averaging 292.20 passing yards per game.  

Downward trend: Against Notre Dame, the Trojans allowed 165 passing yards. Prior to the game with the Irish, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 236.40 yards per game.

Time of possession: The Trojans had the ball 28:36 minutes while the Irish had the ball for 31:24.  

Downward flag waving: Against Notre Dame, the Trojans had two penalties for 44 yards while the Irish had five penalties for 45 yards. Prior to the ND game, the Trojans were averaging 73.80 penalty yards per game while the opposition was averaging 62.80 penalty yards per game.

The post-game call-in show:

Caller No. 1: Mr. Katz, does this Notre Dame outcome change Clay Helton’s job status? No, it doesn’t. It was expected the Trojans would lose and they did. This was Clay Helton’s fourth loss to Notre Dame in five attempts.  Don’t expect Clay Helton to be fired because interim athletic director Dave Roberts says that would be up to the new athletic director to make such decisions.  Of course, that doesn’t mean Dr. Folt couldn’t do it if things got messy. Interim Roberts also said, in his opinion to the LA Times, that Helton would be in good stead with a successful season. Roberts, however, never defined what a “successful” season is.      

The Trojans played hard against the Irish (photo above), but couldn’t get the job done for Clay Helton.

Caller No. 2: Katz, what was the mood of the locker room after the game? We aren’t allowed inside the locker room after the game, but when the players came out of their locker room, they had that look of a team that had left it all on the field. Most guys wanted to get out of the cold from under Notre Dame Stadium, get on a warm bus, get to their chartered South Bend charter flight, and get back to Los Angeles.

Caller No. 3: Mr. Katz, do you think that the Notre Dame will have an effect on the Trojans when they play next Saturday against Arizona? Ask Clay Helton. He’s the one that gets the big bucks to be the team head coach and psychologist. Losing the difficult way the Trojans did would be a challenge for any chance in positive circumstances and these are not normal times. It was a tough loss in South Bend, and again the character of this team will be tested against Arizona.  

Caller No. 4: Sir, what kind of an attendance count do you expect against Arizona given the way the Trojans played against the Irish? Because it’s Homecoming, it should keep attendance from reaching the embarrassing point. That being said, the fact the kickoff time is 6:30 p.m. will help encourage attendance. The Trojans are still in the hunt for the Pac-12 South title, so there is that positive element to offer. And it’s not like Notre Dame blew the Trojans out of the water.  

Caller No. 5: Greg, do you think the super cold weather on Saturday night was a factor in the final score? It certainly didn’t look that way. The media watches the game from a glass enclosed, warm press box. In the last five minutes of the game the media is allowed to be down on the field. I can tell you that when I got to the field, the temperature had really dropped, and it was cold, cold, cold, the Men of Troy were still battling to the bitter end.  

It was sunny during the afternoon on the Notre Dame campus, but it was very cold. However, that didn’t stop getting a great view of the Golden Dome (photo above in the middel) and the campus from atop the press box.

Caller No. 6: Mr. G, do you anticipate any lineup changes as the Trojans return to conference play next weekend? The only lineup changes I see might be because of injuries. The effort by the Trojans on both sides of the ball doesn’t look like anything drastic is in the offering.   

Caller No. 7: Gregster, was this Notre Dame Weekender as good as the others you have attended? For me, it’s always a challenge when it rains AND there is also the cold. However, if you asked me if this weekender ever gets old, I would say every time I make the trip, it still feels like the first time after all these years of doing it. Of course, it’s always a highlight of the trip when the Trojans win, which the Trojans didn’t do this time around. One negative for me on this trip was getting a flat tire on my rental car in my hotel parking lot near Midway Airport, which prevented me from getting to the Navy Pier Pep Rally and making a video of it.    

Caller No. 8: Sir, do you think that at least once a season the Trojans should wear a special jersey like most of the schools around the country? I guess I am an old geezer, but I can’t stand these “alternative” uniforms that can deviate even the team colors. I think the Trojans uniforms are one of the most iconic best designed in the land. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I have seen various changes during the different coaching regimes. Pete Carroll wanted the uniform style from the John McKay era.

Caller No. 9: Mr. Katz, do you think that the Trojans should put the last names of players on the back of their jerseys? No, it’s about the name on the front and not the one on the back, It’s all about “we” and not “me.” There is enough attention extended to players as it is.   

One of the icons of Notre Dame is this statue (photo above) in the Joyce Center. The statue is a real photo opportunity for fans of both teams.

Caller No. 10: Sir, In and Out, Burger King, Carl’s, or McDonalds? I’ll take In and Out every time if I can find one.

The last word: Another Notre Dame Weekender is in the books and as the old saying goes: “Other than the assassination Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?” In other words, outside of the game, there is nothing like a trip back to middle America and the beauty of the fall. However, the result of the game was painfully disappointing. If you asked most Trojans that made the trip, most would agree that a 2021 Notre Dame Weekender is still on the future travel schedule. 

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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