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IMHO Sunday: Urgency to improve

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

IMHO – Part 1: The glaring and somewhat ominous message in the No. 15 USC Trojans (1-0 overall, 0-0 Pac-12) 43-21 victory over a determined and unranked UNLV Rebels (0-1 overall, 0-0 MWC) in the Coliseum on Saturday is that the Cardinal and Gold better improve…like IN A HURRY. If they don’t, next weekend’s Pac-12 opener at Stanford Cardinal (1-0, 0-0 Pac-12) could be a major bummer. Nobody argues the potential of Clay Helton’s team, but five field goals and scoring touchdowns in 3 of 6 visits to the Red Zone could spell real danger with future opponents like Stanford. The good news is that Helton and his men know it and said so after Saturday’s victory, but now they must use next week’s practices to shore up some stark deficiencies.

IMHO – Offensively: It was frustrating, it was exhilarating. It was promising, but it was disappointing. Five important field goals, but four touchdowns. That being said, if you thought coming into the Trojans’ opener that true freshmen J.T. Daniels and Amon-Ra St. Brown, the quarterback and wide receiver respectively from Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei H.S., couldn’t be that good, well, now you know what all the commotion is about. If not for some dropped passes by some veteran receivers in the first half, J.T. (282 yds overall) would have been near perfect. As it was, the QB prodigy had no interceptions or turnovers on the day. It was not your typical freshman signal caller debut.

As for the Trojans’ running game, it got untracked in the second half and you had to like the hard running of Aca’Cedric Ware (100 yds.), Stephen Carr, and Vavae Malepeai (2 TDs/ photo above). These three could start for most Pac-12 teams with the exception of Stanford (Bryce Love). As for the offensive line, the physicality showed late in the game after a slow and uninspired start. The good news is that the O-line holding penalties were kept to a minimum, which is a positive sign, and the offense did have 219 yards on the ground. The big issue, however, is scoring touchdowns instead of field goals…if the Men of Troy hope to repeat as Pac-12 champs or better. Oh, and by the way, we’re still wondering why likeable Clay Helton had sophomore quarterback Matt Fink come in for one play deep in the red zone during the second quarter, which resulted in Fink being thrown for a three-yard loss and the drive losing momentum. Afterward, Helton insisted courteously that this was part of a Fink “package” and would be used in the future.

IMHO – Defensively: Since spring and training camp, defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast has worked repeatedly and extensively in trying to curb his defense’s penchant for giving up big plays. Yes, the defense gave up just 21 points, but UNLV really took it to the Trojans in the big-play department, allowing TDs of 71 yards on the ground and a 31-yard TD pass. There were some other big running plays by UNLV quarterback Armani Rogers, a local Los Angles Hamilton High product. Rogers accounted for 105 rushing while tailback Lexington Thomas had 138 yards on the ground. Where was the ballyhooed Trojans’ run defense, a defense that gave up an unnerving 308 yards rushing? Obviously, there’s work to be with Stanford’s power game on the horizon.

The Trojans secondary adjusted well to the passing game of the Rebels. UNLV’s QB Armani Rogers was just 12 of 27 for 97 yards, but he did throw two TD passes (31 and 5 yds.). The good news is that the Trojans’ defense administered five sacks to Rogers’ body, which isn’t a bad day of work at all. However, against a balanced offense – think Stanford – the Trojans will be in for challenge if things aren’t corrected from the UNLV game. And future dual-threat Pac-12 quarterbacks could hurt the Trojans? Think Arizona’s Khalil Tate. If you like individual defense efforts, it wasn’t surprising that linebackers Cameron Smith and Porter Gustin led the way. They are studs.

IMHO – Special teams: Hats off to sophomore placekicker Chase McGrath and his school record-tying five field goals that kept the Trojans in the game. But then there was the uncharacteristic erratic punting of senior Reid Budrovich (28.8 avg.). On the bright side, there were the 10 kickoffs by Alex Stadthaus, seven of which were touchbacks. Nice job, kid! BTW, Stadthaus is a true freshman from (get this) Austin, Texas. How did he escape the Longhorns? Back to the uncomfortable, the Trojans did get burned by a fake punt, which certainly will get the film room attention of special teams coach John Baxter. Again, back to the positive, there was a 73-yard kickoff return by Stephen Carr, and there was some real positive in punt return yardage by Tyler Vaughns (2 for 54 yds.). All in all, there are things to be fixed, but it was more positive than negative day for special teams.  

Bottom line: First games can always be either exhilarating or a nightmare. For the Trojans, who were 26-point favorites to squash UNLV, let’s just say it was an adjustment to playing in a real game again. It’s said that teams make no greater improvement than from the first to the second game, and that will be tested at Stanford next weekend. However, Clay Helton is right that this week ended with the Trojans being 1-0 on the season. That modest perfect record will be tested severely by Stanford on the Farm next Saturday. And lest we forget, the Trojans extend their home winning streak to 17 games in the Clay Helton era.

Tackling the issues: Trojans senior linebacker Cameron Smith and redshirt safety Isaiah Pola-Mao led the Trojans with seven tackles each.

Sack exchange: Trojans credited with sacks were ILB Cameron Smith, DL Brandon Pili, DL Malik Dorton, OLB Porter Gustin, and DL Jay Tufele.

The infirmary: None reported

Next Saturday: The Trojans (1-0 overall, 0-0 Pac-12) will open Pac-12 play at Stanford (1-0 overall, 0-0 Pac-12) on Saturday evening (5:30 p.m. PDT/FOX). On Friday night, the No. 13 Cardinal (1-0 overall, 0-0 Pac-12) wore down visiting San Diego State (0-1 overall, 0-0 MWC) 31-10 through the air. The surprise was not senior All-America tailback and Heisman frontrunner Bryce Love (29 yards on 18 carries) leading the Cardinal, but junior quarterback K.J. Costello (21 of 31 for 332yds. and 1 PI) tossing four TD passes, three to receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside.

The Trojans/UNLV quote book…

Trojans head coach Clay Helton comments: “Bunch of good kids that did a nice job a getting a win today. Good game but obviously we can be even better. The good was that I thought our young people played extremely well for their first time out there. Trevon Sidney had a wonderful game today, Velus Jones made some plays for us out there, and overall I thought our youth developed. I was really hoping to get that three headed monster going and I thought the backs did a great job. I also thought the pass rush by our defense was great, 5 sacks on the day, we rolled as much as we possibly could to get kids in and keep our line fresh.”

Clay Helton comments – Part 2: “Early in the season I thought that we would need to have great special teams, and the two kickers with Chase (McGrath) going 5/5 and then Alex Stadthaus comes out there for his first game as a true freshman and kicks about everyone for a touchback. We did not know what we were going to get defensively, we talked about making adjustments at halftime to really be able to put points on the board, I thought Tee (Martin) did a really nice job of coming in and saying, ‘okay this is what they’re doing, let’s make those adjustments and open things up in the second half.”

Clay Helton comments – Part 3: “We need to improve on making our plays, I was proud of the quarterback today for giving our receivers the opportunity to make plays, and those guys are supermen and they’ll tell you that they expect to make all of them and we know we can do better bringing the ball down. Good game, good win, 1-0 on the week, but we’ve got a lot to fix before we get to Stanford this week.”  

UNLV head coach Tony Sanchez comments: “We wore down a little bit in the end. In the second half, they started to sustain drives and saw us wear down a bit. That third quarter was tough for us, but we just needed to stay on schedule. Had some good first-down runs and then after that it seemed like we got off-schedule.”

Sanchez on Daniels: Regarding the performance of Trojans’ J.T. Daniels, Tony Sanchez said, “I knew about him through the recruiting process. We saw a bunch of film on him. We knew he was really talented and a poised guy and a pocket passer. For a true freshman I thought he did a really good job. People don’t get, I don’t care if you’re the number one guy in the country, you walk into a place like USC, you get named the starter and you gotta go into the Coliseum and win a football game, that’s tough for any kid. Overall, I though he did a good job and didn’t make mistakes. He made smart decisions and took advantage of the shots he had. Overall, I respect the heck out of him and thought he did a really good job.”

Breaking the jitters: Asked about his first start and nerves, Trojans’ true freshman quarterback J.T. Daniels said, “Just throughout the game it was kind of continuous. It is a lot different than you are used to, but as the game went on, finding completions Coach Tee (Martin) putting together a lineup, a quick game, and a lot of RPO’s helped me come into myself, just as the game went on. I think I just continued to get a little bit more comfortable.”

Breaking the jitters – Part 2: J.T. Daniels added, “Yea its goosebumps, running out there and seeing the stadium and all these fans, being with your teammates. It’s hard to put into words for my first time in the Coliseum; it was really magical. Feels really good, my first touchdown under my belt, first win, a really good, controlled game by the defense, special teams, the run and pass came along, the first one being to Amon-Ra (St. Brown) is really cool.”

Breaking the jitters – Part 3: Asked if he received an encouragement phone call on Friday night from his former Mater Dei High coach and former USC wide receiver Bruce Rollinson, Daniels said, “No, my phone broke, I hope not because I wouldn’t have responded. I can’t turn on my phone. We text a lot.”

Amon-Ra speaks: On his first college game, true freshman wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown said, “You walk out (of the tunnel) and it’s unbelievable the tradition they have here. The people, the fans, all your teammates, it’s an amazing time to be here.” (On his success in his first game) “I just do what Tee (Martin) is teaching and the plays he calls. Just trying to execute what I can, make the plays and get open for the quarterback and hope he sees me.”

Getting his kicks: On his record-tying field goal day (5), Trojans sophomore kicker Chase McGrath said, “It was a good day today. I attribute it to my snapper Damon (Johnson) and holder Wyatt (Schmidt). They make my job so easy. We have the best operation (special teams) in all of college football.”

Porterville: Senior Trojans’ linebacker Porter Gustin made his first start since last season and said, “It was great. I suffered a bit of a setback (minor knee surgery) in fall camp, and I didn’t even know if I was going to be able to play in this game. It made me work that much harder. It was great, a blessing to be out here.” (On his sack and fumble recovery) “We had seen their sprint-out on tape, so I was waiting for it. I was able to make the sack. On their first drive, I saw the ball and fell on it. It was fortunate.”

The Boxer: On the creating the fumble that was eventually recovered by Porter Gustin, redshirt freshman safety Isaiah Pola-Mao said, “I kept punching (the ball) and punching and punching.”     

Jake comes through: Asked about blind Trojans’ snapper Jake Olson getting another opportunity on the final PAT, Chase McGrath said, “I love when Jake goes in there because it’s such a neat moment. It’s so inspirational and the honor to kick for him is awesome.”

New center of attention: Trojans’ redshirt freshman center Brett Neilon made his first start and said, “The first two series I was a little nervous, but after that it started to click. I think our offensive line started really clicking and did a great job. I wasn’t super nervous, but I was nervous. The speed of the game was really fast. I haven’t been in a game since my senior year in high school (Rancho Santa Margarita Catholic).

O-line assessment: According to senior offensive right tackle Chuma Edoga, “I thought we did all right man. It was a first game and a couple of jitters for the young guys. I thought we did right communication wise and opened up holes.” (On UNLV’s new DC Tim Skipper) “We knew what they were going to do on defense because we watched film of Florida (where Skipper previously coached). They ran the same thing.”

O-line assessment – Part 2: On the physicality of the offense line, Chuma Edoga said, “We have to get more physical at the start and not wait until the second drive or the third drive. We have the guys, but we need to have the right mindset.”

Wide receiver evaluation: Asked to comment on the performance of the wide receivers, junior Michael Pittman Jr. said, “I thought we started slow and then we picked it up. I had a relatively slow day, but next game we’ll come back against Stanford and keep moving forward. (On the offense) I like that we took shots and making our plays. I think that keep going (throwing) deep is a good thing. Eventually, we’re going to hit one.”

Pittman talks Daniels: In regard to the debut of J.T. Daniels, Michael Pittman said, “I thought he did good today. He played really good, especially for his first game.”

Ajene says: Asked about the secondary, Trojans’ senior DB Ajene Harris commented, “I think we started off slow and had some busted coverages that we have to correct. I’d give us a “B” grade. It wasn’t perfect, but the important thing was getting a ‘W’. As an all-around defense, everything needs to improve.”

From the press box…

Temperature: The kickoff temperature was a sunny 80 degrees.

Counting the turnstiles: Official attendance was 58,708. The “new” current Coliseum attendance is 78,467.

Intermission shortage: With Pac-12 televised game, halftimes have been shortened to 15 minutes.   

Cover boy: On the first game program cover was senior corner Iman “Biggie” Marshall.

Tunnel leaders: Leading the Trojans out of the Coliseum tunnel prior to kickoff was former Trojan basketball great and NBA star Nick Young.

New digs: The new “patio” areas on each side of the peristyle end seemed to be well received, especially the umbrellas. Most folks we overheard were stunned at the mere size of the new “Tower.”

Scouting and Bowls: There were no credentialed NFL or bowl scouts in attendance.

Down goes Texas: The Trojans will be visiting Texas (0-1) on Sept. 15, but the Longhorns will not be undefeated, having lost at Maryland 34-29 on Saturday. It was the second year in a row that the Terrapins have knocked off Texas in the season opener. The Longhorns host Tulsa next Saturday in Austin. FYI, Texas has now lost four straight to ranked teams.

The post-game show numbers…

Opening game improvement: In Saturday’s home opener against UNLV, the Trojans scored 43 points. Last season, the Trojans averaged 32.5 points per game.

Respectable numbers: Against UNLV, the Trojans allowed 21 points. Last season, the Trojans’ defense allowed 26.1 points per game.

A reasonable increase: In Saturday’s home opener against UNLV, the Trojans had 501 yards in total offense. Last season, the Trojans averaged 484.1 yards in total offense per game.

Needs slight improvement: Against UNLV, the Trojans defense allowed 401 total yards in offense. Last season, the Trojans’ defense allowed 395.6 total yards per game.

Power restored: Against UNLV, the Trojans had 219 net yards rushing. Last season, the Trojans averaged 185.1 rushing yards per game.

Way too much: Against UNLV, the Trojans allowed 308 net rushing yards. Last season, the Trojans’ defense allowed 158.6 net yards rushing per game.

Reasonable beginning: Against UNLV, the Trojans had 282 yards passing yards. Last season, the Trojans averaged 299.0 passing yards per game.

Air defense: Against UNLV, the Trojans allowed 97 passing yards. Last season, the Trojans’ defense allowed 237.0 passing yards per game.

Tolerable flags: Against UNLV, the Trojans had six penalties for 58 yards while UNLV had four penalties for 35 yards. Last season, the Trojans averaged 69.6penalized yards per game while opponents of the Trojans averaged 56.0 penalty yards per game.

The last word: So, the QB kid wonder now has his first game under his belt and a team victory. However, coming up next week is a trip up to Palo Alto and the undefeated Stanford Cardinal. Stanford will be a vastly superior opponent compared to UNLV, so the intrigue continues. Can J.T. Daniels up his play to give the Trojans a chance to defeat a nationally ranked opponent like Stanford on the road? It will be a challenge.

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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