30 min Read

IMHO Saturday Championship Game Special: A painfully self-inflicted reality check

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

IMHO: Clay Helton said this week that he felt his Trojans were a Top 10 team in the nation. The Oregon Ducks proved otherwise.The Ducks knew coming into its Pac-12 Championship Game that in three of their previous five wins, the No. 13 USC Trojans had defeated UCLA with 16 seconds remaining, claimed victory over Arizona with just 25 left, and overcame ASU with 1:20 left on the clock. No doubt, the Ducks desperately never wanted to put the Trojans into their comfort zone with yet another heart-pounding comeback opportunity.

So, in Friday night’s conference title game between the Trojans and the Ducks in the fan-less Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal made sure his Ducks (4-2) left very little wiggle room for the Trojans (5-1) by out-executing and allowing Clay Helton’s Trojans to make a multi-combination of self-inflicted, catastrophic errors to beat the Trojans, 31-24, to win the Pac-12 Championship, the Ducks’ second consecutive title and fourth overall in the present format. Simply put, the Trojans couldn’t get out of their own way.  

IMHO – Part 2: As for Helton and his team, call it a painful Pac-12 reality check of the present. In the end, too many missed opportunities, too many interceptions, no running attack, too many sacks, busted assignments, way too many penalties, and this is scratching the surface. The Trojans were their own worst enemy, but that isn’t to take away from Oregon, which was the superior team. On Friday night, there would be no miracle comeback, but there was almost one until Oregon defender Jamal Hill picked off Kedon Slovis for the second time in the evening. There is going to be – and should be – a lot of soul-searching by the players, the coaches, and maybe even athletic director Mike Bohn. Then again, if you’re satisfied with the Trojans winning the Pac-12 South Division, mission accomplished. The Trojans were never in a better position to a conference title even with the COVID schedule.     

IMHO – Part 3: This past week, the CFP committee revealed that the Trojans, in their opinion, were the No.13 team in the country despite being undefeated. It was explained that while the Trojans’ record was unblemished not only had they not beaten anybody of note or record (the combined record of those teams SC had beaten was 7-14) but had won three games in miracle, come-from-behind fashion. In spite of Clay Helton believing his team belonged in the Top 10, the CFP committee was vindicated on Friday when Oregon handed the Trojans their first loss. The Ducks exposed once again all the Trojans ‘pimples.” At least it wasn’t like last season’s 56-24 slaughter by Oregon in the Coliseum.   

Prior to the Pac-12 title game with Oregon, Trojans head coach Clay Helton (photo above) said this past week that his team was a Top 10 club.

IMHO – Part 4: Oregon didn’t do anything surprising on Friday night, given the fact that the Ducks were the preseason pick by the Pac-12 media to win it all anyway. Sure, they had lost star quarterback Justin Herbert to the NFL after last season, and there was the loss of that vaunted offensive line, and some quality opt-outs in the secondary. However, Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal has built a program using the Nick Saban Alabama template, which made sense since Cristobal was once the Alabama offensive line coach. On Friday night, the Ducks displayed that template of relentless toughness and talent to dispatch Clay Helton’s Trojans, who played hard and with passion but not with the precision of consistency to upset the Ducks, who came in as the favorites.  

IMHO – Part 5: For Clay Helton, who again earlier in the week believed his team was a Top 10 team in the country, was brought down to reality. The Trojans had played a weak schedule, were fortunate to have beaten ASU, Arizona, and UCLA, and showed no real signs of consistent dominance. The loss on Friday night again brings into question whether Helton is capable of leading the Trojans to a higher level than what you’ve seen the last five seasons. As for now, the answer here is a respectful “No.” A nice man, Gentleman Clay has not given any indication that he is a national championship level coach. After five seasons, there is more than enough evidence to suggest he’s a decent guy, a caring person, but not an elite football coach. He was the Trojans head coach in 2020 because a new, first-year President, Dr. Carol Folt, apparently wouldn’t allow her handpicked athletic director, Mike Bohn, to move the USC football program in another direction. 

Trojans athletic director Mike Bohn (photo above) has been very supportive of Clay Helton.

IMHO – Part 6: While most of the USC following were well passed the Helton question of does he stay or does he go, Dr. Folt had inherited a university that was deep in problems, and in her mind, probably knew that Clay Helton would be the least of her problems on a personal level. Of course, financial considerations to Helton’s buyout were probably what also stopped Folt in her tracks, but there were devoted alumni that were willing to pay for the buyout. Folt wanted no part of that scenario and chose to take the easy way out for her by retaining Helton. It was good for Folt, who fell in love with Helton’s charming personality and non-threatening demeaner. It wasn’t necessarily good for a football program whose standards were always national championship driven. In all probability and given the pandemic season, it would be shocking if Helton is not the USC coach in 2021. Had there not been a COVID-19 and the originally announced schedule been played, it wouldn’t have been shocking to see the Trojans finish 5-7. It helps not to have to play Alabama, Notre Dame, at Oregon, and Washington.     

IMHO – Part 7: Now to the Trojans football team moves forward. Since the Trojans lost the conference title, it would appear they are headed to the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio, a game that would be played on Dec. 29 against a probable Big 12 opponent. The Trojans have never appeared in the Alamo Bowl, so that will be a new experience for the program. As for Friday night, Oregon gave the Trojans a reality test for the 2020 season, and it didn’t feel good. Of course, Trojans fans can go run out and buy their Pac-12 South Division Champion T-shirts, right?

Back to the game.

IMHO offensively against Oregon: Three costly turnovers.Well, you have to start with Trojans quarterback Kedon Slovis, who threw three disastrous interceptions, the final one coming on the one last hopeful miracle drive. Slovis had stats (28 of 52 for 320 yds./2 TDs/2 PI), but the one that will stick out will be the interceptions. They were killer. The Trojans’ offensive line couldn’t handle the Oregon front, and Ducks defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux was a monster. The local former Westlake Oaks Christian star was a man among boys and at times toyed with the Trojans offensive linemen. Slovis was running for his life for a good portion of the game. The Ducks mixed their coverages, but had no problem playing man.  

Trojans quarterback Kedon Slovis (photo above) had a tough night against the Oregon defense. Slovis had three critical interceptions in the game. (photo by John McGillen)

Not surprising, the Trojans had little to no running game and the “leading rusher” was Stephen Carr (12c for 40 yds.). Why beat a dead horse, the Trojans the whole season have put the running game into hibernation by choice. Again, sophomore receiver Drake London (8 rec. for 75 yds.) was a beast, and you’ll get no argument from the Oregon secondary. Jackson’s receiving partners Amon-Ra St. Brown (5 rec. for 74 yds/1 TD) and Tyler Vaughns (2 rec. for 40 yds) made solid contributions, and let’s not forget Bru McCoy (6 rec. for 76 yds./ 1TD) who flashed a number of times future greatness although he dropped a long pass late in the game should have been caught.  

However, let’s just get to the point and say that the Air Raid offense is one dimensional, and while it can be exciting at times in the air, championship teams run the ball as Oregon showed. Until the Trojans figure that out, winning a Pac-12 title against the North Division teams that really run the ball – outside of Washington State – is probably problematic. Winning a national title is pure folly. Nobody has done it yet with the Air Raid, and the obvious reason is you need a physical running attack and a passing attack.     

IMHO defensively against Oregon: Give the Trojans defense some credit because they were constantly being put in bad situations either through offensive turnovers or special teams blunders. Had Oregon not been gifted two early interceptions that led directly to touchdowns, they played a good game. The Ducks did move the ball on the ground, but that’s going to happen to some extent when you play a team that prides itself in a physical offensive line. Todd Orlando’s Trojans defense played well enough for the Trojans to win the game, but there were times that the Trojans’ defense was out-thought in play designs.

Trojans defensive coordinator Todd Orlando had to be pleased with his defense despite losing to Oregon. (photo by Jose / MarinMedia.org Pool for USC Athletics)

Ducks OC Joe Morehead coached a very impressive game in matching wits with Orlando. The two were going at it all night like chess players.  Of note, other than an ill-advised personal foul on Ducks quarterback Tyler Shough, Trojans inside linebacker Kana’i Mauga was a force and ended the game with a game-high 14 tackles. Trojans safeties Talanoa Hufanga and Isaiah Pola-Mao were tough, although both had penalties through the course of the game that hurt the cause.   

IMHO special teams against Oregon: First the good news. The Trojans tried an onside kick in the third quarter, which was executed brilliantly. Good for kicker Parker Lewis and good for Bru McCoy, who recovered the kick. However, there were epic blunders like Talanoa Hufanga’s roughing the punter when the Trojans defense had thwarted the Ducks offense during a critical defensive stand. Trojans placekicker Parker Lewis was 1 of 2 in field goal attempts, and no telling what pressure Lewis might have placed on the Ducks had the true freshman converted his 41-yard attempt in the second quarter. Trojans punter Ben Griffiths averaged 48.7 on three punts and had a long of 61 yards.     

Trojans wide receiver Bru McCoy (photo above – No. 4) not only had a good night catching the football, he also made a big recovery of a Trojans on-side kick. (photo by Dennis Hammond/Long Photography)

Bottom Line: The mark of a well-disciplined and championship teams is penalties. On Friday night, the Trojans committed nine penalties for 98 yards. On the other hand, Oregon had five penalties for 70 yards. Oregon’s 243 yards in total offense while the Trojans had 358 total yards and lost the game. USC had 38 yards rushing and Oregon had 135 yards rushing and won the game. Oregon had 108 yards passing yards while the Trojans had 320 yards passing yards and lost. Oregon ran 60 while the Trojans ran 80 plays and lost the game. The Ducks had 14 points off turnovers and the Trojans had no points, and Oregon won. Oregon could score a touchdown in the third quarter and the Trojans couldn’t and lost the game. These stats right there tell you why the Trojans were defeated in the title game. They also could not play error free football or at least keep it to a minimum. There is no mystery why the Trojans lost. They lost to a team that committed less mistakes, took advantage of Trojans mistakes, and didn’t create self-inflicted wounds – period.    

Infirmary: WR Amon-Ra St. Brown (AC sprain), QB Kedon Slovis (shoulder), OLB Drake Jackson (unknown)  

Game video highlights: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WtkQlb2ygck  

Next Game: If the team decides it wants to play in a bowl game, the Alamo Bowl is considered the likely destination.

USC/Oregon quotebook…

Clay Helton opening comments: Opening Statement: “Great college football game. Credit to Oregon and Mario (Cristobal), played a wonderful game. Very good gameplan, and the kids played with great heart. As well as our team. I’ve never been associated with a group of kids who fight harder or have more heart. There’s a lot of hurt souls in our locker room right now. It’s something that I know our kids wanted extremely badly, to win a championship, and we came up a play too short today. These kids have taken us and laid a steppingstone, a foundation to what a championship team is going to look like. And I’m proud of our older kids and our veterans, one, for the way they played and two, for where they’ve got us to which is on the edge of winning championships. Based on the lessons learned this season, I know we’ll take a step forward in the future.”

Although his team lost to Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship Game, Trojans head coach Clay Helton (photo above) was proud of team and their effort.

On little things not going their way tonight: “We were fighting for one more possession and we actually got it with 4:30 left. It was right where we’ve known to be. We were in position even with the mistakes we made, especially the turnovers. We can’t do that with a good football team. It’s only for the kids’ heart and toughness and willingness to fight back that we put ourselves in position to go tie the game at the end. That’s all you can ask for and this time around we didn’t get it done. We don’t make excuses. But credit to the kids, they fought their butts off.”

On what’s next this season: “I haven’t thought one second past this game. We’ve been in a mindset all season of trying to be 1-0 all week and don’t look back, don’t look forward. Right now I’ve got a bunch of kids that just gave their absolute heart and soul and are hurt and I’m going to focus on that and I’m not going to worry about what’s in the future right now.”

On difficulties against Oregon’s front: “It’s a talented front. We know Kayvon (Thibodeaux) and what he can do. I thought he had tremendous jump off the ball tonight. They did some nice things, got three sacks tonight. They flushed Kedon (Slovis) out of the pocket and got him off his spot a bunch. I thought Kedon did a nice job keeping his eyes up and downfield and creating a lot after being flushed. Credit to them, they’re a good football team. Their front is talented and they played well tonight.”

Oregon defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux (photo above) was unstoppable against the Trojans. (photo by John McGillen)

On next steps for the program to get back of Pac-12: “Winning a championship. We put ourselves in position, and our kids are really so close. We have made such strides. This has been a young group that I’ve watched grow up and I just think about two years ago, and the struggles we went through. Last year, really coming along with Kedon (Slovis) and really playing our best ball down the stretch of the season, and now this year winning the Pac-12 South and putting ourselves in a championship game. We’re judged on championships here, that’s the beauty of this place, that’s the expectation, that’s the standard. That’s what we play for and that’s why hearts are broken in that locker room. That’s the only thing we’ll accept as a team, a championship. We’re really close, but obviously we didn’t get it done tonight and that’s the next step.”

Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal opening comments: “Back in March we said whoever handles this pandemic best is going to end up holding up that trophy. They managed to find a way to stay healthy, make it to every game, and sure enough we found ourselves here in the PAC-12 Championship. Tremendous credit to these football players.”

Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal (photo above) believe that his team’s ability to handle the COVID challenge led to his team’s second consecutive Pac-12 title.

Cristobal on the Oregon defense: “Right away with the turnover, with the pressure on the quarterback, stopping the run game, physical on the line of scrim-mage, physical on the perimeter really just came out with an attitude and purpose and mission.”

Cristobal on defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux: “We know when Kayvon plays like that he’s hard to stop. He changes everything because he’s an every down drive. As a one-on-one matchup, he’s very difficult to block and he’s only getting better. Really proud of him, really proud of the defense. You could tell it was coming the way the guys were practicing, pushing each other, holding each other accountable.”

Cristobal on his LA guys winning the Pac-12 in their hometown: “I thought it was awesome when they got to come here last year and play in front of their families right here in the Coliseum. You wish the families were allowed at the game. So many guys on our team are from southern California and California in general, and it means a ton. The coaching and the caliber of elite athletes out here is hard to match.”

Trojans safety Isaiah Pola-Mao on frustrations of mistakes in a one-possession game: “It was an emotional game. Coach always says when emotions go up, intelligence goes down. Things happen and we just have to lock in the moments, be in the game and be smart.”

Trojans receiver Drake London on the vibe of the offense on the last drive: “It was pretty much the same thing. We didn’t have any doubt at all. We believed in each other and just tried to go out there and execute it. Unfortunately, we just came up short.”

Trojans receiver Drake London (photo above receiving a pass from Kedon Slovis) believed the Trojans were going to win the game on a winning drive. (photo by Dennis Hammond/Long Photography)

London on what he saw from Kedon Slovis: “Same every game. There’s no doubt. We all believe in him. He’s going to have some hiccups here and there but he’s Kedon Slovis and we all trust him.”

Oregon defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux on playing in his hometown: “If I want to be honest, I would have given the MVP to Jamal Hill. It was a great team effort, we had to fight till the fourth quarter and we knew that was what it was going to take to win. It was just another day on the job”

Oregon quarterback Tyler Shough on winning the conference: “It’s a blessing. We were on our couch at home and got called back for a season. A lot of us are mentally drained. I’m so proud of our team because of the way we fought through these tough circumstances.”

Oregon quarterback Tyler Shough says playing in the Pac-12 title game was a blessing. (photo above) (John McGillen)

Shough on Oregon defensive back Jamal Hill: “He’s one of the best cover guys in the Pac-12 and we see him every day in practice. Early in fall camp we had our goes at each other. We all make each other better, practicing against each other as hard as we can every day.”

From the press box…

Pac-12 Weekend Results

Friday, Dec. 18: Pac-12 Championship Game
Oregon 31, at USC 24

Saturday, Dec. 19
WSU at Utah (10:30 a.m./FS1)
Stanford at UCLA (5 p.m./ ESPN2)
Arizona at Cal (canceled)
ASU at Oregon State (7:30 p.m./ ESPN)

Temperature: Coliseum temperature at kickoff was clear and 61 degrees.

Cover boys: On the cover of the Trojans Pac-12 Championship Game program were Olaijah Griffin (No. 2), Chris Steele (No. 8), Isaiah Pola-Mao (No. 21), and Talanoa Hufanga (No. 15).

Photo above of the digital Pac-12 Championship Game program.

Eating out: Like previous Trojans home games, even the Pac-12 title game media were asked to eat their complimentary boxed meals in their cars before entering the Coliseum. Media also had to bring their own bottled water. These decrees were part of the state mandate to curtail COVID-19.

Still the one:
In the ten Pac-12 Championship Games, the Trojans remain the only South Division team to win it all.  

Friday night: This was just the 14th Friday game for the Trojans since 1990.

The series: With the loss, the Trojans hold a 38-22-2 record in its series with Oregon.

Despite the loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship Game (photo above), the Trojans still lead the overall series. (photo by Dennis Hammond/Long Photography)

Extension: Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal was given a new six-year, $27 million dollar extension, which puts to a halt anymore rumors that Cristobal was heading to Auburn.  

Band on the run:
In case you hadn’t heard, the renowned USC Marching Band has named Dr. Art Bartner’s successor. Jake Vogel, associate director of the band, is the new director of the TMB.   

Recruiting update:
The nation’s No. 1 recruit, defensive end Korey Foreman (Corona, Calif./Centennial) tweeted out this past week he will sign on Dec. 16 but keep it a secret until a national All-America Bowl announcement on Jan. 2.

The post-game show numbers…

Tackling the issue: Against Oregon, linebacker Kana’i Mauga led the Trojans with 14 total tackles and was followed by safety Talanoa Hufanga with 12.

Trojans linebacker Kana’i Mauga (photo above – No. 26) lead both teams in tackle with 14. (photo byDennis Hammond/Long Photography)

Downward trend: Against Oregon, the Trojans scored 24 points. Prior to the Oregon game, the Trojans were averaging 35.2 points per game.

Upward trend: Against Oregon, the Trojans allowed 31 points. Prior to the Oregon game, the Trojans were allowing 25.0 points per game. 

Downward trend: Against Oregon, the Trojans had 358 yards in total offense. Prior to the Oregon game, the Trojans were averaging 428.4 yards on offense. 

Downward trend: Against Oregon, the Trojans defense allowed 243 total yards in total offense. Prior to the Oregon game, the Trojans were allowing 395.0 yards in total offensive yards per game.

The Trojans defense (photo above) had a pretty good game against the Oregon offense. (photo by John McGillen)

Downward trend: Against Oregon, the Trojans had 68 net yards rushing. Prior to the Oregon game, the Trojans were averaging 109.2 rushing yards per game. 

Upward trend: Against Oregon, the Trojans allowed 162 net rushing yards. Prior to the Oregon game, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 157.0 rushing yards per game.

Upward trend: Against Oregon, the Trojans had 320 yards passing yards. Prior to the Oregon game, the Trojans were averaging 319.2 passing yards per game.

The Trojan passing game with receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown (photo above) accounted for a team 320 passing yards against Oregon. (photo by John McGillen)

Downward trend: Against Oregon, the Trojans allowed 108 passing yards. Prior to the Oregon game, the Trojans were allowing 238.0 passing yards per game.

Time of possession: The Trojans had the ball for 29:14 minutes while Oregon had the ball for 30:46 minutes.  

Downward flag waving: Against Oregon,the Trojans had nine penalties for 98 yards while Oregon had five penalties for 70 yards. Prior to the Oregon game, the Trojans were averaging 65.6 penalty yards per game while Trojans opponents are averaging 45.2 penalty yardage per game.

The post-game call-in show…

Caller No. 1: G-Kat, were you at all shocked that Oregon beat the Trojans?

Caller No. 1, no, not at all, and we were all pre-warned by those USC comebacks, close fourth quarter wins, which were three of their previously five victories. Oregon has talent, plays physical, and last season not only won on the scoreboard but in the trenches. Obviously, they were the favorites to best the Trojans and did.  

It was no surprise that Oregon defeated the Trojans (photo above) in the Pac-12 title, according to Greg Katz. (photo by John McGillen)

Caller No. 2: Katzie, do you think the Trojans would have beaten Washington if they had played the Huskies?

Caller No. 2, I thought that the Trojans had a much better chance against Washington because I think the Huskies didn’t have the offensive skill players that the Ducks possess. The Ducks have a more diversified attack with their formations.   

Caller No. 3: Sir, what’s your call on the Trojans’ bowl game.  

Caller No. 3, If the Trojans play in a bowl, I think it would be the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio.

Will the Trojans be playing their bowl game in San Antonio’s Alamo Bowl (photo above)?

Caller No. 4: Greg, your call on last Wednesday’s signing day.

Caller No. 4, I know what you’re really asking. Did Korey Foreman sign with the Trojans? The honest answer is that nobody really knows except those close to the Korey’s family and the USC coaching staff.  I thought it was nice recruiting comeback, especially after last year’s undebateable disaster. I thought the highlights were the recruiting of the two quarterbacks, Miller Moss and Jaxson Dart. Dart really reminds me of Sam Darnold. There were a lot of “athletes” that became Trojans, but there were no elite offensive linemen in the group, so let’s hope there are some in the February signing period. It’s a class that probably deserves being somewhere between 11-15 in the country at the moment. However, that could change if Foreman does sign with SC and LSU commit Raesjon Davis actually flips from LSU and sign with the cardinal and gold in February.  

Caller No. 5: GK, cable TV or satellite?  

Caller No. 5, I’ve actually been thinking of switching to Direct TV because my cable system (Cox) doesn’t carry the Dodgers. If that is the case next spring, I will probably make the switch, although I really don’t have a problem with Cox.  

The last word: Wow, that was quite a week with both the early letter of intent and the Pac-12 Championship Game. We all needed a break like this to distract us from the lovely world in which we live. Stay safe, everybody.

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.

More Articles By Greg