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Musings from Arledge: Arizona, the Secondary, and Expected Wins

For all those fans dreaming of Meyer v. Saban to open next season, this week we were treated to the next best thing: Helton v. Sumlin for Pac 12 South supremacy.  (Both have identical records over the last two years also, raising the stakes even further, if that’s even possible.)  

I hadn’t watched much of Arizona this year.  Once they lost to Hawaii, I figured I could save myself the trouble.  So it was comforting to see that Kevin Sumlin has remained true to his project of turning the most-feared offensive weapon in the conference into a liability.  As a sophomore, Khalil Tate had over 1,400 yards rushing, over 9 yards per carry, and 12 rushing touchdowns — and he didn’t even start the full season.  Sumlin, who obviously grew up a Nebraska fan and was bewildered Tom Osborne refused to turn Tommie Frazier into a pro-style dropback passer, has decided to take away his primary asset by keeping him in the pocket where he is subpar.  How many designed runs did Tate have last night?  Were there any?  Look, I don’t know Tate, I don’t really care about Tate, and I certainly don’t care about Arizona.  But seeing what Sumlin has done to a guy who was once a human highlight reel is frustrating even for me.  Tate is a lousy dropback passer.  He doesn’t read the field very well; he’s not very accurate; he’s just not very good.  As a runner, he’s scary every time he touches the ball.  So … let’s keep him in the pocket?  Honestly, is there a coach who is begging to be fired more than Sumlin is?  (Okay, there might be.  But let’s not jump ahead.)

Arizona is a bad football team.  Surprisingly bad.  This week’s game is not the last beating that Arizona will take this year.  

They also might be unethical, criminals even.  At least that must be true of Tate and the other QB, Gunnell.  How else do we explain why Arizona insists on letting every single blitzer have a free shot at them.  I understand a lineman being overwhelmed by Jay Tufele.  That can happen to a lot of linemen, and it happened a lot Saturday.  But letting the safety take a clean shot at the QB over and over again and never doing anything about it?  Never even touching the rusher off the edge?  What does Arizona’s offensive line and coaching staff have against those quarterbacks?  They must be really bad dudes.   

That being said, good work by Clancy Pendergast dialing up a very aggressive game plan.  Facing an offensive line that would probably have given up a few sacks to the WeAreSC staff, Clancy went all in and attacked all night.  Just when I think I can’t watch Clancy’s defenses play anymore, he pulls out something fun.  And that was fun. 

So USC had gone 17 straight games without winning the turnover battle before the Arizona game?  Is that even possible?  USC played some lousy football teams over that stretch, and it couldn’t win the turnover battle even once?  That’s just weird.

Speaking of weird, Markese Stepp and Kenon Christon are the third and fifth best running backs on this roster?  Does anybody really believe that?  We’ve seen enough of Stepp to question how he has been used.  And now we see Christon, one of the fastest players ever to come out of San Diego, and the kid looks like a game breaker.  There are track guys who play football.  A blazing 100m time doesn’t tell you everything about a prospect.  But Christon doesn’t look like a track guy playing football.  He didn’t dance, he hit the hole hard, and he wasn’t afraid of contact.  He seems like the perfect fit for an offense that spreads the field and is designed to create natural seams.  Give that kid a seam, and you’re in trouble.  Yet he would never have touched the field if not for a series of freak injuries and a fumble by a walk on?  

The USC offense seemed to be struggling with a post-ND hangover in the first half of that Arizona game.  Arizona’s defense isn’t exactly Tomey’s Desert Swarm, and starting the game with four straight possessions without a first down isn’t exactly impressive.  But they got things going eventually.  I still like the kid QB.  He has a real future.  And Michael Pittman is a man.  Sometimes it seems USC could throw 50 jump balls to Pittman a game and come down with 39 first downs and 70 points.  And the guy blocks, too.  Stud. 

I don’t even know what to say about Talanoa Hufanga at this point.  I love the guy.  He is a joy to watch.  And he just cannot stay healthy.  It’s frustrating for all of us.  It must be devastating for him.

Speaking of staying healthy, did Clay Helton insult Zeus or something?  Because unless the Olympians are angry, I don’t understand this injury situation.  Is it a strength and conditioning thing?  Pure bad luck?  Whatever it is, I think the casualty rate was lower at Antietam than it’s been for USC over the last week or two.  Next week, Amon-Ra and Pittman might be the starting safeties.  Or outside linebackers.  (I bet they’d be good at both, too.)

Slovis, Stepp, and the young offensive guys get most of the attention.  But this young secondary has really done a heck of a job.  There is a lot of young talent back there, and Greg Burns has done a fantastic job getting those guys ready to play.  

Of course, with USC football these days, it’s not enough just to enjoy a win.  Every game — win or loss — leads back to the same existential questions about the future of the program.  Fans are voting with their attendance.  Recruits are voting with their commitments.  And none of us knows how Carol Folt, the BOT, or the new AD will vote.  So we continue in our angst.

So where does this Arizona game leave us?  

[Editors note: Stop here if you don’t like statistical analyses, criticism of Clay Helton, pessimism, or, you know, realistic assessments of the program.  Just click back on your browser and I’ll see you next week.]

Some people are asking whether the second half of Notre Dame and the Arizona game show that USC is improving.  That is certainly the question Clay Helton wants everybody to ask, and he wants us to agree with him that the team is improving.  Understandable, with his job on the line, every press conference is some version of a politician’s spin session.  

So Clay Helton opened himself up to mockery in some quarters with this quote from his Thursday press conference: “When you go to South Bend, Indiana and play a top-10 team and you take them to the brink, you must have played some pretty good ball.”  And, yes, it’s easy to mock Clay for claiming a moral victory in another prime time loss.  USC football wasn’t built on moral victories.  John McKay doesn’t have a statue on campus because he often played Notre Dame close.

But there’s also truth in what he is saying: wins and losses don’t always tell the full story; it matters how a team plays.  While it’s always disappointing to lose, even well-coached, good football teams can lose a tight game on the road to a good opponent.  It happens.  And in college football, where you have such a small sample size, you should hesitate to draw firm conclusions from a small number of contests.  College football teams play a 12-game regular season.  That’s not much.  Mike Trout frequently goes hitless in 12 at bats, but that doesn’t mean he’s not great; the sample size is just too small.  If you ask only 12 voters who they they are voting for, you might not get a terrible accurate predictor of the next presidential election.  If you flip a coin 12 times, it wouldn’t be remarkable to get 8 or 9 heads, even though you’d have a 50-50 ratio over any large number of tosses.

So focusing simply on wins and losses in one game or even in any one season can sometimes be misleading.  The difference between 10-2 and 8-4 can sometimes be razor thin. 

So is USC improving?  It’s clearly too early to tell.  Plenty of Helton’s teams have been capable of good games.  What they tend not to be capable of is consistency.  You never know what team will show up game to game, or even quarter to quarter.  USC played poorly in the first half of the Notre Dame game and fell into a deep hole, but they played well in the second half.  That means they played one half of football, which isn’t all that abnormal for Clay Helton’s tenure.  Against Arizona the defense dominated all night against a self-destructing Arizona squad, while the offense did little in the first half a lousy Arizona defense.  So how much stock can we put into a win at home against a bad Arizona team?  Not much, I suspect.

More importantly, asking whether USC is improving isn’t really the right question.  Last year’s squad was one of the worst in USC history.  This team was almost certain to be an improvement to some degree.  And you could get steady improvement for a long time starting from last year’s baseline and still not have a football program worth much of anything.  The right question is whether USC is on the path to being the type of program USC wants, and whether this coaching staff can make it happen. 

To answer those questions, we need to take a longer view.  So, Clay is right, USC’s performance against the Irish could be a sign that USC is a decent football team.  Or it could be a sign that USC played well and Notre Dame did not.  Close games happen sometimes; Kansas isn’t good just because they almost won in Austin this week.  With a sample size of one, we just don’t know.  Either way, that doesn’t answer the question. 

But Clay’s basic point — that we need to look at more than just wins and losses — is true; we just need to take a broader view.  If we’re going to look behind the scoreboard to determine whether a team is truly performing, we need to do that on a consistent basis, and not just after a close loss to the Irish.  

Doing this analysis also helps make sense of how USC got where it is.  Some people ask what happened — USC had two good years, why did things go south?  And the common answer is that Sam Darnold left.  That’s true, and it’s part of the explanation.  But it’s not the entire explanation.  Because we need to look closer at the seasons before 2018.

USC won 11 games and the conference in 2017.  But team’s record far exceeded its on-field performance.  Most weeks, the eyeball test said that USC wasn’t a very disciplined, very consistent, or, really, very good team.  And the analytics back that up.  If you predicted from that team’s points scored and points given up what it’s record would be — a common tool with analytics people called the Pythagorean expectation — you’d get a team that should have won 8.5 games instead of 11.  USC’s final win total dramatically exceeded its actual play on the field.  Why?  Because many weeks, USC won without playing particularly well, and it benefitted from an exceptional record in close games in 2017 (and 2016, by the way).  Because dominance in one-score games is unsustainable, the run was unsustainable unless USC substantially improved its play.  What would have happened had USC not been so fortunate in those close games and had, instead, won the games its statistical performance would have predicted?  Then you wouldn’t see a dramatic drop off; you’d see a consistent slide from the end of 2016, when the team was playing well, through the 2017 season, ending in utter collapse by the end of 2018. 

In other words, with a small sample size, you can have large differences between expected wins and actual wins.  But over time, these differences tend to go away, just like the percentage of heads and tails evens out with enough tosses.  Playing mediocre football and pulling out a lot of close wins will eventually catch up to you.  And it did.  Helton likes to say that USC lost four games at the end of the disastrous 2018 season by one score, implying that USC was very close to having a much better season.  And he’s right; USC’s record could have been better if it had won one or two of those close games against bad football teams.  But this just means that the numbers started to even out last year.  He was remarkably fortunate in one-score games in the previous two seasons. This is why some observers — ahem! — pointed out before the 2018 season that Helton’s teams had won far more of their close games than you could reasonably expect, that the win-loss record was therefore artificially inflated above actual performance, and that this luck would end with a thud at some point.

This year, it’s hard to hold the Notre Dame loss against Clay Helton.  He’s right; the team played pretty well against a good team in a tough environment and came up a little short.  That happens.  But these things even out.  If we put that game in the plus column, you have to put Fresno State in the minus column — if a tight loss on the road to a good team is something to feel good about, a tight win against a bad team at home should be treated as a bad outing.  All of which gets USC exactly where it deserves to be this year: 4-3, a little above mediocre.   

Which is just about par for the course for Clay Helton football teams.  We now have a more complete picture of Clay Helton’s tenure; Helton has coached 56 games at USC with 36 wins and a 64% winning percentage.  Fifty-six games is a pretty good sample size, and now we don’t have to get too swept away by the results of any one game.  In his 56 games, USC has scored 1,747 points (31 ppg) and has given up 1,466 points (26 ppg).  The Pythagorean expectation for a team with those numbers is a 58% winning percentage, which equates to 32.5 wins and 23.5 losses.  This means, of course, that Clay Helton is still on the lucky side of the ledger, with three to four more wins than the statistical metrics could have predicted.   

Hey!  Want a fun comparison?  In Paul Hackett’s 37 games, USC averaged 27 points scored and 23 points given up.  What’s the Pythagorean expectation for Paul Hackett’s tenure: 58% winning percentage.  Uh oh.

(If you like this stuff, Ted Tollner’s was 55%.  The Bush/Leinart squads, with average scores over three years of 43-18, was 85%.)

All of this is just a statistical tool, and is most useful as corroborating evidence for the eyeball test.  But for all you glass-half-empty people out there — and you know who you are — just think: it could have been worse. 

And for those glass half-full types: after four years of barely above-average football, don’t get too excited by one win over a bad Arizona squad.  Let’s at least see what happens against Oregon and ASU first.   

As for me, I still say: Carthago delenda est.

Chris Arledge

Chris Arledge is a graduate of USC’s Gould School of Law and is the co-founder and managing partner of an intellectual property law firm. Chris’s forgettable football career started at Elsinore High School, where his Tigers defeated Kyle Wachholtz’s Norco squad for the league title (Bring on Brad Otton’s team, too!), and ended at William Jewell College, where Chris was a team captain and an all-conference defensive back.

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