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Musings from Arledge: Caring about the running game and more 2021 opponents

This is the time of year when Clay Helton and staff talk up the running game. They talk about how much talent they have at running back, how excited they are about the new big men, how they are focused on really running the fall effectively this year, etc.

It sounds nice. But don’t fall for it. Don’t even take it seriously. Just don’t. It’s not going to happen.

Alijah Vera-Tucker was just picked in the first round of the NFL draft. That’s two years in a row USC has had an offensive lineman picked in the first round. That means in 2019, USC had two first rounders on the left side of its line. The Trojans also had a group of backs that were highly regarded coming out of high school; Stephen Carr was the second-ranked back according to some services, Kenon Christon was a speedster that had an Alabama offer (and Bama doesn’t recruit garbage RB prospects), Markese Stepp was a physical monster who spurned ND, and Vavae Malapei was a highly regarded guy who chose USC over Oregon. You can argue, of course, that Carr wasn’t the same after getting injured his freshman
year, and you can argue that some of those guys were overrated coming out of high school.

You can say anything you want. But if you have backs with those recruiting profiles on your roster and two first-round guys on the left-hand side of your offensive line, you should be able to do something in the running game.

USC finished 116th in the country with 118.2 rushing yards per game (and 3.9 yards per carry).

You read that right: 116th in the country running the ball with two first rounders on the left side of your line and Markese Stepp in the backfield. It wouldn’t take John McKay, John Robinson, or Pete Carroll to be a decent running team with that lineup. I’m pretty sure the comedy team of Hack and Jack could have gotten USC in the top 50 in the country in rushing with those linemen and those backs.

Well, it’s better than last year: 118th in the country at 97.3 yards per game.

Look, the reason we can’t take this talk seriously is because Clay Helton does not value the running game. In his first couple of years, running that Gumbo nonsense with an NFL running back, an NFL quarterback, and some linemen who also made the league, USC wasn’t terrible in the run game: 41st in the country in 2016 and 39th in the country in 2017.

Those aren’t Tailback U numbers. They’re not good numbers. But they’re not shocking. They’re not embarrassing. USC’s running game collapsed in 2018, when the Trojans finished 104th in the country. And that’s when Clay decided to give up on running the
ball and adopt the Pass-Every-Down gimmick offense. We haven’t seen anything as high as 104th since.

Helton’s expectations for the run game are about what you’d expect from somebody who really doesn’t care about running the football. You might remember that he talked glowingly about how USC ran the ball against Arizona last year. The Trojans had 173 yards against what may have been the worst defense in the country. Arizona gave up 407 on the ground to Colorado last year. Colorado was not an offensive juggernaut last year. Gaining 173 on the ground against Arizona was not an accomplishment. Oregon may have gained 173 yards rushing against the Wildcats on one play. I’m not sure of that, but maybe.

Any USC coach who cared at all about running the football would have gouged that Arizona defense for three or four hundred. Ted Tollner’s teams would have physically abused that Arizona defense. (Remember what USC with a coach that cared about the running game did against a much-better ASU team in 2005 when Leinart was (probably) concussed and not himself? 373 on the ground, 264 in the second half alone. That was
fun. I’m so glad Leinart didn’t throw the ball 64 times that day.)

That’s enough. This topic just makes me angry. I’m just telling you not to buy it, people. Just don’t.

USC will have some successful running plays, obviously. But USC is not committed to the run, and it will be a below-average rushing team in 2021. I know it’s easy to get excited about spring reports. I know Kenon Christon is really fast and they put a video on social media showing he can squat a lot of weight. But Kenon Christon will average 3 carries per game more than I will. It doesn’t matter.

We have to stop doing this to ourselves. As long as Clay Helton cares about the running game the way Britney Spears cares about the craft of songwriting, the way Leo DiCaprio cares about maturity in his women, the way Kim Jong-un cares about human rights, the way Andrew Cuomo cares about nursing home patients, the way Paul Dee cares about due process, the running game isn’t doing anything exciting.

But USC does have some really good receivers on the roster. They’ll do some fun things.

More from our trip around the Pac 12. This week: The Pacific Northwest, Part 1

Oregon Ducks
Record Against USC: 22-39-2
Defining program moment: Losing the title game to Auburn.
Program Motto: “More shoes! Right now! More shoes or no food.”

The Oregon Ducks are still trying to answer that oldest of football questions: How much sweat shop money does it take to buy a national championship? Sadly for Oregon, we still don’t know.

I hate Oregon football. That’s no surprise to regular Musings readers. I don’t know if I’ve ever explained why I hate Oregon football. Maybe I have. But the topic never gets old, so let’s discuss.

Oregon is everything that’s wrong with college football. The entire program is built on one alum’s money, an assortment of hideous uniforms (ratio of uniform combinations to Rose Bowl wins: 2,579 to 4), video games in lockers, and the ready availability of weed. That’s it.

That’s the formula. I hate it.

It’s not that Oregon’s terrible; they’re not terrible. It’s just that their high self-regard is completely unjustified by their resume. Oregon pretends they are more than just Uncle Phil’s money. Oregon is the high school kid who starts at third base and bats leadoff and sees no connection between those facts and the fact that his dad donated the scoreboard and uniforms. He’s the pretty good player who hits .278 with no power but thinks he’ll get drafted by the Cubs because the local newspaper writers always mention him in their write ups. Coincidentally, his dad’s company regularly buys 83% of the advertising space in that paper.

Oregon had a fantastic run under Chip Kelly when Chip’s gimmick offense (“Ref, can we please snap the ball before the previous play is even whistled dead”) caught the college football world flat-footed. I don’t fault Chip for running that nonsense. What else are you going to do when you coach in a state that has about four blue-chip recruits a decade, and not every California kid is willing to move far from home for a Playstation and 13 sunny days a year? Like I said, I don’t blame Chip. But I do blame Oregon.

And if that’s inconsistent, I don’t care. (No, USC’s decision to adopt a gimmick offense has not lessened my scorn. It’s made the fire burn hotter.)

I don’t know why you need hundreds of uniform combinations. Maybe you do. But is it too much to ask that the uniforms be non-terrible? How about that they actually be in your school colors? That doesn’t seem like a crazy requirement. Your school colors do not include gray or black, guys. Your school colors are green and gold, and maybe you don’t really love that, and like the neck tattoo you got at 16, you’re probably regretting your decision right about now. But that’s not my fault. It was your decision, and you need to live with it. From now on, school colors only, please.

46% of tenured faculty at Oregon got neck tattoos at 16.

Oregon hasn’t yet bought a national title. And they haven’t bought any class, either. Oregon is the guy whose uncle dies and leaves him millions, and the first thing he does is buy 16 overly priced muscle shirts and a lifetime membership to the Hot Dog of the Month Club.

83% of Oregon freshman have burned down at least two public buildings for Antifa.

The Oregon attitude is best captured by the giant billboards they put up in LA in 2002. I don’t know why you’d put up billboards in LA, where the locals don’t care about second rate programs a thousand miles away. I think it’s because Oregon wanted to celebrate their recent success, which at the time still involved an 85-year drought since their last Rose Bowl win. They certainly wanted to rub it in USC’s face. In any event, Pete Carroll seemed miffed and put a haymaker on their ugly duck faces. I enjoyed that.

Or maybe the Oregon attitude is best captured by former Oregon quarterback Jason Fife in a post-game interview that same year. After USC blew out the Ducks behind a thousand passing yards from Carson Palmer, Fife provided this comedy gold: “I really didn’t find a rhythm until late in the fourth quarter. We should have put up 50 points. But that third quarter just killed us.”

Yes, Fife, you “found your rhythm” late in the 4th quarter with the score 44-19. I wonder how that happened? (Writer consulting with football experts off-camera.) Okay, I think we cracked the case, deputy. It’s called prevent defense. You know who else gets hot in those situations? Everybody. It’s because when your defense has been butchered all night, and you’re so far behind that nobody can even see you back there anymore, the other defense closes out the game by giving you wide open throws underneath. Found his rhythm, indeed.

Jason Fife, incidentally, is the best student in University of Oregon history. On January 13, 2003 he read Green Eggs and Ham in 47 minutes and 22 seconds, setting a University of Oregon record.

Bernie Madoff taught Business Ethics at Oregon from 1997 to 2003.

Oregon is a better program than USC right now. I hate that. I hate that USC administrators don’t seem to be that bothered by this. But we need to get used to the fact that the Ducks aren’t going anywhere.

As long as China is willing to lend its underage slave labor to sneaker factories, Uncle Phil will have plenty of walking-around money, and the Ducks will continue to be a factor in both the Pac-12 standings and the national rise in STDs.

Oregon State Beavers
Record Against USC: 11-63-4
Program Motto: “Keep your heads up guys. You have nothing to be ashamed of.”
Defining program moment: The Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame in 2001.

I’m going to keep this short. Nobody needs a long scouting report on Glass Joe.

For most of their history, Oregon State’s most legendary team was a team that won only 7 games. That’s kind of sad, even if the team did have a 2-0-1 record against top-2 teams. I don’t even think Rice would lionize a team that won only 7 of 10 games. But, okay.

Still, in 2001, the Beavers had a Cinderella season, culminating in a brutal and beautiful beating of Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. The game wasn’t close, it wasn’t kind, and it wasn’t respectful. Oregon State destroyed the Irish in every phase of the game, including taunting. Especially taunting. Those 1980’s Miami teams watched Oregon State that night and were embarrassed by the lack of class. The WWF thought their antics were boorish and over-the-top. After virtually every big Oregon State play – and that would be almost every play in the game – the Beavers taunted the Irish and drew a flag. The stat sheet says Oregon State had 18 penalties that night. I don’t know. It seemed like 118. And it was glorious. If anybody has a tape of that game, please send it to me. I’d like to run it in a never-ending loop at the bottom of every Musings.

Strangely, for a bottom-feeder program, Oregon State had a nice run of success against the Trojans.

They beat Pete Carroll in 2008, likely costing him another national championship. They beat his third-ranked Trojans in 2006. And they almost got Pete in 2004, too. It was the strangest thing, Pete struggling with that program. It’s like Ivan Lendl losing to a high school sophomore in the semifinals of Wimbledon a couple of times. It will never make sense to me, and I don’t want to think about it anymore.

Oh yeah, one more thing. They may have fewer uniforms than Oregon, but the ones they have are just as ugly. Speaking of ugly, I’ve never set foot on Oregon State’s campus, so I can’t be sure that the girls there are ugly. But I’ve always assumed they are. It just sounds likely.

That’s it. There’s nothing else to talk about.

Next time: The Pacific Northwest, Part 2

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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