14 min Read

Musings from Arledge: Finishing strong, Finesse football, and Deep trouble

Finishing strong?

In an outcome that is hardly surprising to anybody who has been paying attention, USC played a team with a pulse on national television and embarrassed itself. The pattern is clear by now. Clay Helton’s USC teams generally beat bottom feeders because those teams simply cannot compete with USC’s talent. (Currently, they can’t. In two years….) But when USC plays a decent football team – not even a great team, for Iowa isn’t close to great – the roof caves in under the weight of the long-established shortcomings of Clay’s program: bad tackling, bad O line play, horrible special teams, an inability to keep contain, defensive backs lost in coverage, and the inability to establish any type of running game – indeed an unwillingness even to try.

Once again, USC put the entire game on the shoulders of the young quarterback. He got no help from the running game, no help from the defense, a swift kick in the gut from John Baxter’s now-infamous kickoff unit, and an inconsistent effort from his pass blockers. Was the game still competitive when Kedon Slovis got hurt? Sure. But one of the reasons you don’t put the entire game on your quarterback’s shoulders is because when you throw the ball 85% of the time and give the defense nothing else to worry about – no screens, draws, or misdirection plays, no effort to establish a running game – you’re likely to get your quarterback killed. And it’s hard to win a game when your defense gives up touchdowns on every single possession. But you know all this. We’ve seen it all before.

So let’s talk about where this leaves us, both short-term and long-term. In the short-term, an ugly season is finally over, and the talk about USC “finishing strong” has been exposed for nonsense. Over the second half of the season, USC beat five lousy football teams and was killed by the only two decent teams it played. That’s not “finishing strong”; that’s just being in a very weak Pac 12 where you get to play Glass Joe most weeks. If you play bottom feeders with a roster of players that the other teams in the conference wanted but could not get, you’re probably going to get some wins.

Thirteen wins, to be exact, in 26 games, for those still counting.

Now USC fans get an entire offseason of excuses and unjustified optimism from the people in charge. I hope they can at least be creative with their public statements and keep things interesting. LA is the entertainment capital of the world. Don’t bring us the same tired quotes. Mix it up a little. Keep us on our toes.

The team itself gets an entire offseason to try to convince themselves that they can beat an angry Alabama team in Jerry’s World. Some will manage to convince themselves by kickoff; many won’t. Nobody will believe it by the end of the first quarter.

And we get to hear about the upcoming quarterback competition. I don’t think there really will be or should be one: Slovis is better than Daniels. But it doesn’t matter anyway. Because in that opener, running the all-passing-all-the-time offense against Alabama’s defense, every quarterback on the roster will to have to play, and we’ll probably be forced to end the game in the Wildcat.  

I’m not sure I really want to attend. But I feel obligated to be there to help the first responders.

That’s the short-term. Over the long-term, we are in deep trouble, my friends.

Clay will throw some more assistants overboard. Pendergast and Baxter need to go at this point. But it’s time to stop pretending that the problem with this cruise is the first mate. Clay Helton sets the culture of this program. He sets the expectations. He determines and enforces the standards for what is acceptable. The captain sets the course. And the captain has this ship headed the wrong direction. Clancy Pendergast had success under Coach O. He had success at Cal. He had success in the NFL. He isn’t having success under Clay. Just like Justin Wilcox didn’t have success under Sark. Clancy isn’t getting the job done, but there’s a good chance that nobody else will either. Because Clay Helton’s program is soft.

Clay Helton is not the worst football coach in USC history. That honor still belongs to Paul Hackett. But Clay Helton will prove to be the most-damaging coach in USC history, because he’s the coach that threw away USC’s identity. Hackett was inept, but Hackett still tried to play USC football. He wanted to run the football. He wanted to play tough defense. He wanted to look like the USC teams from the 70’s when he was an assistant coach, just with an updated passing attack. He couldn’t do it; he was inept. But he bought into USC’s tradition. He believed in it.

Clay Helton, by contrast, has decided to throw away USC’s heritage. Unable to make good on his promises to turn USC in a tough, physical football team with the ability to impose its will on opponents – I’m the son of an O line coach! – Clay has decided to go all in on turning USC Charmin-soft. A program that hardly even pretends to care about the running game. A program that can’t tackle anybody with two working legs. A program that, to be blunt, betrays the coaches and players that have come before it. What we’re seeing now is no way to play USC football. Clay Helton has taken the soul from a once-proud program. He’s removed the fight from Fight On. And for what? For an 8-5 season?

USC’s brass is all in on this transformation to finesse football. They have given Graham Harrell a three-year extension at a big salary. Graham Harrell should have been given a bus ticket back to Denton, Texas. Yes, he’s better than the Clay-Tee offensive train wreck that came before. And Spam is better than balut, but that doesn’t mean I want to eat it.

It’s not that Graham Harrell can’t be successful. I think he’ll be a good offensive coordinator for somebody. It’s just that this is not a USC offense. It is not a national championship offense. Take that five-runs-in-a-half offense to a program that didn’t have Mike Garrett, OJ, Marcus, Ricky Bell, Anthony Davis, Reggie Bush, and LenDale White. To a program that didn’t have Anthony Munoz, Ron Yary, Brad Budde, Tony Boselli, and Bruce Matthews. Take it to a program like Kentucky, Texas Tech, or Washington State, programs where the Air Raid was developed out of desperation, because they couldn’t compete for talent with their opponents. Just take it somewhere else. Take it far, far away.

You can run what you want if it wins. You can line up in the punt formation every down if you can win a national title that way. But don’t betray what USC football has been about for decades and turn the Trojan football program into a pillow-fight program for eight wins. Don’t do it. If you’re going to throw USC’s legacy into the trash, you better be successful with your 7-on-7 approach. You better win and win big. You don’t throw away your heritage for nothing. You don’t give away your birthright for a bowl of stew, Esau. You don’t throw it all away for eight lousy wins. And if you do, you should get a bus ticket to nowhere, not a pat on the back and an extension.

I’m used to USC playing bad defense. We all are. But admit it: weren’t you a little surprised that USC made Iowa’s offense look like LSU or Clemson? That Iowa team had been held to under 30 points in nine of its twelve games. They scored three against Michigan, 12 against Penn State, 18 against Iowa State, 19 against Illinois. They’re lousy. USC turned them into the New England Patriots. If not for a couple of dropped passes, they would have scored touchdowns against USC on every single possession. Goodness.  

Let me offer some help to Mike Bohn, who doesn’t seem to understand what USC fans and alums are thinking these days. And it’s not his fault; he’s only been here for a few months, and virtually all of the last few weeks he has spent in the witness protection program. It’s hard to stay in touch when you’re in hiding.

So let me tell you why we’re upset, Mike. We’re upset because you left Paulie in charge, and everybody knows you can’t leave Paulie in charge.

For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, Paulie is the brother-in-law of Rocky Balboa, the former (fictional) heavyweight champion of the world. Rocky was the world’s most popular fighter and fought in some of the biggest fights in history. We’re never told exactly how much Rocky made from purses and endorsements, but you have to imagine it was a nine-figure sum or close to it.

Well, apparently, Rocky left all of his money in the hands of his brother-in-law, a belligerent, poorly educated alcoholic with no experience handling anything other than sides of beef and a bottle. Why did Rocky do this? Nobody knows. It would have been obvious to any child over the age of three that Paulie should not be in charge of Rocky’s wealth.

Paulie, of course, lost it all, right about the time Rocky was going to Russia to fight the biggest fight in boxing history. Now Rocky could have recovered from that. The Drago fight alone was worth tens of millions. But Rocky, out of principle, waived his purse for the Drago fight – “It’s not about the money” – and allowed the Soviet government to keep his share. This is why Rocky now lives in a crappy apartment in Philly and has to close his restaurant at night.

That’s some world-class mismanagement right there. And we would be more critical of Rocky if not for the fact that he gets a hall pass for being punch drunk and he used his post-fight speech – the Soviet government, of course, being big on open-mic nights for foreigners – to end the Cold War.

Mike Bohn, who has no world-power-realignment speeches under his belt, also had a 100-million-dollar asset to protect – only it wasn’t his. It belonged to generations of players and coaches who came before, and his job was to protect it. But he also left his own Paulie in charge. (A less belligerent, more sober, but equally competent Paulie.) That’s why Mike Bohn is in the doghouse with USC fans, will probably always be there, and why he probably will remain in witness protection until this all blows over.

But in case you didn’t see it, Mr. Bohn did pop out of hiding long enough to give a softball interview with Annenberg Media. Mr. Bohn did not disappoint. He said that “recruiting is going dramatically better than anybody wants to admit.”

Apparently, there is some grand conspiracy to denigrate USC’s recruiting class, which is everything we could wish it to be despite California’s blue-chip athletes leaving en masse from the state, creating a long, snaking line of tail lights that looks like the ending of Field of Dreams (Whispering: If you don’t build it, they will go). Mr. Bohn did not disclose who is behind this conspiracy to disparate USC recruiting. Also no word from Mr. Bohn on whether the moon landing was faked. 

Mr. Bohn supported his argument that recruiting is going great with the bold claim that just in the last four or five days, the Trojans had “picked up four commitments that haven’t been announced yet.”

I think they still haven’t been announced, Mr. Bohn, even though the initial signing period has passed. Should we be worried?

Now I’m just a columnist, not Woodward and Bernstein, so I’ll leave it to someone else to sleuth out where these mysterious silent commitments are being held. I suspect they are in a crate right next to the “strategic enhancements” Mr. Bohn promised us, probably in a top-secret government facility next to that crate holding the Ark of the Covenant.

Maybe we can hire Indiana Jones to break in and recover our silent commitments and strategic enhancements and put them in a museum where they belong.

Mr. Bohn also implicitly rebuked USC fans for their lack of support compared to other programs. Obviously, this was my favorite part of the interview. His first goal is fan engagement, he says, so our players can have the same support that our opponents have when our teams go on the road.

Well, Mr. Bohn, you have a funny way of building fan engagement. I’d like these fans to be more excited about the football program. Maybe if I poke them in the eye with this stick….

Mr. Bohn, if you really want to get USC fans excited about USC football, hire a qualified leader, give him the support he needs, and get out of the way. That’s your job. Your job is not to convince us to eat our veggies even though we don’t like them. And, oh yeah, tell us the truth. Don’t tell us the goal is national championships and then take steps that are transparently inconsistent with that stated goal.

You want our support? Fine. Do. Your. Job.

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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