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Musings from Arledge: The same script, run defense and a lucky win is a win

You can take a guy out of LA, but I suppose you can’t take LA out of the guy.  At some point early in the fourth quarter, my mind was drifting to new movie script ideas…

[Scene: Empty parking lot on the USC campus.  Silver DeLorean appears out of nowhere, next to two young athletes in USC football apparel.  An old man with crazy white hair pops out of the driver’s side. 

Kedon, Amon-Ra, jump in!

Doc? Marty? What are you guys doing here?

Quick!  Stop wasting time!  We need to go!

Kedon and Amon-Ra scramble into the car.

Where are we going, Doc?

We need to go back.  We have to stop you from writing that letter to Gavin Newsom.]

Since December, the entire world has changed.  A global pandemic ravaged the economy, cities have burned, a new president has been elected (we think), the handshake has essentially been retired.  Absolutely everything has changed.

Except for one thing.  USC football is still the same.

That’s not all bad, of course.  There are some things that are pretty good with USC football.  The Trojans have a gifted receiving corps, a talented young QB, nice uniforms, Marlon T, great memories of what the Spirit of Troy, the Song Girls, and Traveler used to be around, and don’t forget that we finally have a really good excuse for all the empty seats in the Coliseum.  Some positives, no?

I’ll add another: USC won its opener.  It was – we can be honest, right? – a lucky win.  TD receptions on batted balls, ASU players dropping onside kicks, TD catches on 4th and 9 into double coverage.  That game was over.  And then it wasn’t.  The Trojans’ season was already ruined.  And then it wasn’t.  It was quite a ride.

How you feel today probably depends on what you expected to see Saturday.  If you hoped USC could be one of the better teams in the Pac 12 and maybe win the south, then you’re probably feeling pretty good right now.  ASU was a major obstacle, and we cleared it; who cares how it looked?

But if you hoped the new assistant coaches would overhaul the program and put USC back on track to join the nation’s elite – sorry.  That’s not going to happen.  USC is what it has been.  It is what it will continue to be as long as Clay Helton is in charge: a pretty decent team with some excellent skill talent, some giant holes, a lack of discipline, a good chance to win the south, and no hope whatsoever of rejoining the nation’s elite.

You don’t fix a program by changing the people who report to a leader who is a poor leader.  It doesn’t work that way.  So we saw many of the same problems we’ve seen for some time.  USC is careless with the football.  The Trojans have been for some years now, and that clearly hasn’t changed.  It could easily have cost USC the opener.  If it’s not fixed quickly – and, honestly, do we have any reason to believe it will be? – it will cost the Trojans a game at some point soon. 

USC is not sound against the run.  I don’t mean that USC doesn’t have some good defensive players.  I don’t mean that USC doesn’t make some really good plays, even on running plays.  I don’t mean that USC can’t get some stops.  But USC does not play good run defense.  The Trojans haven’t played run defense in an opener for Clay Helton – well, ever, I suppose.  Many fans rightly wondered whether Clay’s patented touch-football practices were to blame for that.  Many hoped that the rumors of physical practices this year might make a difference.  And they might have made some difference. 

But ultimately, you can’t prepare to play sound, physical run defense unless you see a sound, physical running game in practice.  This is one of the reasons Pete Carroll gave for having a physical running game: not only does your offense need it on Saturdays, but your defense needs to see it during the week.  USC defense doesn’t see that in practice.  And so you get this:

These are 16 consecutive plays (over two drives) run by the Arizona State offense in the third and fourth quarters: 

Run for 13

Run for loss of 14 (blown up reverse)

Run for 10

Run for 31

Run for 17

Run for 16

Run for 13

Run for 6

Run for 13

Run for -1

Run for 1

Run for 15

Run for 3

Run for 5

Run for -2

Run for 20

Yep, that’s 16 consecutive runs for 136 yards.  Nine of those runs went for more than 10 yards.  ASU didn’t throw a single pass in that stretch.  That’s embarrassing, isn’t it?  Thank goodness ASU tried that reverse.  Had they simply run a normal running play, they might have averaged 10 yards a carry over the course of 16-straight running plays.

Orlando will probably get that group better.  Some of the breakdowns were mental.  When you’re playing a team with a good running quarterback, your backside contain guy can’t go screaming past the QB to try and tackle the tailback from behind.  Our guys should know that by now.  But they never figured it out under Clancy Pendergast.  I’m cautiously optimistic that they will make this discovery under Todd Orlando.

But the problems may not all be mental.  I’m just not convinced that USC has the horses in the front seven to be a top defense.  Marlon T is really good.  Drake Jackson has all-world talent.  (Whether the weight loss and a move to a standing position was the right one is an open question.)  Getting Pili back should help.  Palaie has talent – maybe we’ll see some high-level play from him at some point – but it sometimes feels like he misses the team bus to the game half the time.  So other than Marlon T, can you name one USC player who, at this point in his career, worries offensive coordinators?  Anybody who offenses need to find and deal with on every player?  

The secondary has promise, especially if the corners get a little less grabby.  But the front seven?  I think this unit will struggle against any team with a decent offensive line.  Fortunately, we still play in the Pac 12.  We shouldn’t see many of those.

Side note: can you imagine if Alabama and Notre Dame were still on the schedule?  Geez.

On the other side of the ball, Graham Harrell still has no answer for teams with a decent athlete or two upfront.  Those teams can drop seven or eight and still pressure the QB and frustrate the running game.  Not all of USC’s opponents will have athletes on the defensive line.  Those that don’t have any talent on the defensive line are going to get boat-raced, because Kedon Slovis is really good.  He wasn’t great in week one, but he’s still really good, and the kid is clutch: he threaded the needle on that 4th and 9 throw to win the game like a high-level NFL quarterback.  And his receivers are excellent.  Drake London will replace Michael Pittman and nobody will know the difference.  The backs are good.  They don’t keep the ball high and tight, apparently, but they’re pretty good.  Bottom line: teams that are as soft upfront defensively as USC is offensively are in a world of hurt against USC.  Teams that are decent upfront have a good chance to beat the Trojans. 

So it is what it is, my friends.  We know what Clay Helton’s USC teams look like.  And don’t talk to me any more about new assistants.  I don’t really care who coordinates his defense at this point.  Orlando may prove better than Clancy, but this is a defense that doesn’t have enough developed talent upfront to be better than average or slightly-above-average, and it isn’t playing in a program where the head coach values or prepares his team for physical offenses.  And on offense, this is a program that has recruited and developed on the offensive line as an average Pac 12 team for some years now, and that offensive line will be an anchor dragging down an offensive unit that has a lot of quality skill guys all season line.

USC is a pretty good team.  It’s a team that probably wins the south.  It’s also a team that the rest of the college football world can pretty safely ignore still.

What was Clay Helton thinking running the ball on 4th and 1 in the fourth quarter down 10?  I like being aggressive, but that was just foolish.  You need two scores.  You take the field goal in that situation every time. 

Okay, if you have Thunder and Lightning and a whole group of future NFL guys on the O line, you might get away with a dumb decision like that.  Tom Osborne probably could roll the dice with his ’95 Huskers.  But if you have a questionable offensive line and are a lousy power-running team?  Insanity.

And if you do it, you can’t run the play that everybody in the stadium knows is coming.  USC never lets Kedon keep it on a read option, so nobody has to worry about Kedon pulling the ball out and taking it around the end.  So the ASU defender could come crashing down from the backside and make the play.  Someday, coach, let Kedon keep the ball there.  He’ll walk into the end zone.  Or run a play-action pass, as embarrassing as it might be to be forced to do that on 4th and 1.  Until then, take the points.

Three cheers for the local authorities keeping families out of the stands at Saturday’s game.  So many lives saved.  Can you imagine how impossible it would have been to properly socially distance, say, 500 family members in a cavernous outdoor arena with 78,000 seats (that’s 0.6% of capacity for those without calculators) and a few dozen entrance tunnels?  Impossible!  The logistics are mind-boggling!  Ike and his team had an easier time planning D-Day.  What a death trap it would have been.

This is a football board.  I don’t care what anybody here thinks about tax policy, or immigration, or tariffs on Chinese goods.  But anybody who thinks the silly local bureaucrats who make decisions like this should have any responsibility – not just over our lives; I mean over a sidewalk lemonade stand – should have their heads examined.

ASU isn’t bad.  Jayden Daniels can make plays.  When his best receiver gets healthy and the others get more experience, he’ll do some damage.  And it sure helps to have Herm Edwards and Marvin Lewis coaching a defense.  I doubt the Sun Devils win out; I don’t think anybody in the south is good enough to do that.  But they’re going to win more than their fair share.

Jack Jones is a talented kid.  He flashed at USC at times, and I thought he looked pretty good Saturday against an excellent group of receivers.  I hope he has his head in the right place and takes advantage of this second chance.

Well, that was a lucky win, but a lucky win is still a win.  It beats a loss.  The Trojans are 1-0 and have knocked off the team that is probably the best team they’ll face before a conference title game.  We should keep our expectations reasonable, of course.  Clay Helton’s track record should help us do that.  But the Trojans have a pretty good chance to win the south, and nobody in the north is elite.  So let’s see what happens.

And if you get tired of watching mediocre football, you can always switch it over to NBC and watch the Irish play. 

Excuse me.  I just threw up a little bit in my mouth.

Out of curiousity, has anybody seen any information about any serious illness or death resulting from the play of SEC, ACC, or Big 12 football?  We had this huge national debate over whether those conferences were being irresponsible.  We had people arguing that their decision to play was tragic and unjustifiable.  I hope we’re still going to keep an eye on the results so we can see who was right.

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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