USC head coach Clay Helton spoke with the media on Sunday evening, recapping USC’s performance against Arizona and providing a glimpse ahead of the (hopefully) upcoming matchup against Utah.
Helton opening statement:
“Congratulations to our staff and our players for going 1-0 on the week to remain undefeated in conference play. I thought they showed a lot of poise again down the stretch, just like they showed in Week 1. There were a lot of positives to take away from the game and there are a lot of areas of growth that are still out there as we try to win the Pac-12 South and get to a Pac-12 Championship.
Positives defensively, I like how we got to the quarterback. I like how we got him off his spot. To be able to go from one sack in the first game to four sacks this game was a positive. Great play by Drake Jackson, who had to leave the game to be able to get an IV, came back and really made two huge sacks in the second half — one in the third quarter and then obviously on the last drive.
The other thing I thought we did a better job of than in the first game was our perimeter play. I thought Greg Johnson, Max Williams — who played a lot in our dime package in this game when they were in 10 personnel — and Chase Williams, who came in and gave us some really good plays, did a terrific job on the perimeter and did a lot better job than we did in the first game at that.
I thought we turned it around at halftime third down-wise. They were 6-of-10 on third down going into half and then we come back in the second have and they’re 0-for-5, which I thought was big in the game. When you looked at the first half, I felt like offensively we’re not getting a ton of opportunities here. We only had four opportunities in the first half and we scored on three of the four. Then you go back and look at it and look at the third downs that were being made and it sustained drives of 10, 11, 13 and 9. They had 43 plays in the first half, which is a lot of plays, a lot of opportunities. We shored things up, got some three-and-outs in the second half that were critical when we hit a little bit of a lull offensively in the third quarter.
And then the red zone. I thought the red zone defense was a huge part of the game, a huge part of the story. Arizona was down there three times and got one touchdown out of the three. Probably the difference in the game was how the defense did in the red zone.
And the big turnover I thought was a great job early by Talanoa that set us up for an early score, sudden-change situation that you always hope you come away with a touchdown and we did.
Offensively, I thought the biggest impact for us, and I’ll keep on going back and saying it’s critical for us is the rushing yards. Last year we were sitting in the 120s, averaging 120 per game and we really wanted to be able to hit a mark of 165-170 in each and every game. We think that’s a difference in us winning a championship. Coming out of that game, again, 173 yards of rushing I think is critical for our success. Especially, every quarterback has an off day, I don’t care what level you’re at. Thank goodness our off days aren’t as bad as maybe others. But to be able to rely on that rushing game I thought was key in the game.
Markese [Stepp] I thought looked a lot more confident than he did in the first game. I think he’s gaining confidence by the day. Stephen Carr continues to perform and Vavae [Malepeai] did a nice job of again coming down the stretch with some big plays for us in the two-minute drives.
Another positive, I think, offensively, going from four turnovers in the first game to zero in the second game is huge. And going from three sacks to zero sacks from first game to second was a big part.
Consistency of our two-minute drives I think is a huge positive. I love our situational mastery and the way our kids performed and the way they handled that situation back to back weeks really been four times at end of half and end of the games where we had must-makes that we had to have and you look up and Kedon’s — last week he was 8-of-12 for 114 yards and two touchdowns and this week 13-of-15 for 144 yards and a touchdown — so you hope that you have a quarterback that performs his best when the pressure’s on and thank goodness that we do.
And then the areas of growth that I think we’ve got to really address as we continue down this path hopefully to a Pac-12 South championship. I look at the tape and I see us in the red zone eight times and walk away with 34 points. You get down there eight times and it should be a 50-point game, so the red zone execution is a continued area of growth.
I thought our third-down performance we could be better. I think we’re an elite passing team and I think our third-down efficiency we can continue to grow in.
And then penalties. It was one of those games where both sides — it was a closely called game. Arizona had 80 yards. We had 110. The one thing I do see, the difference that I’m going to address the team tomorrow with, it’s the non-ego penalties that are the unsportsmanlike conduct or doing something selfishly, making a poor decision. There’s some fundamental things that we can do better. There’s some calls that I didn’t agree with. That’s my opinion. But it was a closely called game both ways. We hope that penalties will come down in the next game.
For us, it’s 2-0 and we go back to the drawing board and we go back to get a chance to play a good Utah team and a well-coached Kyle Whittingham team.
I do want to tell you two guys who I thought played extremely well and just happen to be two captains. Marlon Tuipulotu is playing out of his mind right now and really playing at captain’s performance and playing as good as anybody on our team. And then I thought our other captain, Amon-Ra St. Brown, is playing at an extremely high level — second 100-yard game in a row and made four catches on the last drive that really allowed us to take the lead for good. I’m proud of those two captains and their performance.
Helton on injury updates:
Brandon Pili did not play in the game.
Center Brett Neilon was not medically cleared with his ankle injury.
Defensive end Caleb Tremblay traveled with the team but did not dress. He was having stingers at the end of the week and was not medically cleared to play.
Linebacker Palaie Gaoteote left the Arizona game due to a lower leg contusion as well as concussion protocol.
Safety Talanoa Hufanga left the game due to a thigh bruise but returned.
Tight end Jude Wolfe reaggravated an ankle injury that he suffered the previous week.
Quarterback Mo Hasan developed compartment syndrome and underwent surgery. Helton said it is a 3-4 week recovery.
Helton on the latest on the viability of the Utah game this Saturday:
“In today’s time, I don’t know if there’s any assurances anywhere. I think we’re just so focused on us and what we have to do to prepare for a game, both from a protocol, health and safety, making sure our guys are good, preparing a game plan that you hope you get that opportunity. It does look like it’s trending in the right direction from what I’ve heard. So we’ve got our fingers crossed.
I’m hoping we get the opportunity to have a chance to compete with Utah and it looks like it’s heading in that direction.”
Helton on the possibility of taking snaps from under center in short-yardage situations:
“It’s something that right now is just not us. I think it’s a good question for Graham [Harrell]. But right now it’s something that, to be honest with you, I thought we had a good plan going in. It’s sad that the fourth-and-one, we had a missed assignment on that. Had the exact look — we had actually hit that play if you remember to Markese, that split, got us down to the one-yard line. Came back, got the exact same look, exact same thing was getting ready to happen again, and we had a missed assignment. I don’t think it was from a lack of scheme or anything like that, but we did have a missed assignment. Poor execution on the other fourth-and-one.”
Helton on finding contingencies if the Utah game is canceled:
“When they asked me about the 9 am game in the first game, I said guys, in this situation we just want to play games. Any time, any place, anywhere, anybody. We would love to have the opportunity to play the game we love. And that’s the approach we’ll take. If something doesn’t work out and it’s postponed or canceled and there’s another opportunity, or kids just want to play. It doesn’t matter how much time it is before the game. As long as the pads can get there and we can get a plane to go someplace, I think we would go anywhere to have the opportunity to go play. I love the mentality of our kids right now. They just want to get to the next game and have the opportunity to play the next one.
Helton on UCLA – Cal being played Sunday morning:
“I liked the proactive-ness of Larry [Scott] and Merton [Hanks] took to say this one didn’t work out, we have a situation here that we can take advantage of. And then credit to — I reached out to Chip [Kelly] and JW (Justin Wilcox) and saluted both of them, just for saying hey, let’s make the most of this opportunity and taking that opportunity. It was good for both their teams.”
Helton on the adjustment in the running game:
“One of the things I admire about our offensive coaching staff if their ability to adjust. Remember we were kind of flying in blind as far as what we were going to see. The last time that coach Rhoads had called a game was in 2017. Had kind of a feeling of the structure, but what exactly was going to look like, you needed to come in there and do what you do and make adjustments and I thought our coaches made really good adjustments. We actually changed one of our run schemes because of how they were playing the scheme, and if you remember it created two huge runs. The scheme and the adjustment created a huge run by Markese down the left boundary and then by Stephen on the right boundary. I thought it was a good adjustment by Drev (Tim Drevno) and Graham in-game, based on what we were seeing. Sometimes that happens. Sometimes you get unscouted looks. This was one of those cases. We had told our kids there would be adjustments we were going to make in game. We had told our staff. The last thing I told them in our coaches meeting on Saturday morning was guys, don’t panic, as soon as the series is over let’s get the information, let’s adjust if need be, let’s develop the plan and then communicate the plan to the kids. That’s what happened and I thought they did a great job of adjusting to it.
I go back and look at last year. I thought there was really three teams that threw the ball extremely well — LSU, Alabama and us. You look at LSU, I think they won the national championship with 168 yards rushing per game. And I think Alabama was at 166. And we said we needed to go from 120 to being in that 170+ mark. And you look at us yesterday at 173. I think the first game was 178, 179. That’s the key for us is to be able to stay consistent and be able to rush the ball and take some pressure off the quarterback and keep that threat always there.”
On Slovis’ issues throwing consistent spirals:
“I thought the ball was a little bit slick for him, which allowed some mechanics. I don’t know if you’ve ever had that ball that’s been slick to you. It’s not a very confident thing when you’re afraid it’s going to come out of your hand the wrong way. And it will change from time to time. It was a dry, windy day and it created some issues for us. I’ll make sure we’ve got exactly what he needs to be ready. He’s such a consistent kid and such a pure motion that I don’t see it being an issue moving forward. And if that’s our worst day, to go 70% and throw for another 300+ yards, without an interception and to do what he did down the stretch, a lot of people would like that. So if that’s our off day, God bless us. We’ll be very happy down the stretch.”
Helton on Chris Steele:
“I always love the saying “Shooters shoot.” He’s very confident in his coverage skills. Some of the calls I’ve agreed with and some I haven’t. But the thing I love about Chris is he’s ultra-aggressive and he’s not one of those guys that lets you be comfortable as a receiver. We see it all the time. He goes against Amon-Ra every day and you talk about iron sharpens iron and a good man sharpens a good man. Those two go at it every day. For him, I’m not going to take that aggressiveness away from him I can promise you that. Donte [Williams] and him work consistently on the proper execution. I’ve been thoroughly impressed. I think Chris has advanced — both him and OG — as well as the rest of our corners have become better in their fundamentals and technique. I don’t know how many times — I really don’t think they even went at OG yesterday, other than a couple rub plays that they tried to get them off of him. But as far as his aggressiveness, we play a lot of press man. We’re not going to let you be comfortable. And it may get a call or two, depending on the referee, but I don’t want to take that aggressiveness away from him. If he’s being handsy, Donte will get it fixed. I have the ultimate faith in that.
Helton on his biggest concern with Slovis right now:
“Just staying consistent and protecting the football and he’s doing a wonderful job. In two games, he’s had one interception. I don’t see him forcing many throws into double coverage. I think he’s taking the one-on-one opportunities. I think he’s right at 71% completion ratio. We’re doing a nice job. There have been some rushing touchdowns. I think he’s 3-1 touchdown to interception ratio right now. But I just hope the consistency of play continues of just letting the game to come to him and not forcing things. I thought that was evident in the first game, checking the ball down. And then he comes into this game, which I know he always will say hey, I want to play better. And he really found his rhythm late, but he didn’t force things. And that’s what good quarterbacks do. That’s where, if you remember this time last year he was a younger kid with less experience and forced the issue and forced some turnovers. Right now he’s protecting the ball pretty dang well over the first two games.”
Helton on adjustments made against Arizona quarterback Grant Gunnell’s running:
“TO’s got a package where he puts some really good athletes out there. We had one package where it’s Drake on one side, Hunter on the other and Nick in the middle. That’s kind of a two-minute packages where you’ve got some kids that have great change of direction that can chase. And if you look at it in the last two drives I think Hunter made a nice play coming back and almost caused an interception. You saw Drake on the last drive really chase him down again. I think a little bit of personnel adjustment in those two situations helped. I thought our rush lanes got a lot better.”
Helton on whether USC got any consistent defensive looks from two defense that didn’t have any 2020 film:
“Anytime you go in with unscouted looks, like I said it’s about adapting within the game. To be able to come out of those games averaging 31 points and I think it’s 527 yards we’re averaging right now offensively, that helps. I think we had a little bit better advantage in the Arizona State game defensively because we kind of knew it was going to be more Boise oriented, and we kind of knew what Arizona was going to be in this game. I don’t see Kyle [Whittingham] getting too far away from what they were doing last year. He has both coordinators back. Obviously we don’t have two games to watch like they’ve got two games on us and tendencies and things like that. At least schematically, you’ve got a little bit of a better feel because the coordinators aren’t changed and they’ve been there previously. It looks like they’ll have some different personnel, especially defensively, on the field and a couple new skill players offensively. Personnel matchups is I guess the thing you don’t see because of that, how your kid may match up on theirs, because you just don’t have enough tape on them to be able to evaluate. But schematically you feel a lot better going into this game because at least you have tape you can watch from last year that you know will be at least consistent.”