The Obvious from Los Angeles: All the off-season cardinal and gold debate – both supportive and scrutinized – will become real time, as the USC Trojans (0-0 overall, 0-0 Pac-12 South) open their 2019 season by hosting the defending Mountain West Champion Fresno State Bulldogs (0-0 overall, 0-0 MW West) Saturday night (7:30 PDT/10:30 EDT) on United Airlines Field at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
The Not So Obvious: It’s almost a relief that all the USC conjecture, scrutiny, message board civil and not so civil discourse, and the plethora of perspectives and prognostications will finally be put to the test, as the season is here. The opener against the Bulldogs will begin to address some but not all of the critical questions such as the potential of the 2019 Trojans, the future of Clay Helton, and the fan support of the Men of Troy based on an attendance sampling from Saturday night’s game. We know Fresno State’s renowned “Red Wave” fan base will be there, but will the base of cardinal and gold fans be there, as well? What will the attendance be with a late-night kickoff for a game that is on national television? It’s all so intriguing.
The Obvious: The Trojans opened a 13 1/2-point favorite over Fresno State.
The Not So Obvious: The last time the Trojans played Fresno State was in 2014, a 52-13 USC victory in the Coliseum before 76,037. The Trojans lead the series with Fresno State, 2-1-0, not including Troy’s 2005 victory that was vacated due to NCAA penalty (original record, 3-1-0). The Trojans havecaptured their last 11 season openers in the Coliseum, dating to 1997, but are unranked to open a season for the first time in 18 years. Unranked Fresno State enters its season opener with the Trojans having won 21 of its last 25 games, which includes a 12-2 campaign in 2018 that saw the ‘Dogs’ win the Mountain West Championship and Las Vegas Bowl.
The Obvious: Saturday night’s game will be televised on ESPN (7:30 p.m. PDT/ 10:30 p.m. EDT).
The Not So Obvious: The ESPN broadcasters will be Jason Benetti (play-by-play), Rod Gilmore (analyst) and Quint Kessenich (sidelines).
The Obvious: Saturday night’s Trojans’ radio broadcast from the Coliseum will air live on 790 AM KABC (7:30 p.m. PDT) with Pete Arbogast (play by play), Shaun Cody (analyst) and Jordan Moore (sideline). John Jackson, the primary analyst for several seasons will be there while continuing to recover from a stroke and will on occasion provide selective perspective.
The Trojans’ radio game broadcast on 790 AM KABC will be preceded by a two-hour pregame show beginning at 5:30 p.m. (PDT) and joining the game broadcast crew will be Sam Farber, former Trojans’ quarterback Max Browne, and Julia Adams. Following the game, there will be a two-hour post-game show.
The Not So Obvious: The Fresno State broadcast can be heard on Fresno flagship station 940 AM ESPN with Paul Loeffler (play-by-play), Pat Hill (analyst) and Cameron Worrell (sidelines).
Saturday’s game will also air on Sirius XM satellite radio (channels 146/148) or online channel 960 and on the Tunein Radio app.
The Obvious: Saturday’s Los Angeles weather forecast calls for sunny with a high of 86 degrees, low of 68 degrees, 57 percent humidity, and 10 percent precipitation. Kickoff temperature before sundown is expected to be sunny and 77 degrees.
The Not So Obvious: The real weather report is whether all the changes both on and off the field by Clay Helton will show a marked improvement over last season’s disappointing 5-7 record. We’ll find out whether the Trojans are substantially more disciplined, whether the team has developed a “mean and nasty streak” and imposes its physicality, whether this Air Raid offense is balanced enough to be exciting and explosive, and whether the Trojans have a defense that can repulse the rush and defend the pass.
As far as offensive players, it starts with returning 2018 starter and sophomore quarterback JT Daniels, who survived a difficult challenge from three other quarterbacks in both the spring and August training camp. Daniels will have the luxury of throwing to what many argue is as good a receiving unit as there is in America. In senior Michael Pittman Jr, juniors Tyler Vaughns and Velus Jones, sophomore sensations Amon-Ra St. Brown and Devon Williams, and freshmen like Munir McClain, John Jackson lll and Drake London, the Trojans have a cave full of talent. Look for the Trojans to use also their tight ends more with the return of juniors Josh Falo and Erik Krommenhoek and true freshmen like Jude Wolfe. In terms of running backs, the Trojans have very capable ball carriers who can catch the pigskin out of the backfield like juniors Vavae Malepeai and Stephen Carr and redshirt freshman bulldozer Markese Stepp. Of course, the huge question mark is the offensive line, which did little in training camp to reject the notion that there’s a lot of work to be done. However, the good news is that in new sophomore starting center Brett Neilon the training camp snaps back to the quarterback have been on target, and the Trojans do have a potential all-star in junior left tackle Austin Jackson (6-6, 310).
Defensively, we’ll find out whether the Trojans’ front four, led by senior DE Christian Rector and super sophomore and all-star candidate Jay Tufele,can control the line of scrimmage along with fellow inside D-liners like sophomore Marlon Tuipulotu and junior Brandon Pili. And we’ll see whether standout true freshman DE/DL Drake Jackson, who could start against Fresno State, can continue his spring and training camp success into the season. And don’t forget fellow D-liner, redshirt junior Caleb Tremblay, who could surprise, as well. Last season, the Trojans had issues on the pass rush and stopping the run, and Fresno State figures to test the Trojans front early. The Trojans’ inside linebacking should be interesting. We’ll discover whether starting sophomore backer Palaie Gaoteote lV lives up to his preseason press clippings as the Trojans’ next great one. Gaoteote is expected to be joined inside by senior John Houston Jr, who some question whether he is better fit on the outside than in the inside because of his weight and physicality. Since Clay Helton does not officially release his depth chart until Friday, it’s all speculation who the outside backers will be. The big key for the Trojans’ defense is the secondary. We’ll see whether twin sophomore safeties Talanoa Hufanga and Isaiah Pola-Mao can stay healthy (shoulders). The bigger question is the inexperienced corners, namely sophomores Olaijah Griffin, Isaac Taylor-Stuart,and Greg Johnson, redshirt freshman Chase Williams and true freshman Chris Steele. We’ll see whether they can handle the challenge. Last season, the Trojans had a tough time defending the run game, so it will be interesting to see how DC Clancy Pendergast schemes to stop Fresno State’s top ball carrier, junior Ronnie Rivers, who had a 212-yard, two-touchdown day in last season’s Las Vegas Bowl.
On Trojans’ special teams, we’ll see whether redshirt freshman punter Ben Griffiths, a 27-year-old former professional football player in Australia, lives up to the hype. The return of experienced sophomore placekicker Chase McGrath gives the Trojans a major weapon.
The Obvious: Clay Helton, 47,is in his fourth season as the Trojans’ head coach, having won a Pac-12 title in 2017 and a Rose Bowl win over Penn State in 2017.
The Not So Obvious: In evaluating Fresno State, Helton said, “They’re balanced on offense. Jeff (Tedford) has always been a great offensive coach, and you see what they did last year offensively. The same balance in 11 and 12 personnel, being able to run and able to throw. They’ve got a new quarterback, and we’ll see how that adjustment is. Defensively, extremely solid, a group that won them their title in their league and go to the “blue turf” (Boise State) and win themselves a championship. You’re talking about a good football team. They’ll be as fired up as anybody to come out of the Central Valley and come down to Los Angeles and compete in this game. They’ll be looking for a victory, and it’ll be a very challenging opening game. We look forward to it and getting back on the field. It’s been a long seven months.”
The Obvious: Jeff Tedford, 57, is in his third season as Fresno State’s head coach, having returned to his alma mater where he has led the Bulldogs to a 22-6 record, a 2018 Mountain West Championship, two Mountain West division titles and two bowl wins.
The Not So Obvious: Regarding the Trojans, Tedford says, “As in any Air Raid offense, the thought is really speed and space and getting the ball to your playmakers out in space. The challenges that presents is tackling in space, running to the football and making sure it’s not a lot of one-on-one out in the field. It’s going to be really imperative that we run to the football and get guys around it because it’s an explosive offense.”
The Obvious: The Trojans’ offense averaged 26.08 points per game last season while the Trojans defense allowed 27.0 points per game.
The Not So Obvious: Fresno State’s offense last season averaged 34.64 points per game while the Bulldogs’ defense allowed 14.14 points per outing.
The Obvious: Fresno State’s key on defense is trying to slow down Trojans’ OC Graham Harrell’s version of the Air Raid offense.
The Not So Obvious: Says Fresno sophomore safety Waylan Free, “When you watch their pass game, you see a lot of stuff that matches up with other teams that we’ve played that run that offense, but it’s not all they do. There are things (Harrell) has obviously picked up over the years that he has built into his offense.”
The Obvious: Trojans’ first-year offensive coordinator Graham Harrell was previously the OC at North Texas State.
The Not So Obvious: Fresno State also has a first-year offensive coordinator in Ryan Grubb, who Fresno State head coach Jeff Tedford promoted to OC but will continue to be the Bulldogs’ offensive line coach.
The Obvious: All cardinal and gold eyes will be trained on returning starting quarterback JT Daniels, now a sophomore, who appears very comfortable in the Trojans’ new Air Raid offense.
The Not So Obvious: The starting Fresno State quarterback is senior Jorge Reyna (6-0, 215), who played his high school ball at local Pasadena (Calif.) High School. In 2018, Reyna appeared in 11 games for the Bulldogs, serving as the backup quarterback and primary holder. As a QB, he passed for 111 yards (8-of-12) and one touchdown and rushed for 75 yards on nine carries.
The Obvious: Perhaps the strength of the Trojans’ offense is depth and talent at wide receiver.
The Not So Obvious: The Fresno State secondary has some good ones in senior strong safety JuJu Hughes (5-11, 188), a second team All-MWC and senior corner Jaron Bryant (6-1, 183). Both figure to play a prominent role in the Bulldogs’ defense.
The Obvious: The Trojans expect that sophomore middle linebacker Palaie Gaoteote lV has potential to be one of the Trojans’ most dominating defenders in recent memory.
The Not So Obvious: MWC Championship Game MVP and first-team all-conference senior defensive end Mykal Walker (6-3, 227) has moved this season to middle linebacker to help alleviate the inside linebacker losses from last season.
The Obvious: The Trojans have named their team captains: WR Michael Pittman, LB Jordan Iosefa, DL Christian Rector and LB John Houston.
The Not So Obvious: You probably noticed that three of the four captains reside on the defensive side of the ball with just one from the offense. However, what they all in common is that all four captains are seniors.
The Obvious: The athletic director at USC is Lynn Swann, a former Trojans All-American wide receiver and Pro Football Hall of Famer for the Pittsburgh Steelers
The Not So Obvious: The Fresno State athletic director is former UCLA defensive lineman Terry Tumey. Tumey has a rich history in football, having turned a playing career at UCLA (1984-87), where he was a three-time All-Pacific-10 Conference defensive lineman, into a coaching career. He was a graduate assistant and full-time assistant coach at UCLA, working with the Bruins from 1992-98 and then moving on to the NFL ranks for two years with the Denver Broncos (1999-2000).
The Obvious: Three of the first four games on the Trojans 2019 schedule have been announced as night games.
The Not So Obvious: The Trojans first varsity night football game took place in Fresno 75 years ago on Oct. 14, 1944 versus St. Mary’s Pre-Flight.
The Obvious: Senior wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. is a post-season all-star candidate.
The Not So Obvious: Michael’s father, Michael Sr., was a former running back at Fresno State (1993, 95-97).
The Obvious: Todd Hewitt is the USC Director of Equipment Operations.
The Not So Obvious: Fresno State Head Football Equipment Manager is Josh Hewitt, the son of the Trojans’ Todd.
The Obvious: USC has an undergraduate enrollment of 20,000 students.
The Not So Obvious: Fresno State has an undergraduate enrollment of 22,033 students.
The Obvious: And finally, there will be the usual Trojans’ recognitions during the game and at halftime.
The Not So Obvious: Saturday night’s special recognition will begin with a pre-game flyover by the Tiger Squadron, and then the Navy Seals “Leap Frogs” will parachute into the Coliseum. There also will be pre-game fireworks to open the renovated Coliseum. During the game, the USC’s 2018-19 NCAA champion men’s water polo team and women’s track individuals (Angie Annelus, TeeTee Terry, Anna Cockrell, Lanae-Tava Thomas, Chanel Brissett, and Kaelin Roberts) will be honored on the field.