14 min Read

O/NSO: Will practice make perfect, as the Trojans prepare for the Iowa Hawkeyes? – Holiday Bowl edition

The Obvious: The CFP No. 22 Trojans (8-4), who begin official practice on Friday for the 42nd annual SDCCU Holiday Bowl in San Diego, Calif., opened a 2 ½ underdog to the CFP No. 16 Iowa Hawkeyes (9-3).

The Not So Obvious: The Trojans will have 11 practice days – if they so choose – to get ready for the Hawkeyes; however, only four of those practices will be open to the media, so, if there is a change in previous bowl practices – not a lot of tackling or hitting – it will literally be validated through “hear-say.” It will be interesting to see what new USC athletic director Mike Bohn thinks of this season’s Trojans bowl practices under Clay Helton.

The Obvious: Meanwhile, so much attention has been paid to the drama of the Trojans’ head coaching situation and its aftermath, it seems like Holiday Bowl foe, the Iowa Hawkeyes, are an afterthought.

The Not So Obvious: Well, the Trojans better get serious because the Hawkeyes’ three regular season losses were to CFP No. 14 and Citrus Bowl-bound Michigan (10-3), CFP No. 10 and Cotton Bowl-bound Penn State (17-12), and CFP No. 8 and Rose Bowl-bound Wisconsin (24-22). Let’s see, the O/NSO math says in their three losses, the Hawkeyes never lost by more than seven points and two of those losses by five points or less. Needless to say, the Hawkeyes are going to be a formidable opponent for the Men of Troy. To refresh you memory, the Trojans four loses were at unranked BYU (30-27 OT), at unranked Washington (28-14), at CFP No. 15 Notre Dame (30-27), and in the Coliseum against CFP No. 6 and Pac-12 champs Oregon (56-24).

The Obvious: This will be the Trojans third appearance in the Holiday Bowl, all in the past six seasons. 

The Not So Obvious: Hard to believe that this will be the Holiday Bowl’s 42nd season and the Trojans first made an appearance in 2014. To jog your Holiday Bowl memories, the Trojans beat Nebraska, 45-42, in 2014 but fell to Wisconsin the following year, 23-21.

The Obvious: One of the biggest areas of Clay Helton bowl criticism is that his teams don’t practice hard enough or use their entire allotted bowl practice days while their opponent gets right into it.

The Not So Obvious: For those keeping score of Holiday Bowl practices, as of last Monday, Iowa already had three practices while the Trojans had none. Given the current climate surrounding Clay Helton and considering the coach’s teams have lost their lost their two out of three bowl games (L-Wisconsin, W-Penn State, L-Ohio State) and the fact that they didn’t play in a bowl game last season, it all opens the coach to some understandable scrutiny. Helton’s overall bowl record is 2-2 (wins over Fresno State, and as previously mentioned, and Penn State in the Rose Bowl).   

Trojans head coach Clay Helton (photo above) has come under scrutiny regarding his philosophy on bowl game practices and preparation. Helton’s bowl record at USC is 2-2.

The Obvious: The Trojans’ offensive calling card this season has been their high-powered passing offense along with a moderate running attack.

The Not So Obvious: The Hawkeye defense is fifth nationally in scoring defense (13.2), 10th in pass defense (184.2), 12th in total defense (304.3), and 25th in rushing defense (120.1).  Senior linebacker Kristian Welch (80 tackles, 7.5 for losses, 3 sacks in 2019) and sophomore defensive back Jack Koerner (73 tackles) lead the team in tackles.  Junior defensive end A.J. Epenesa, who made the All-Big Ten first team for the second consecutive year, is 20th in the nation in forced fumbles (0.3) and 24th in sacks (0.8).

The Iowa defense is led by junior defensive end AJ Epenesa (photo above), who is All-Big Ten in 2019.

The Obvious: The Trojans’ defense has been an inconsistent group that has looked vulnerable against a strong running game and an effective passing attack.

The Not So Obvious: Iowa’s offense is directed by senior quarterback Nate Stanley, a three-year starter who has thrown for 2,738 yards and 14 TDs (with a 58.9% completion mark) in 2019.  His top pass catchers are a foursome of wide receivers:  redshirt freshmen Nico Ragaini (44receptions, 2 TDs in 2019), Tyrone Tracy (36, 3), and juniors Ihmir Smith-Marsette (42, 4)and Brandon Smith (33, 4). Ragaini also returns punts (10.7 average), while Smith-Marsette is the kickoff returner (25.8 average, with a TD).  Junior offensive lineman Tristan Wirfs was the Big Ten’s Offensive Lineman of the Year.

Iowa offensive lineman Tristan Wirf (photo above) is the Big Ten’s Offensive lineman of the Year.

The Obvious: Although a portion of the Trojans special teams have been erratic, undisciplined, and/or unproductive at best, USC punter Ben Griffiths Band placekicker Chase McGrath have been major positives.

The Not So Obvious: Iowa junior placekicker Keith Duncan, the Big Ten’s Kicker of the Year and a finalist for the Groza Award, leads the nation in field goals (2.42) and is 11th in scoring (9.3).  His 29 field goals this season are a Big Ten record.

The Obvious: Trojans’ senior All-America wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr., junior offensive tackle Austin Jackson, and sophomore defensive tackle Jay Tufele have been named first-team All-Pac-12.

The Not So Obvious: Take a good look all three in the upcoming Holiday Bowl because it’s conceivable that all three will be going into the NFL draft this spring. Pittman, who on Thursday was named to the prestigious Walter Camp All-America second team, will be playing in Holiday Bowl for sure, and there is a real possibility that left tackle Jackson could go in the first or early second round, which would mean the Trojans would need to replace both offensive tackles – grad transfer right tackle Drew Richmond will complete his eligibility after the Holiday Bowl – for 2020. As for Tufele, there are a lot of rumors that Jay may consider entering in his name into the NFL draft because he is a redshirt sophomore.  

Could the Holiday Bowl be the final game for junior offensive left tackle Austin Jackson (photo above), who could be a first or early second round NFL draft pick in 2020? Will Austin leave school early for the NFL?

The Obvious: Head coach Chris Petersen has resigned his position as head coach of the Washington Huskies.

The Not So Obvious: Prior to the announcement that Clay Helton was returning to be the Trojans’ head football coach in 2020, naturally Petersen’s announcement – a shocker – gave Trojans fans a wide-eyed reaction and gave pause to think that maybe the respected former UW coach was interested in the USC job. However, once the excitement and euphoria died down, logic took over. Indeed, Petersen wanted to get off the high-intensity college coaching carousel and in his words, “recharge.” The coach validated he was not looking for another job when he also announced he would be coaching the Huskies in their bowl game, which happens to be against his former university employer, Boise State, in the Las Vegas Bowl. What a way to bow out – temporarily – from the game. 

Might former University of Washington head coach Chris Petersen (photo above), who is leaving the Huskies to “recharge,” some day be a candidate for the Trojans head coaching position should it open up?

The Obvious: ASU head coach Herm Edwards wasted no time once his regular season was over by firing his offensive coordinator Rob Likens, WR coach Charlies Fisher, and tight ends coach Donnie Yantis.

The Not So Obvious: Now compare it to how the Trojans handle making coaches decisions, and you can come to your own conclusions. There are those that dismissed Edwards as a lark when he accepted the ASU job. The O/NSO would say he certainly is showing leadership on how he wants to run his program, and it’s obvious he wants results. Trojan fans are waiting to see if and when Clay Helton decides to make some changes, which figure to be on the defensive side of the ball. Given Helton’s situation, it would be easy to fire some coaches, but it might not be so easy finding qualified replacements.   

The Obvious: Pop Warner Little Scholars, the nation’s oldest and most prominent youth football organization, recently announced it had selected Trojans’ wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. to receive its 2019 Pop Warner National College Football Award, which was established in 2010 and recognizes a graduating senior or graduate student who has excelled on the football field, in the classroom and in the community.

The Not So Obvious: This past Tuesday,the Trojans’ captain, All-American, and All-Pac-12 first-team selection received the prestigious award during the 63rd Annual Pop Warner Super Bowl at Walt Disney World’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida. Reacting earlier to winning the award, Michael Pittman Jr. said, “I am extremely humbled and honored to win this award — especially as a Pop Warner alumnus. My community service work started in junior high when I would help out in my stepfather’s special education classroom, and I’ve continued to make it a priority in my life. I like to lead by example and I’m always trying to do the right thing in order to be a good role model for the next generation of young athletes.”

Trojans’ senior All-American captain and All-Pac-12 first-team wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr.(photo above) received the 2019 Pop Warner National College Football Award this past week, which recognizes a graduating senior or graduate student who has excelled on the football field, in the classroom and in the community. Pittman also said this week he will play in the Holiday Bowl with his “brothers” and would prepare later for the NFL draft.

The Obvious: Ryan Nielsen is a former standout defensive tackle for the Trojans (1998-2001) who was tutored at the time by former USC D-line coach and current LSU head coach Ed Orgeron, whose Tigers currently are No. 1 in the country heading into the post-season playoffs.

The Not So Obvious: A successful defensive line coach for the New Orleans Saints, Nielsen, a local SoCal product who attended Simi Valley (Calif.) Royal High, was a potential candidate for the Ole Miss job until it was announced that Lane Kiffin had been named the head coach.

Ed Oregeron (photo above) has coached a number of defensive linemen that have either gone to the NFL or have become coaches like former Trojans DL Ryan Nielsen.

The Obvious: Former Trojans head coach Lane Kiffin has been hired as the new Mississippi head football coach.

The Not So Obvious: The O/NSO has never seen a more controversial coach at USC from the time he was an assistant to his tenure as the head coach. Yes, even more controversial than Clay Helton because Kiffin’s personality was the exact opposite of Gentleman Clay. If things don’t work for Kiffin at Ole Miss, that university will have nobody to blame but themselves. As for Kiffin, he was on ESPN to explain what he had learned while at USC and Alabama, and the O/NSO kept thinking how such a coach could keep getting fired before he had completed his contract and still make more money than I’ll ever see? 

No matter where he has gone and been fired, former Trojans head coach Lane Kiffin (photo above) continues to make money as a head coach by not finishing out his contracts.

The Obvious: Casey Collier, a 6-foot-7, 300-pound offensive tackle from Mont Belvieu, Texas  (Barbers Hill HS), recently became the sixth offensive lineman to commit to the Trojans.

The Not So Obvious: In honor of your GPS, Mont Belvieu is 14 miles northeast of Baytown via Highway 146 and 31 miles east of Houston via Interstate 10. At last count, the Mont Belvieu population was 6,276. Start making your vacation travel plans.  

The Obvious: And finally, focus and attention is slowly turning to the Holiday Bowl match between the Trojans and the Hawkeyes.  

The Not So Obvious: The O/NSO was recently driving down Orange Grove Blvd. in Pasadena (Calif.) and the middle of the street was lined with a solid, dark mark for the float drivers of the Rose Parade to follow. In addition, viewing bleachers for the parade were also up. Naturally, our thoughts turned to New Year’s Day in Pasadena, which seems so much more natural when the parade includes the Trojans Marching Band and the USC football team is playing in the Rose Bowl later in the day. Ah, those were the days, my friends.

Greg Katz

Now entering his 59th season of either writing, broadcasting, or just plain watching USC football, WeAreSC columnist Greg Katz began his affiliation with the website back in 2001, introducing his well-received O/NSO (The Obvious/The Not So Obvious) column and later adding his respected IMHO Sunday opinion and tidbits column. Greg, a former ESPN.com college football columnist covering USC, is also a member of the Football Writer's Association of America. He is also known in Southern California as a professional public address announcer, having called the the 1996 Rose Bowl Game between USC and Northwestern. Greg also holds a master's degree in athletic administration and was a former varsity high school coach of 27 years.

More Articles By Greg