By Greg Katz – WeAreSC.com
The Obvious: It’s hard to fathom that although we’re still in September, the 2016 USC Trojans football season is already at a crossroads when the unranked Men of Troy (1-2, 0-1 Pac-12) face the No. 24 Utah Utes (3-0, 0-0 Pac-12) in a critical Friday night Pac-12 South Division showdown in Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City (7 p.m. MT/6 P.M. PT/FS1).
The Not So Obvious: Seizing a sense of a now or never and/or do or die scenario (pick your poison), Trojans first-year head coach Clay Helton has named redshirt freshman Sam Darnold – the darling of San Clemente (Calif.) High – as the Trojans starting quarterback against Utah. Although Darnold’s predecessor, junior Max Browne, had really done nothing egregiously wrong other than be at the throttle of a struggling Trojans offense, the victim of dropped passes, and the recipient questionable play calling against two of the nation’s premier defenses, a change was inevitable when your offense scores but one touchdown in eight quarters against No. 1 Alabama and No. 7 Stanford combine.
So, given the scoring drought against two Top 10 teams, it was time to give Darnold his shot against the No. 24 team in the country because Sudden Sam has the talent to inject a more explosive scoring threat with his arm and legs, something that Browne can’t duplicate. To be blunt, the Trojans need touchdowns like a starving man needs a Ruth’s Chris Steak House.
The Obvious: Friday night’s conference biggie between the Trojans and the Utes matches last season’s Pac-12 South Division co-champs, and this will be the third Top 25 team the Trojans will have faced in four games.
The Not So Obvious: The fact that the Trojans already have a conference loss and the fact this is a divisional game places Friday night’s game into the “Code Blue” category. With intense heat and scrutiny ratcheting up considerably in and around the John McKay Center, it figures that Clay Helton will continue to pull out all the stops, and Darnold might just be the first shoe to drop. Given the current climate of the program, desperate times call for desperate measures. Again to be O/NSO bluntly honest, the optimism coming out of spring ball and summer training camp has all but evaporated on a number of levels, so it will be fascinating to watch how Helton’s attempts to right the ship.
The Obvious: The Trojans opened a 2 ½ -point underdog to Utah.
The Not So Obvious: The Trojans are 2-2 in games played in Salt Lake City. Having already played No. 1 Alabama and No. 7 Stanford on the road this season, the Trojans – despite the losing results – are battle tested against elite competition. Although Utah is undefeated, their victories have come at the expense of unranked opponents Southern Utah, BYU, and San Jose State, which have a combined record of 3-5. The Utes first couple of games were played at home, but ironically last weekend, Utah was right down the road from the USC/Stanford game, defeating host San Jose State, 34-17. To jog your memory, last season the Trojans upset No. 3 Utah in the Coliseum, 42-24. It was a game that saw Trojans linebacker Cameron Smith gather three interceptions, one of which was a 54-yard Pick-6.
The Obvious: The Trojans/Utah game will be nationally televised live on FS1 (7 p.m. MT/6 p.m. PT)
The Not So Obvious: The FS1 broadcasters for Friday evening’s kickoff will be current Dodgers part time road game TV announcer Joe Davis (play-by-play), former Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn(analysis), and Jenny Taft (sidelines).
The Obvious: Friday’s Trojans radio game broadcast of the USC/Utah game will air live on ESPNLA 710 AM at 6:00 p.m. (PDT) with Pete Arbogast (play by play), John Jackson (analyst) and Jordan Moore (sideline).
The Trojans four-hour ESPNLA 710 pregame (2 p.m. PT) and two-hour post-game show on Friday will feature Arbogast, Jackson, Moore, Shaun Cody, Chris Fisher, Travis Rodgers, WeAreSC publisher Garry Paskwietz, and WeAreSC contributor Jeremy Hogue.
The Not So Obvious: The Utah broadcast can be heard on flagship station ESPN 700 AM with Bill Riley (play-by-play), Frank Dolce (analyst), and Bo Nagahi (sideline). The game is also being broadcast on the Sports USA Network with John Ahlers and former Trojans Hall of Fame coach John Robinson. The Pac-12 game can also be heard on Sirius XM satellite radio (Channel 119 or online 961) or on the Tuneln Radio app.
The Obvious: The Salt Lake City weather on Friday calls for rain with a high of 51, humidity at 80 percent, and a low of 49 degrees.
The Not So Obvious: The real weather report will be whether the Trojans switch at quarterback from Max Browne to Sam Darnold will ignite a rather impotent offense. We’ll see whether the weather – expected cold and rain – will play defense against the Trojans offense and how will it might affect the coming out performance of Darnold. While the Trojans are hoping that Darnold can fire up the offense, we’ll also see whether the play calling by first year offensive coordinator Tee Martin is also a factor. Clay Helton has now played the changing of quarterback card, and the way these things tend to go focus will turn to the offensive coordinator. We’ll see if Helton decides to inject more of his play calling style and move Martin more to a subordinate role. If that’s the case, we’ll see whether it affects the Trojans offense at some level. The “X” factor on Friday night is whether the Trojans use explosive two-way star Adoree’ Jackson as more than just a token offensive window dressing for a struggling offense.
We’ll see whether the change in quarterback will make for a better offense line performance and better wide receiver efficiency. Again, truth to be told, had the wide receivers made some very catchable balls and the offensive line been more dominant, Browne would have certainly looked a lot more effective. A major key on offense will be whether the experienced but beleaguered O-line can handle the manly Utah defensive line, and this may be the biggest factor in the game. Darnold may need every bit of his agility and legs to avoid what figures to be a furious pass rush along with some timely blitzes called by Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham.
Defensively, we ‘ll see whether the Trojans can handle the physical style of the Utes offense. Leading Utah on the ground are Troy McCormick (6.1 ypc.) and true freshman Zack Moss who rushed for a team-high 95 yards and a touchdown last week against San Jose State and averages 6.4 yards per carry. Whether the Trojans defense can stop McCormick and Moss will be a major factor, but Moss is no Christian McCaffrey and that is a good thing. The Utes will try and ball control the Trojans and may have the advantage if the weather does play a factor. It figures that Trojans defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast will have a better time dealing with the Utes offense as compared to Stanford, but both the Cardinal and the Utes like to bring physically to an opponent’s defense. Needless to say, whether the Trojans can contain Utah quarterback Troy Williams, the former Harbor City Narbonne High star, is another big question. Williams is the type of quarterback that has given Trojan defenses fits in the past. The Trojans secondary could be tested by wide receiver Tim Patrick, who averages 20 yards per reception and has all four of Utah’s receiving touchdowns. We see whether the Trojans defense can eliminate the opposition’s explosion plays, which have been a major thorn in the defensive fabric.
Trojans special team could be a factor and no question on Friday night, and Trojans junior placekicker Matt Boermeester has done the job thus far in the early going. We’ll see whether the high attitude of Salt Lake City puts a little extra power into the Trojans left-footed kicker. As for Utah, whether they can contain the Trojans Adoree’ Jackson on kickoff and punt returns will be a challenge – rain or no rain. However, the Utes do have the nation’s No. 1 in first-year sophomore punter Mitch Wishnowsky (52.6 avg.) at the ready.
The bottom lines to Friday night’s game is whether the Trojans can break out on offense with Sam Darnold at quarterback, find an offensive identity, eliminate killer penalties, avoid mental lapses on defenses, and hopefully haven’t lost hope that they can still control their fate in the Pac-12 South. That’s important because as long as the Men of Troy have a shot at a division title, entrance into the Pac-12 Championship Game, and a realistic shot at the Rose Bowl, they have something to play for. And for some added drama, Utah is encouraging a “Blackout” color display by its fans. It will be the ninth-annual “Blackout Game” in Rice-Eccles Stadium.
The Obvious: Trojans sophomore linebacker Porter Gustin is from Utah.
The Not So Obvious: Gustin told the O/NSO this week that he is excited to return to Salt Lake City, gave us a brief scouting report on the Utah offense, and the important of Friday night’s game. Porter said, “I think it will be great to be back in Utah where the weather is a little cooler. I have a lot of family coming. They (Utah) have a new quarterback. He is very athletic, so we have to contain him and make sure he doesn’t run. They have a pretty solid O-line, I think. We have to get off blocks on edges and be quick on the pass rush and play physical. The weather can affect the game up there, and throwing the pass is going to be hard for both teams. Unfortunately, we aren’t as used to it as they are.
“This game is huge. We want to win every game really bad, but we definitely have to win Pac-12 South games. They are by far the most important because even if the season isn’t going your way, you can still get to the Pac-12 Championship Game and the Rose Bowl.”
The Obvious: Trojans first-year head coach Clay Helton, whose record as the Trojans permanent head coach now reads 1-4, is rapidly feeling the wrath of what happens when a USC football coach loses games to ranked team in a way his team has looked bad.
The Not So Obvious: Utah’s highly successful head coach Kyle Whittingham was highly complementary this week regarding the Trojans. Whittingham said, “They have as good of personnel as anyone in the country. The receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is a tremendous talent. It seems like they have six or seven running backs who are all really, really good. They have a whole stable of backs. The offensive line has size and athleticism. The defense is physical and the secondary is what you get from them every year, just a lot of talented guys back there.”
The Obvious: The 2016 Trojans offense is averaging 20.3 points per game while the Utah defense is allowing 12.0 points per outing.
The Not So Obvious: The 2016 Utah offense is averaging 26.0 points per game while the Trojans defense is allowing 28.7 points per game.
The Obvious: Trojans grad student and former Utah defensive lineman Stevie Tu’ikolovatu has been a welcome addition to the Trojans defense, having become a real linchpin along the USC D-line.
The Not So Obvious: Having played last season for the Utes, Stevie has inside personnel information as it pertains to the Utes offensive linemen. Asked if it’s an advantage knowing his former teammates along the defensive line and whether he has shared his inside information with his fellow Trojans defensive linemen, Stevie said, “It’s a huge advantage. I‘ve been telling a lot of the guys that it’s going to feel like practice for me because I’ve been going against them for four years. I told it all today (scouting report to his fellow D-line Trojans teammates regarding the Utes offensive line). I’ve been telling everybody how their offensive linemen play and their weaknesses so we can capitalize on them.”
The Obvious: This will be the 2016 Pac-12 Conference opener for Utah.
The Not So Obvious: For the record, the Utes are 1-4 in Pac-12 openers.
The Obvious: The Trojans first-year offensive coordinator is Tee Martin has come under intense scrutiny not only because of the lack of offensive scoring but the identity of the offense.
The Not So Obvious: Now that the Clay Helton has played the changing the quarterback card, Martin will be the focus of the Trojans faithful. Since his hiring, Helton has preached a power running game, but it seems that maybe his version of such doesn’t jive with the Trojans fans version. The university that gave college football the “I” formation and was once the icon for running the football has been anything but. If Helton is truly allowing Martin to call the plays with little interference, there will have to be better communication on the offense’s identity or mission statement besides saying, “We ran a balanced offense.” A balanced offense isn’t five straight running plays and then five straight passing plays.
The Obvious: The Trojans defensive coordinator is Clancy Pendergast, who also has come under some scrutiny because his defense continues to make lethal blunders – mental and physical – at critical times just when they seemingly have held the opposition’s offense in check.
The Not So Obvious: Conversely, Utah’s defense, which looks disciplined, features 2015 All-Pac-12 first team performers in junior safety Marcus Williams and junior defensive tackle Lowell Lotulelei. The Utes defense is second nationally in sacks, first in the Pac-12 in sacks, fifth in interceptions, ninth in both scoring defense (12.0, third in the Pac-12) and pass efficiency defense (85.3, third in the Pac-12).
The Obvious: Before injuries, the Trojans started the season by returning 14 starters (9 offense, 5 defense, 0 special teams).
The Not So Obvious: Before injuries and to start the season, Utah returned 13 starters (6 offense, 7 defense, 1 special teams).
The Obvious: The Trojans play their home games in the mammoth Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, which has hosted two Summer Olympic Games.
The Not So Obvious: For the record, the Trojans have played in three stadiums that have hosted Olympic opening/closing ceremonies: The Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum (1932 and 1984 Summer Olympics), Tokyo Olympic Stadium (1964 Summer Games), and Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City (2002 Winter Games.)
The Obvious: College football will recognize this weekend the fought against Duchenne muscular dystrophy.
The Not So Obvious: College coaches nationwide, including the Trojans staff, will wear Coach to Cure MD logo patches at this weekend’s games to raise awareness and funding for this terrible disease.
The Obvious: USC is located in Los Angeles and the school has an enrollment of 43,000 (19,000 undergraduates) students.
The Not So Obvious: Founded in 1850, the University of Utah is located in Salt Lake City and has an enrollment of 31,551 (23,794 undergraduate students).
The Obvious: The Trojans have two players, defensive tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu (Salt Lake City/East HS) and linebacker Porter Gustin (Elk Ridge/Salem Hills HS), on their current roster from the state of Utah.
The Not So Obvious: Utah has 37 players from the state of California.
The Obvious: And finally, for many USC fans and the media, the early season drama has made many feel like it’s the 10th game of the season and not just the fourth.
The Not So Obvious: While this season is already exasperating the most loyal of Trojans fans in its game-by-game results, the O/NSO is keeping track of our preseason predictions and prognostications. We had the Trojans 1-2 at this point of the season and they are with predictions that the Trojans would lose to Alabama 37-14 (actual score 52-6), defeat Utah State 41-17 (actual score 45-7), and lose to Stanford 41-34 (actual score 27-10).
So if you’re looking for a little positive encouragement and a silver lining, the O/NSO preseason prediction for Friday night’s game at Utah has the Trojans winning 27-24, but that prediction was not taking into account rain and cold. So the prediction here after four games has the Trojans record at 2-2, which is what many thought would be the case.