What the Informed Trojan Fan Should Know
SC must play extremely disciplined defense to contain Penn State’s talented backfield: This will be the best offensive unit that SC will have faced all year. Penn State comes in with one of the best backfields in the nation with sophomore signal caller Trace McSorley having thrown for 3,360 yards and 25 touchdowns while also running for 563 yards with six rushing TD’s. All-American RB Saquon Barkley was named the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year while rushing for 1,302 yards and 19 touchdowns. This is an extremely balanced offense that combine major elements of a spread attack with a power run game that has put up a lot of points on some good Big Ten defenses. They have scored over 30+ points in every game since their 24-21 victory over Ohio State.
The SC defensive line will need to create the organic pressure they have greatly improved on over the second part of the season to temper this offensive attack or SC will have to score 40+ points to win.
Darnold vs. McSorely could be battle of 2017 Heisman finalists…but Darnold holds an advantage in the Red Zone: It goes without saying that both QB’s featured in the Rose Bowl saved the seasons for their teams and helped both become the hottest teams outside of Alabama entering the final stage of the season. A quick look inside the numbers though shows that Darnold has a profoundly bigger impact in the Red Zone, which could be the difference in a close game. Since October, Darnold was the best signal caller in the nation in the red zone with a 264.0 passer efficiency rating while going 26-39, with 18 TD’s and 0 INT’s while McSorely had only a 109.5 efficiency rating while going 13-27, with 6 TD’s and 0 INT’s.
Darnold vs. McSorley Part II- McSorely with an advantage on deep passing and passing when under duress: When it comes to passing for 20+ yards, no QB in the nation has completed more passes than McSorley since October. He’s an explosive QB who evades the rush in similar fashion to Darnold and is extremely accurate with the long pass. McSorley is 31-70 with 12 TD’s and 1 INT on passes longer than 20 yards, which is good for 5th in the nation while Darnold is just 13-31 with 5 TD’s and 3 INT’s.
Though Darnold appears to be amazing under pressure to SC fans, and he is, Mcsorley has been even more impressive completing 26-69 for 687 yards, 5 TD’s and 1 INT while Darnold was 23-44, 295 yards, 3 TD’s and 3 INT’s. ESPN Stats & Informarion defines duress as situations when defensive pressure forces players to throw early, off-balance or as they were getting hit. Darnold was 5th best in the nation but McSorley was 3rd only behind Baker Mayfield and Deshaun Watson.
Bottom line…these QB stats leady many analysts to believe this should be an extremely entertaining Rose Bowl game.
Fantastic article on Sam Darnold and his mentality since childhood: Sam Fortier wrote a fantastic article on theringer.com about Sam Darnold that is worth checking out. Article: Pocket Awareness
Running Back's Jones and Davis both 100%: For the first time since the middle of the season, both of SC’s top running backs are fully healthy and ready to make a statement. Jones averaged almost 150 yards per game in the final five games of the season but having both Davis and Aca’Cedric Ware healthy will not only give the Trojans additional running threats but they also are better receiving threats than Jones.
WR Smith-Schuster will finally be healthy: Potential first round NFL draft pick WR JuJu Smith-Schuster has played most of 2016 pretty banged up but finally feels close to 100% for the Rose Bowl. He has been playing at about 65% over the past four games.
Penn State will be without two key players for Rose Bowl: WR Saeed Blacknall and LB Manny Bowen were suspended from the Rose Bowl for violating team rules. Bowen ranks second on the team with 8.5 tackles for loss and Blacknall had six catches for 155 yards and two touchdowns against Wisconsin in the Big 10 championship game.
SC will be without Olajuwon Tucker and Kevin Smith, both of whom are academic casualties but they are not considered critical players.
The continued emergence of TE Imatorbhebhe should impact Rose Bowl favorably for SC: Despite only having 15 catches this season, redshirt freshman TE Daniel Imatorbhebhe is becoming a favorite target of Darnold in practice and throughout the second part of the season. He is a match-up nightmare for linebackers and four of his 15 catches have gone for touchdowns. He can attack the field vertically like a wide receiver and gives the Trojans an advantage when it comes to big-play threats.
SC offensive line vs. Penn State Defensive line probably defines the game: Penn State has 39 sacks this season, good for second in the Big Ten and tied for 10th in the nation. The have at least three sacks in six of the past seven games. However, SC has only yielded 11 sacks in 12 games, which is the best in the Pac-12 and tied for 6th nationally. If Darnold is able to avoid getting sacked multiple times, he should be able to take advantage of SC’s speed advantage at WR and TE and create multiple scoring opportunities for the offense.
Betting info: SC opened as a 7 point favorite and the line dropped to 6.5 points before recently going back to 7 and briefly trending to 7.5. SC finished the season 7-1 against the spread “ATS” while Penn State was a perfect 8-0 ATS. SC is historically a strong bowl team being 9-3 straight up and 8-4 ATS in their last 12 blow appearances. The total points scored is predicted to be 61 points. The total has gone under in seven of SC’s last eight games.
NCAA continues to lose ground in theTodd McNair case: An appellate court overturned the NCAA’s attempt to change judges in former SC assistant football coach Todd McNair’s defamation lawsuit against the organization. McNair sued the NCAA in 2011 after it sanctioned him and USC following the extra-benefits investigation that shackled SC with the harshest NCAA sanctions since SMU was given the death penalty and McNair was hit with a five-year show-cause penalty making it virtually impossible for him to coach again at an NCAA school.
The NCAA has been trying to delay and keep this case from going to court for over five years but it looks like now it will finally proceed. Preliminary information about the case seems to clearly favor McNair and his lawyers are extremely confident. This could be a devastating case for the NCAA if it reaches the court room.
McNair part II: I have heard rumors over the past year that the NCAA has offered McNair $12 million to settle but he turned it down and is confident he could obtain $20M+ in a judgement plus the NCAA being publicly shamed and leading to an apology to USC.
Carol Skinner Memorial Tid-Bits:
*SC plays Western Michighan September 2nd at the Coliseum followed by a September 16th match-up with Texas. . .SC scheduled Western Michigan as a “filler” game and is probably paying them a hefty fee for the appearance yet undefeated Western Michigan will be playing Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl tomorrow prior to the Rose Bowl game and traditional power Texas finished the season with a 5-7 mark.
*Expect JuJu Smith-Schuster and Adoree’ Jackson to declare for the NFL draft.
*The USC defense held five opponents to less than 100-yards rushing during the recent eight game winning streak. They have won those eight games by an average margin of nearly 20 points.
*Penn State QB McSorley threw for 384 yards and four touchdowns in Penn State’s victory over Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game.
*Coaching rumor mill- Offensive Coordinator Tee Martin was a finalist for some FCS head coaching jobs. The feeling is that if SC has another great year on offense with Darnold at the helm, Martin will land one of these jobs due to his recruiting prowess and success as SC’s offensive coordinator over a two year period.
*Penn State has only given up 13 passing touchdowns this year but they have yet to face a passing attack at the level of the Trojans.
*Rose Bowl tickets are going for more money on the secondary markets than any bowl game except the national championship game.
*USC accepted only 16.5% of the high school seniors that applied last year and costs for a year of school at SC are roughly $70,000 a year.
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SC dominates UCLA despite Darnold’s worst statistical game of the year: With a passer rating of 138.96 to go with two interceptions, it was statistically Sam Darnold’s worst outing as a starter. Despite that, we once again saw why he is so special. The Bruins could not cope with his elusiveness and ability to keep drives alive which eventually lead to SC being able to thoroughly dominate the time of possession and wear down a good Bruin defense. The domination of the first down total (31 to 10), play-clock (47:13 to 16:13) and SC having almost twice as much total yardage (527 to 266) is an indication the game was not as close as the final score.
SC’s Rivals inability to win close games is hurting SC down the stretch- As we noted last week, UCLA lost four games by seven points or less and two others by less than 10 points. Notre Dame is in a similar boat with ALL SEVEN LOSSES BY 8 POINTS OR LESS. If both UCLA and ND won just half of those contests, SC’s strength of schedule in November would be stronger and make SC look even better in the playoff committee’s eyes.
Lynn Swann having a strong impact on mental outlook of SC’s receivers: Some players have privately commented that Lynn Swann has been a great asset to SC’s receivers in terms of the mental part of playing the game. The new SC athletic director, who is a NFL Hall of Fame wide receiver, has the players’ attention and respect. His quick one-on-one conversations with them focus on the importance of identifying the ball early and what true toughness at the position is about. “They are subtle yet strong suggestions” stated one receiver. Players are also quickly point out that Swann never steps on the coaches toes and it is more about mentorship…One of the reasons you may have seen Smith-Schuster playing longer than you think he should have against UCLA was to demonstrate what it means to lead by example and play through difficult circumstances, especially in a big rivalry game.
SC still has a good chance at Rose Bowl or New Year’s 6 game even if Colorado wins Saturday: As long as SC takes care of business against Notre Dame, they should have a good chance to play in the Rose Bowl or potentially another New Year’s bowl game even if Colorado beats Utah and SC does not advance to the Pac-12 South championship game. The winner of a Colorado/Washington match-up, especially Washington, should get into the 4-team national playoff. The Rose Bowl doesn’t have to pick the loser of the Pac-12 championship game. They could potentially choose SC and argue that SC beat both Washington and Colorado and is one of the hottest teams in college football. It also helps that SC is a good ratings boost which is why another major bowl who loses a conference affiliation champion to the final four might contemplate taking SC. . .However, for all of this to happen, a Pac-12 team will need to make it in the playoff. If not, unless SC does win the conference championship, it will be more like the Alamo or Holiday bowl…
De’Quan Hampton finally becoming the scoring weapon coaches hoped for: When De’Quan Hampton signed with SC as a JC transfer before the 2015 season, the coaches were really excited about the 6’4 receivers rangy athleticism and his ability to be a strong red zone threat. He has had a disappointing career but has still worked diligently and it paid off with his first two career touchdowns against UCLA. His 31-yard catch for a TD was a thing of beauty as he caught the ball at its highest point while being well covered. Look for Hampton’s role to continue to increase in this final phase of the season, especially with Smith-Schuster banged up. He should play a solid role in red zone and 3rd down passing situations and this week, he presents a match-up issue for the majority of Notre Dame’s defensive backs whom stand under six-feet.
Rainy weather might help the Irish slow down the Trojans offense: With the strong potential of rain/thundershowers for the game, the average Irish defense might get some desperately needed help to slow down the SC offense which currently averages 31.8 points per game.
Irish might get off to a fast start but finishing is the problem: No one doubts that Notre Dame has the talent to give the Trojans a great game on Saturday. However, the Trojans have a huge advantage in the focus department. The Irish have given up multiple double-digit leads this year in close losses. Even if the Irish jump out to an early lead, SC should be able to mount a nice comeback unless the Trojans have a tough time adjusting to the poor weather.
Notre Dame Players to Watch: QB DeShone Kizer- He is ranked national in the top 25 in passing TD’s and total offense. He’s completed 59.3% of his passes for 2,705 yards with 24 TD’s and only 8 interceptions. He’s also a solid runner averaging 4.3 yards per carry with seven TD’s. A pro scout told me that Kizer is one of the best QB’s SC has played against this year and is anticipated to leave ND early for the NFL draft. The issue for Kizer is whether the Notre Dame offensive line can give him enough time to make the plays necessary to compete with SC. They are a good run blocking group but tend to struggle in passing situations. WR Equanimous St. Brown- Averages 17.0 yards per catch to go with a team leading 51 receptions. He is the definite big play threat the Trojans will look to contain. RB Justin Adams has recorded at least 100 yards rushing in the last seven games but they have not been against the caliber of defense that SC possesses.
Quick look at the Trojan Game-Plan: Offensively it will be similar to the UCLA gameplan of valuing ball control and wearing down the Notre Dame defense who has a tough time closing out games. Look for SC to test the young/inexperienced Notre Dame secondary early, especially if the weather is clear. With success over the top, Notre Dame will have a real tough time stopping the SC ground game. Notre Dame has one of the worst QB sack rates in the country ranking 114th nationally and only 100th in tackles for losses. Defensively, SC is going to focus on stopping the ND running game and taking away Kizer’s ability to hurt them with his legs. SC respects Kizer’s ability but he can have major bouts of inconsistency and the Trojans want to force him to throw and beat them with mid-level and deep throws
Special teams could be key if the weather stays ugly: SC kicker Matt Boermeester (14-19 FGs, 42-43 PATs) and Irish kicker Justin Yoon (13-16 FGs, 41-43 PATs) are similar with Yoon probably getting a slight edge since he has played in tougher weather conditions this year. The Irish also have a slight edge in the punting department but SC’s kick coverage is superior as the Irish rank 121st nationally in that category while SC is in the top 25. Both teams feature great kick returners in Jackson for SC and Sanders for ND.
Fun Fact about Brian Kelly’s tenure at Notre Dame compared to SC’s record while on NCAA sanctions: Since Brian Kelly was hired as the Notre Dame coach in 2010, USC has had 4 head coaches, 2 midseason firings, 2 athletic directors, a postseason ban/major scholarship reduction and has had a record of 60-30. Kelly is 59-30, including 4-7 this season…
Carol Skinner Memorial Tid-Bits:
*UMBRELLAS ARE NOT ALLOWED IN THE COLISEUM! The weather forecast calls for afternoon showers starting at 1 pm and turning to thunderstorms around 4pm.
*The Trojans opened as 16.5 point favorites and the line has since slightly moved to 17.5 points.
*Defensive Coordinator Clancy Pendergast has deservedly been nominated for the Broyles Assistant Coach of the year award.
*In an effort to help the homeless in Southern California, fans attending the game are encouraged to bring a pair of new sneakers to the game to donate to a sneaker drive. There will be drop-off bins at various entry points into the Coliseum.
*SC is ninth nationally in sacks allowed and twelfth in tackles-for-loss allowed.
Team takes on Helton’s calm and resilient demeanor in the face of adversity: When most of the national media and Trojan fans were calling for Helton’s head after its 1-3 start, Helton stayed true to who he is as a calm leader and didn’t appear to let the hurricane of critics and hostility phase him. His resiliency was a subtle yet very impactful example that resonated in the locker room. When you combine that with Darnold taking over at QB and having a similar demeanor on the field, the mentality of the team/program shifted away from the helter/skelter atmosphere of the past four years into one of consistency and confidence. This combination allowed SC to go into an extremely hostile environment against the 4th ranked team in the nation and not only win but dominate them on both sides of the ball. When SC turned the ball over or had misfortune strike, they responded well to the adversity and played at an even higher level…we haven’t seen that out of an SC team in about ten years. Helton and his staff deserve a ton of credit for overcoming the negativity they faced early in the season, especially with impressionable college students.
Despite UCLA/ND’s records, it is still a tough finish to the season: UCLA and Notre Dame are both struggling with losing records but they have very talented rosters with both ranked in the pre-season national top 15. Both of these rivals will do everything they can to beat the Trojans and pulling off these victories from a mental standpoint will be a lot tougher than it appears on paper.
When you take into account that SC just pulled off a huge road victory at #4 Washington and are playing its second consecutive road game (albeit right down the street in the Rose Bowl), this is a bit of a scary game for a young team and new coaching staff. Don’t forget these are college- aged kids and it is the wacky world of college football where unless you wear an Alabama uniform uncertainty reigns supreme.
A key factor to SC’s defensive success has been the offensive pace slowing down: One subtle adjustment the offense has made is they are taking more time in-between plays and are not in the hurry-up mode they were in earlier this season or under the brief Sark regime. When you combine this with a great 3rd down conversion rate with Darnold at QB, the Trojans are winning the time of possession battle allowing the defense to rest and have more time to adjust to the opposing offense. With limited depth along the defensive line, this shift has been extremely important and has been key in the emergence of the defensive line.
The defensive line goes from the weakest unit on the team to an unexpected strength: A major worry in fall camp was the defensive line from a talent and depth perspective. The worry was more pronounced during the Trojans 1-3 start when SC was getting little to no pressure on the opposing QB. However, with some defensive adjustments from DC Clancy Pendergast and the SC offense becoming more efficient and allowing the defense more rest, the line has become quite formidable and creating organic penetration. Porter Gustin and Rasheem Green have continued to improve on their technique and are becoming one of the best defensive line duo’s in the conference if not the nation. Washington supposedly has one of the best offensive lines in the conference but Gustin and Green seemed to be in the offensive backfield all day long. With his long blonde hair and large stature, Gustin is starting to remind us of the dominance of Clay Matthews while Green might have a little Leonard Williams in him.
A quick look at the Bruins: UCLA has not been beaten by more than 10 points all year and most of the losses came down to the last possession. UCLA has the defensive firepower and special teams threat in Ishmael Adams to keep the game close. The UCLA defense is arguably the best in the conference and only gave up one touchdown in their loss to #10 Colorado. DL Takkarist McKinley has 10 sacks, 46 tackles (18 for loss) and more importantly he gets in the head of opponents. He is expected to be a top three pick in the upcoming NFL draft. Fellow lineman Eddie Vandervoes and Linebackers Jayon Brown (leads conference in total tackles) and Kenny Young make this a very formidable group that will test the Trojans protection of Darnold. They have a very good defensive secondary and Fabian Moreau should be able to give Juju Smith-Schuster all he can handle.
Offensively, UCLA has a below average rushing attack and the offense in the hands of walk-on QB Mike Fafaul who sits behind a struggling offensive line. Fafaul has put up decent numbers since taking over for Josh Rosen, but he also throws an interception per every 20 passing attempts and has yet to face a defense playing the way SC is right now. Tight End Nate Iese, his #1 target and one of the better tight ends in the league hurt his knee against Oregon State and is a game time decision. It would be a huge blow to their offense if he does not play. WR Darren Andrews appears to be his second favorite target. Ishmael Adams is always a threat for a major kick/punt return but UCLA’s special teams coverage and poor punting has hurt them quite a few times this season.
Bruin game-plan and SC’s keys to a victory: UCLA will want to make this an ugly, low-scoring game in hopes of getting the Trojans to play un-disciplined. This game-plan almost paid off at Colorado a few weeks ago but special teams’ blunders cost them from being able to win the game. Offensively, they will have a tough time running on the Trojans so they will most likely rely on screens in the flats and in the middle beneath linebacker coverage. Defensively, it will be all about taking SC’s running game away and trying to take advantage of Darnold’s willingness to try and fit balls into tight windows to create interception opportunities. The Bruins will look to do something similar to the 2006 13-9 upset of the Trojans.
On the flip side, look for SC to try and rely on its defensive line to create organic pressure and disguise coverages against the Bruin walk-on QB which should lead to multiple interception opportunities. Offensively, SC needs to play disciplined and methodical and eventually wear down the Bruin defense. Look for SC to continue to involve the tight ends and with Justin Davis healthier, he will likely be used as a receiver out of the backfield. The only way SC loses this game is with multiple turnovers and 10+ penalties. A disciplined effort should lead to a double digit victory.
Third-Down efficiency will be the key: UCLA has one of the best third down defenses in the country while SC has one of the best third down offenses with Darnold at QB. One thing to keep in mind: Washington the best third down defense in the country, but SC had an above average 54% conversion rate in the 26-13 victory.
UCLA secondary stingy in the red zone: UCLA has not given up a passing touchdown while forcing six interceptions in its last four games. Three of those four games featured good QB’s in WSU’s Luke Falk; Utah’s Troy Williams and Colorado’s Sofa Liufau.
Don’t blitz against Darnold: With a 73.8% completion rate against the blitz while throwing 9 td’s to just 1 interception, you better think twice when blitzing him. Against Washington, Darnold was 7-9 on the ten plays that Washington blitzed and was only sacked once.
UCLA back-up QB’s have history of success as underdogs vs. SC: In 1966, Norm Dow started in place of the injured Gary Beban and guided UCLA to a 14-7 victory. Walk-on Jon Barnes led the Bruins back from 14 points down to a 38-37 victory over SC in 1992 while throwing for 385 yards and 3 TD’s. In perhaps the most painful of these losses, walk-on Patrick Cowan led the Bruins to a 13-9 victory in 2006 and denied SC the chance to play for a national title. Ironically, like Fafaul, Cowan took over mid-season and lost four straight before beating Oregon State.
Important QB commitment from Darnold’s old high school teammate QB Jack Sears: SC picked up a significant recruit this week with the verbal commitment of four-star QB Jack Sears. He is considered one of the nation’s best multi-purpose high school QB’s in the country and will provide SC with a solid back-up next season after Browne transfers. Sears ran a 4.72 40 at the opening while Darnold ran a 4.90…In 11 games this season, Sears has 700-yards rushing and seven touchdowns to go along with 1660-yards passing and 24 scores through the air.
Carol Skinner Memorial Tid-Bits:
*JK McKay admits that hiring Sarkisian was a mistake but did tell anyone that would listen this spring that Clay Helton would end up being a head coach the Trojan nation would be proud of once things settled down…
*The spread for Saturday night’s game favors SC by 13.5 points. The spread originally opened at 10
*The SC offensive line has only given up five sacks in the past eight games
*For the third consecutive year, SC’s Graduation Success Rate for student-athletes is at an all-time high of 83% according to the NCAA. This is 17% higher than it was 10 years ago…Former AD Pat Haden deserves some credit for this important statistic.
*Through 10 games, TE Daniel Imatorbhebhe has four touchdown receptions and no SC tight end has had more than four since 2012.
*Injury news: Defensive tackle Josh Fatu is most likely out with a sprained ankle. Fellow Defensive lineman Stevie Tu’ikolovatu is still dealing with a sprained knee and won’t be 100%.
*As much as SC’s victory over Washington validated the current win streak, a loss to UCLA would invalidate much of the progress the Trojans have made.
A pro scout’s take on Washington vs. SC: A pro scout focused on the west coast that is very familiar with both Washington and SC had the following observations: “From a talent/personnel perspective, SC and Washington are around the same level but I would give SC the edge talent wise. However, Washington has some key factors in its favor: A stronger defensive line, more experienced coaching staff and they are playing at home. SC is yet to play a disciplined game in a difficult road environment and though they have won a bunch of games in a row, the quality of competition has been suspect. The victory over Colorado was nice but SC had a major talent edge and it was at home in Coliseum.
A pro scout’s take Part II: How SC can win this game: Washington has yet to play a team as talented as SC but they have a mental edge with being undefeated and feeling invincible at home. It is very important SC gets off to a good start and rattles Washington causing them to lose some of the swagger they have developed with being #4 team in the nation. Besides playing disciplined football, SC must establish a consistent running game. Washington has a great defensive line but their best pass-rusher Defensive End/Outside Linebacker Joe Mathis got hurt vs. Cal and is out for the rest of the season. Mathis is a beast and a main reason Washington has been able to pressure an opposing QB without blitzing. Washington has more sacks without blitzing (98) than any other team in the country since Chris Peterson took over. This is how Alabama stifled SC’s offense by pressuring Browne and dropping 7 defenders back against the pass. The good news for SC is it is a big drop-off from Mathis to the next guy. By establishing the run game, SC will be able to run play-action and force Washington to blitz more and give Darnold better passing and running opportunities against a Washington secondary that is the best SC has played against outside of Alabama. Keep in mind, DARNOLD LEADS ALL POWER 5 QB’s IN COMPLETION % AGAINST THE BLITZ.
Defensively, SC’s defensive line is going to have to get some organic penetration and slow-down RB Myles Gaskin. If not, SC will have to add an extra man or two to the box and QB Jake Browning will have a big day. He’s the real deal with a deadly accurate deep ball, underrated arm strength and he can hurt you with his feet.
The impact of the loss of Mathis to Washington: Mathis has already missed three games this year and they only registered three total sacks in twelve quarters. In the six games he has played, Washington had 24 sacks…
Helton’s chance at redemption: An SC victory on Saturday will finally quiet the Helton skeptics and make the season opener to Alabama seem like a distant nightmare with SC putting themselves in position to be an at-large pick for a major bowl (provided they also beat UCLA/ND) even if they don’t advance to the Pac-12 championship game. . .On the flip side, a double digit loss that features a lack of discipline will keep the skeptics scratching their heads.
Look out for an early trick play from the Huskies: Chris Peterson and his staff are great at figuring out opponents defensive tendencies in the secondary. If they see an opportunity to burn overzealous DB’s/safeties who overcommit to stopping the run, they have no problem with a receiver or running back reading it and throwing to an open receiver.
Browning vs. Darnold: Browning has been having a Heisman contender season as he is second in the nation in passing TD’s (34) and first in passing efficiency. He has also only been sacked 16 times (1.7 per game). However, as we know, Sam Darnold is competing near that level as well. Darnold leads all Power 5 QB’s in completion % against the blitz and is on track to have the best passing efficiency ranking in school history. He is currently seventh nationally in passing efficiency and fourth in the nation in ESPN’s total quarterback rating. His 172 rushing yards are the most in a season by a USC QB since 1991.
3rd down efficiency will be key factor: With Sam Darnold at QB, SC’s third down conversion rate places them in the top 10 nationally. However, Washington is the best team in the conference when it comes to third down efficiency. Defensively, Washington opponents convert on fewer than 32% of their third down attempts, ranking them 8th in the nation in this category. It is pretty clear that SC cannot afford to be in too many third and long situations.
SC needs a big game from Juju..but is he healthy? What about Burnett?: SC’s top wideout has only 8 catches for 76 yards and no touchdowns since his back issue flared up against Arizona. Prior to that, Smith-Schuster had a four game stretch of 29 catches for 466 yards and six td’s. With fellow WR Deontay Burnett also banged up with a knee injury, Darnold’s two favorite targets will be limping into Husky Stadium which is a major concern…how will this impact their timing against a strong Washington blitz?
With WR’s banged-up will TE Daniel Imatorbhebhe have a big game? Look for SC to continue to increase its involvement of tight ends, especially Imatorbhebhe who has had quite a bit of mid-level/deep success this season. An SC tight end has a touchdown catch in the past four games with Imatorbhebhe catching three of them.
Carol Skinner Memorial Tid-Bits:
*If SC loses to Washington and Colorado and Utah both win this weekend, SC will be out of the race for the Pac-12 south title. SC does not have the tie-breaker advantage it had last year.
*The spread for the game is currently +7.5. The spread opened at +9.
*SC has had 13 penalties in each of the past two games. SC will have to play much cleaner to pick up a win on Saturday.
*RB Ronald Jones has looked phenomenal against Cal and Oregon but it must be noted that both Cal and Oregon possess two of the worst run defenses in the country. Success can still be had against Washington but it will definitely be more of a challenge.
*Washington is “all about the ball” leading the nation in turnover margin.
*Injury news: Defensive lineman Stevie Tu’ikolovatu did not practice Wednesday but Helton would not be surprised if he played. Inman Marshall was limited in practice with a hamstring issue but probably for the game. WR Deontay Burnett has missed practices this week with a knee injury but remains probably Saturday. Running backs Justin Davis and Aca’Cedric Ware both got reps this week and should be available.
*Sam Darnold was named as one of 18 semi-finalist for the Davey O’Brien top collegiate QB award.
* It is not losing Peterson that SC fans should be frustrated by…it is losing Del Rio. Jack Del Rio is one of the most well-liked/respected coaches amongst the players in the NFL while also proving he is a top-tier coach with the quick turnaround of the Oakland Raiders…Del Rio definitely wanted the SC job that ultimately went to Sark.
*According to Scott Wolf, Ed Orgeron was the coach who identified Sam Darnold. In another Wolf note, three of SC’s past four losses to Washington occurred with three seconds or less left in the game (2001, 2009, 2010).
Classic Trap Game: With a huge opportunity to redeem the season next week at #5 Washington and Oregon coming in with a 3-5 record, the Oregon game has all the makings of a look-ahead trap game that undisciplined football teams often lose. Helton and staff must do everything in their power to remind the Trojans of the beating they took against Oregon last year (48-28 loss) and that Oregon is only a handful of plays away from being 6-2 (three losses by less than four points) and seem to finally have the right QB in place which makes them even more dangerous. . .
But have the Ducks quit on Helfrich?: Some pro scouts have heard rumblings the Oregon locker room is a mess and Head Coach Mark Helfrich is having a difficult time keeping the team on the same page. The victory the Ducks had last week over ASU does not prove much. ASU was down to a third string QB and have locker room issues of their own. If the Trojans get out to an early lead and the Oregon truly has internal issues, SC should have an opportunity to blow them out.
Darnold makes SC 14+ point better but he must protect the ball: If SC is going to finish 9-3 or 8-4, much of it will be due to Darnold’s brilliance. Darnold has done a great job of re-incorporating the tight end into the offense, taking advantage of Smith-Schuster’s natural talent, and extending drives on offense by scrambling for a first down or completing a pass when a classic pocket passer would be sacked. In fact, some of the newfound success on defense can be attributed to Darnold since they have had very few short drives allowing the defense to get more rest. However, he must do a better job protecting the ball, especially when the Trojans are on the road, if the Trojans are going to reach their potential.
Why Darnold won over the team so quickly: The SC football team always respected Darnold’s ability. It went back to his play running the scout team last season and Sark calling him “Johnny Manziel with size”. However, his even keel/confident attitude and willingness to call out the selfish play of others is what allowed him to take over the leadership of the team so quickly. He was willing to call out JuJu Smith-Schuster in front of the whole team at halftime of the Utah game for not completing routes and pouting when he wasn’t getting the ball. Smith Schuster has been on fire ever since. Those leadership intangibles are worth many a touchdowns on the field. . .
Max Browne still may play an important role this season: Even though back-up QB Max Brown has made his intentions clear about transferring next season, he could still play a role in how this season plays out for the Trojans and that could have a dramatic impact on where he ends up next year. Darnold plays an aggressive style and could very well be knocked out of a game and it is imperative that Browne is ready to step in and command the offense. If he does well in that predicament, it will be a great way for him to end his SC career on a positive note and create even more opportunities for him next year. Browne must stay focused and ready through November or it could cost him and SC dearly…
Pendergast 5-2 defense seems to create issues for spread offenses: Clancy Pendergast has done a masterful job against the emerging spread offenses throughout his career as a defensive coordinator at Cal and now in his second stint at SC. His 5-2 defense allows him to disguise new packages/wrinkles designed to frustrate the opposing quarterback of a read/react defense. Pendergast forces offensive coordinators into tough in-game adjustments that often force opponents to make a third or fourth option become a primary target. Pendergast’s expertise will definitely be needed this week. Though Oregon is having one of its worst seasons in recent memory, they still possess one of the nation’s best offenses (16th nationally averaging 41 points and 519 yards per game) and most concerning to Trojan fans is they seem to have found a stud freshman QB Justin Herbert to give them the spark they have desperately needed at the position. Herbert has only started three games but has 996 yards passing, 89 yards rushing, 13 TD’s and only 2 interceptions.
Key To The Game- Limit turnovers and play disciplined football: Ball security and senseless penalties will allow a potent Oregon offense to get momentum and provide the extra opportunities needed to beat SC. SC should win the game comfortable if they play a disciplined football game. Oregon’s defense is on par with Cal and SC still scored a ton of points against Cal despite playing a sloppy game.
Carol Skinner Memorial Tid-Bits:
*Trojan red-shirt freshman tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe has caught a touchdown pass in three straight games and is showing the athleticism that made him a four start recruit that reminds many of former SC great Fred Davis.
*SC is 1-4 in the last five meetings with Oregon, allowing 49 points and 618 yards per game in those losses.
*Opposing teams convert 46 percent of their third-down plays on Oregon, which ranks 11th in the Pac-12.
*The Ducks rank #127 in total and #124 in scoring defense…If SC doesn’t score at least 42 points something went terribly wrong…
*CB Jonathan Lockett is out so SC will have to make some adjustments to its nickel package. Look for Ajene Harris and Leon McQuay to fill the void.
*RB Aca’Cedric Ware was carted off the practice field on Tuesday with an ankle injury and is expected to miss the game. With Justin Davis still likely out, the Trojans are very thin at RB and won’t have a good pass catching threat out of the backfield. RB Ronald Jones could rush for 250+ yards this week against an atrocious Oregon run defense. He had 223 yards rushing against Cal, who has the worst run defense in the country. . .
Pendergast and defense deserve strong praise for performance against Colorado: DC Clancy Pendergast did a phenomenal job of having the Trojan defense ready to face a potent Colorado offense. The SC defense dominated the Buffaloes and the defensive game-plan allowed for SC’s superior athleticism to shine. The defensive line played their best game of the year and were able to create deeper line penetration that we haven’t seen until the past two games. Pendergast is also blitzing more and he seems to have a great feel for defending spread-type offenses…
Porter Gustin living up to his 5-star recruiting ranking: According to beat writer Scott Wolf, sophomore defensive end Porter Gustin has incorporated new moves while rushing the quarterback and NFL scouts are noticing and praising him. Gustin and Rasheem Green have really stepped up over the past few games and are the main reason why the defensive line has started to grade out much stronger than they did earlier in the year.
Safety Chris Hawkins making an impact with SC blitzing more: Hawkins isn’t putting up noteworthy statistics as he only has five tackles in the past two games, but he’s making big plays with SC blitzing more. He had a sack against ASU, forced Colorado QB’s to throw the ball away on two key 3rd down plays and his pressure helped lead to Adoree’ Jackson’s amazing/acrobatic interception. With Hawkins in the game compared to fellow safety Marvell Tell, the defense allowed 123 less yards on five fewer plays…equating to a 3.6 yard per play (ypp) average compared to 6.3 ypp when Tell was in. This isn’t a knock on Tell who is performing fine. It is an acknowledgement of Hawkins solid play at the position and that he is performing better when SC is more aggressive on defense. It is also nice to see a player like Hawkins step up and positively perform after being demoted from the starting line-up earlier in the season.
RB Ronald Jones needs to display his elite ability on Saturday for Trojans to leave Tucson with a win: Ronald Jones has been in a sophomore slump and Justin Davis has taken full advantage of it and was having a stellar year both running and catching out of the back-field until his ankle injury Saturday. With Davis definitely out this week, Jones will get the majority of the carries and will be able to get into a consistent groove against a porous Arizona defense. The Trojan offense might suffer from a passing perspective since Jones is not the pass receiving threat of Davis (Davis has the best catch rate on the team while Jones has the worst) but Jones definitely has the speed and quickness to create big plays out of the backfield. When Jones took over for the injured Davis against Colorado, the offense wasn’t as productive but he did seem to start getting into a grove and got to the second level of the defense a few times. His confidence seemed to really improve with those runs and SC will need an extension of that on Saturday to walk away with its first victory on the road. Also, Jones broke a true freshman rushing record last year by running for 177 yards against Arizona. He would love a repeat performance.
Quick Keys to a victory at Arizona: *Contain the running QB: SC has always had issues with a running QB and Arizona is not shy about letting the QB’s run. They are one of the best in the country when it comes to positive yards on the ground from their QB. Overall, the Wildcats rank 3rd in the Pac-12 in rushing offense. SC will most likely face former Serra standout QB Khalil Tate and he is a special athlete. Though he is only a freshman and struggled against Utah, he looked phenomenal against UCLA after replacing the injured Brandon Dawkins. SC has quite a few Serra alums on the roster and they are very aware of his skill set and abilities. *Force Arizona to convert on 3rd down: Arizona ranks last in the conference in 3rd down conversion rate so if Pendergast and company continue its upward trend and contain the big play, SC should escape the desert with a victory. *Wear Arizona down physically: Arizona has been decimated by injuries this season and if SC is able to establish a running game and have some long sustained drives, Arizona will be gassed by the time the fourth quarter rolls around. *Clean up the sloppiness: SC cannot afford to turn the ball over 3+ times and get a win on the road and they must continue to cut down on penalties like they have the past few weeks.
Trojans continue to increase the amount of the pistol formation with Darnold at QB: SC used the pistol 33 times against Colorado which almost doubled the amount of times they used it against ASU. Per this report last week, SC had a ton of success in the formation so it makes sense. The output in terms of yards per play wasn’t as successful as the 9.25 ypp against ASU but was still solid with a 6.24 ypp average. However, it might have helped open things up when in the shotgun formation as SC averaged 9.70 yards per play on throwing out of the shotgun.
Darnold’s play can be risky but worth it: As we noted last week, Darnold can play with a bit of reckless abandon and it would eventually lead to some turnovers. We saw that vs. Colorado as he had three turnovers. However, he is a bonafide playmaker that SC has not had at the position since Sanchez. Former QB Cody Kessler was a good/conservative college QB but his average ypp was around 5. Darnold’s sample size is much smaller but he’s averaging 7.4 ypp and that is a massive difference over the course of a game. Putting that in perspective, Washington has the fourth most efficient offense in in the country and averages 7.5 ypp. Darnold is also willing to make the tough throw when the game is on the line and his teammates truly appreciate his confident demeanor. Enjoy watching him. His natural football instincts and ability to make broken plays into new opportunities as opposed to a negative play is rare.
Helton had to start Browne over Darnold early in the season: Everyone observing practice knew that Darnold was the better fit over Browne for the talent SC possesses on offense. However, per what we have mentioned in the past, SC could not afford to have Browne transfer before the season started. If Browne lost the job in August, he would have had the ability to transfer and be eligible immediately at other schools. Furthermore, SC would have no real back-up QB if Darnold got hurt. Matt Fink is nowhere near being a college- ready QB so the best option would have been WR Jalen Greene. Without a viable back-up heading into what appeared to be the toughest schedule in the country, Helton had to be loyal to Browne and give him a shot. Now, not giving Darnold the start after two games or a bigger opportunity against Stanford is something that can definitely be questioned.
Betting Guide: SC opened as a 7 point favorite and the line is now up to 9.5 points. Over the past two weeks, the professional gamblers have started to take a positive look at SC with Darnold at QB. They got burned last week but would have covered if Smith-Schuster scored the final touchdown instead of stopping just short of the goal line. It will be interesting to see how this plays out as SC has lost their last 5 games on the road and Arizona is a very good home team. With a 9.5 point spread combined with SC’s recent struggles on the road, I wouldn’t take the Trojans even though they should comfortably win the game.
Washington may not be as good as the experts think: Washington appears to be a great team and they are currently ranked 5th in the nation with an undefeated record. They are developing a swagger and attitude needed to be a true college playoff contender. However, if you take an in-depth look at them, they have yet to be challenged and when they were, they almost lost in overtime to a below average Arizona team. The early season schedule was littered with “cupcakes”. The blow-out victory over Stanford is not what it seems. Stanford was coming off two highly emotional victories over SC and UCLA, it was a back-to-back road game for them and six significant starters were out with injuries. Also, Washington State blew out Stanford this past week. The victory at Oregon doesn’t prove much since they are now considered to be one of the worst teams in the conference despite their reputation for routinely being one of the best.
Carol Skinner Memorial Tid-Bits:
*Arizona has given up more than 400 yards of offense in thirteen consecutive games.
*SC should once again have a decided advantage in the special teams department this week.
*No true freshman has started a game this season…only six have played and most of them have barely seen the field…sign of a weaker recruiting class than anticipated or a roster that is finally filling up after the sanctions?
*Coaching experience is still a concern for SC. It was apparent early that SC should have beaten Colorado by 3+ touchdowns and without that amazing 42 yard reception by Rogers late in the game, SC may have lost the game…
*Spoke to a Pac-12 college hoops assistant: “If Sam Darnold focused on hoops, he would have been successful Pac-12 level player. Great athlete.”
*Darnold is the first SC freshman QB to throw for 300-plus yards in consecutive games since Todd Marinovich.
Yes, Darnold is good enough to lead SC to a winning record and quiet the chatter about Helton’s job security: Darnold completed 70% of his passes, threw for 352 yards and had 3 touchdowns against a porous ASU defense. He showed the escapability, poise and knack for making the big play, which is Steve Sarkisian described him as “Johnny Manziel but with size” when speaking to certain donors and administrators during fall camp last year. As long as the offensive line holds up, Darnold has the ability to make-up for the deficiencies of a rookie offensive coordinator and make the SC offense high-scoring and exciting.
With a victory over #21 Colorado in the Coliseum (Trojans are favored despite their 2-3 record), the Trojans will be 3-3 and have an easier schedule than anticipated to finish the season. Should the Trojans defeat Colorado, they will be favored in every game left on the schedule except for Washington and maybe UCLA. Oregon and Notre Dame have been disappointing and SC plays them at home where Helton is undefeated as a head coach. A 7-5 or 8-4 record is a real possibility…on the flip side, a loss to the Buffs will kill the momentum created form the ASU game and likely lead to a losing record and probably a new head coach. Helton will then be 1-6 as a head coach vs. top 25 teams…Bottom Line: Helton needs this victory!
Darnold needs to be careful with some of his “hero” throws: After reviewing film vs. ASU,a pro scout told me that Darnold got away with three throws that should have been intercepted and he often tries to place the ball into a real tight window. Since Darnold doesn’t have a quick release, some savvy defenders are going to be able to read this tendency and capitalize.
SC has more talent but Colorado has the better coach: After a long period of futility, Colorado has finally emerged to be a legitimate threat to win the Pac-12 South. When Mike MacIntyre was hired by Colorado, many in the college coaching world felt it was a “genius” hire and that he would eventually make Colorado competitive despite sub-par facilities. Prior to the Colorado job, MacIntyre took over a 1-win San Jose State team in 2010 and within three years they had a 10-2 record and were ranked in the top 25. The turnaround has taken longer at Colorado (year 5) but it appears Colorado is now for real. Despite losing their star QB Sefo Liufau (ankle) in a loss to Michigan, Colorado has run off two straight victories with back-up QB Steven Montez throwing for over 600 yards and a passer rating of 187. Typically spread-option offenses crumble when the starter is injured. The fact they appear to be playing better with Montez is a sign that Colorado finally has the depth and talent to compete at a high level in the Pac-12…SC has the talent edge but if this is a tight game, Colorado will have the X’s and O’s edge. . .unless…
Special Teams could be the deciding factor if SC pulls out the victory: Despite the media jumping all over SC for not having enough players on the field for some special teams situations, one of the strengths of the Trojans is the special teams unit which ranks 20th in the nation in special teams efficiency. SC is consistent in all phases with one of the nation’s best kick returners in Adoree’ Jackson, strong defensive kick coverage, and they boast both a field goal kicker and punter who are well above average. On the other hand, Colorado gave up two special teams touchdowns in their only loss to Michigan and rank 117th out of 128 teams in special teams efficiency. This phase of the game should help cancel out any coaching advantage Colorado appears to have.
A Sark recruiting blunder could haunt the Trojans Saturday: Back in 2013, then SC interim head coach Ed Orgeron offered wide receiver Shay Fields a scholarship. However, when Steve Sarkisian was hired, he decided to drop the offer to Fields and give that scholarship to Rashead Johnson. Johnson left USC after one semester and is currently playing for San Jose State. Fields ended up accepting a scholarship to Colorado where the junior is the leading receiver for the Buffaloes and leads the Pac-12 in receptions of over 30 yards or more.
Colorado QB’s and balanced offense will be a true test for SC’s defensive line: Since Colorado has a very balanced up-tempo attack with two QB’s who can also beat you with their legs, SC will be susceptible to giving up big plays if they blitz as much as they did vs. ASU. It is imperative the SC defensive line is able to create its own penetration to help slow down their vaunted attack. Colorado QB Sefo Liufau injured his ankle against Michigan (they were winning before he got hurt) but is expected to play this week. However, freshman Steven Montez has thrown for over 600 yards with six touchdowns and has a passer rating of 187 in the past two games he has started. Liufau’s passer rating before he was injured was 181. This will be the most dynamic offense SC will face this year and the defensive line needs to play well. SC only has a 16.8% stuff rate (when the runner is tackled at or before the line of scrimmage), which ranks 94th out 128 division 1 teams in the country.
Speaking of the defensive line…Rasheem Green played fantastic vs. ASU: During the 43 plays that Green played vs. ASU, the Sun Devils had only 91 total yards which is a 2.1 yards per play average. These numbers are a little inflated since ASU’s starting QB didn’t play in the second half, but his performance was extremely. He did a tremendous job of creating organic penetration and disrupting the ASU back-field throughout the game. He seems to be on track to become SC’s next great defensive lineman.
Trojans looking good in the Pistol offense: With Darnold at QB, the SC offense has some new wrinkles. They used the pistol formation 17 times vs. ASU and when Darnold was the QB in that formation, they averaged a stunning 13.66 yards per play! Expect SC to continue to employ the pistol and more read/option looks to allow Darnold more autonomy with the offense.
Betting Info: Despite SC being 2-3 and Colorado being ranked #21 in the nation, SC opened as a four point favorite and the spread jumped to 5.5 points per Vegasinsider.com’s consensus line. SC has covered in the two games in which they were favored this year and is 2-3 against the spread. Colorado is 4-0 against the spread this year.
Carol Skinner Memorial Tid-bits:
*SC Starting right tackle Zach Banner is 50/50 at best as to whether he will play and most likely will miss his second straight game due to a left ankle sprain.
*With two starts, Sam Darnold has become one of the most accurate passers in the NCAA, ranking #11 in the nation.
*SC is 10-0 all-time against Colorado
*Expect a quick offensive start from Colorado. They are outscoring opponents 165-47 in the 1st half.
*Fun Fact: WR’s Deontay Burnett and Seven Mitchell Jr. have the best catch rates of the WR’s at 73.9%. JuJu Smith-Schuster is third with a 68.4% catch rate.
*Fun Fact Part II: Part of the reason that RB Ronald Jones is in a sophomore slump and not seeing the field is much is that he is struggling catching the ball out of the back-field. Starting RB Justin Davis has the best catch rate on the team at 73.9% while Jones has the worst catch rate on the team at 25%.
*Most pundits picked SC to have a 7-5 or 8-4 record prior to the start of the season.
Darnold is the real deal: QB Sam Darnold has the swagger and presence that SC has not had at the QB position since Leinart and Palmer. This isn’t just about one game. Scouts and practice observers have felt he is going to be special since last spring. His abilities could end up leading SC on a nice mid-season win streak…one of the reasons that SC has jumped to a 10 point favorite over undefeated Arizona State is due to what he brings to the offense. As long as he stays healthy, expect him to be a legitimate Heisman candidate next season and will be the reason you should get to the coliseum and watch the Trojans even if it is a .500 level season.
Despite the Utah game being his first start, SC averaged 7.9 yards per play, which is the most it has averaged against a Power 5 opponent since a 44-17 victory against Washington State in 2014.
Coaching staff knows the ASU game is a must-win: Simply put, as a 10 point favorite at home, SC needs this victory to achieve a .500 or better record which would probably by the coaching staff another season to turn things around. One staff member stated “Winning is the only option if we want to be coaching here next season”
Rumblings about Helton and a buy-out if things don’t’ turn around: I have heard from a very reliable source that the prominent booster who played a major factor in the hiring of Lynn Swann as Athletic Director is concerned that Helton is not right man to lead SC. This same booster is a fan of Helton and didn’t object to his hire but he also was not involved in the process of hiring him. This booster is very tight with Lynn Swann and wants to make sure Lynn is given every opportunity to succeed. Should SC continue to falter and not show signs of stabilizing, this booster is prepared to provide money to help buy-out Helton and his staff members after the season. Helton has a three year guarantee and coordinators have two year contracts.
Swann is very confident that given the opportunity he will help attract a top tier coach. He has the swagger and confidence to pull it off…However, Swann is still fully supporting Helton and would like to and it would probably take a sub .500 record for SC to not give him a second year. Remember, he inherited an absolute mess and it took three years for Peterson to turn around Sark’s mess at Washington.
Keep this in mind regarding Helton: When you hear people calling for Helton to be fired within one year of being hired, remember a few things. *SC is not defined by its football program and more concerned about its overall university ranking and building a multi-billion dollar endowment. *The administration is well aware that SC has played one of the toughest schedules in the country and will give Helton time to get things stabilized. *Helton is well-liked and he will have to continue to make questionable in-game coaching decisions to fall out of favor. *Boosters will have to step up and help take care of any buy-out for Helton and his staff. SC does not like to waste money in paying coaches who are not coaching for them and this would be three straight…
Sophomores Cameron Smith and Porter Gustin lone bright spots on defense: LB Cameron Smith leads the Pac-12 in solo tackles and ranks in the top 10 nationally. Porter Gustin is tied for fourth in the conference for solo tackles. Smith and Gustin make up 27% of SC’s total tackles!
Sam Darnold and Ju Ju Smith Schuster should have monster games on Saturday: ASU’s pass defense is atrocious and ranks as one of the worst in the country. They have given up 14 passing TD’s, allowed 16 first down passed per game and 404 passing yards per game. Darnold averaged 14.4 yards per pass completion against a solid Utah defense and was in a good rhythm with Smith Schuster. Expect more of the same in this must win game for the Trojans.
ASU is dangerous late in games and in the red zone: Arizona State averages 21.7 points per game in the 4th quarter! No lead is safe. . .especially since SC only averages 6.7 points per game in the second half.
ASU is a perfect 18/18 in scoring inside their opponent’s 20-yard line. SC is 11/13 and the teams are tied for ninth in the conference in red zone defense.
Carol Skinner Memorial Tid-Bits:
*The combined record of SC’s first five opponents is 17-2.
*SC is 4-0 in the coliseum under Clay Helton.
*QB Sam Darnold had a great week of practice and was more comfortable as a team leader after the start at Utah.
*ASU has the best run defense in the country and the worst pass defense.
*ASU QB Manny Wilkins has the second-most rush yards of any QB in the Pac-12.
*SC’s defense has been on the field for 271 plays this season- Tied for 6th most in the country.
*SC ranks 102nd nationally in team sacks…expect more blitz packages against ASU.
*A loss to ASU would put USC at 0-3 in the Pac-12 for just the fourth time in school history.
*SC’s past five recruiting classes averaged as the 6th best in the nation…yet they are 1-3 and some assistant coaches are complaining about depth problems…hmmm…
*SC was represented by 44 Olympians at Rio 2015, and 17 of those Trojans will be honored at halftime of the ASU game.
*SC ranks 15th nationally in the Wall Street Journal Survey of more than 1,000 U.S colleges and universities. UCLA placed 26th and UC Berkeley was 37th. The new ranking uses a set of comprehensive metrics to determine whether a college offers students sufficient resources to succeed, whether students feel challenged and engaged, whether the student body is diverse and international and whether graduates succeed by paying off their loans and are able to find satisfying, high paying jobs.
Relax! The sky is not falling on the SC football program..yet: I don’t know if Clay Helton is the right head coach to lead SC football back to national relevance and so far he is struggling to right the ship. However, the intense negative vibe perpetrated by fans and the media regarding the Trojans 1-2 start is an over-reaction. Let’s take a realistic look at the situation:
*It was ridiculous for anyone to expect SC to be 2-1 or 3-0 at this point unless they had hired someone with the last name of Harbaugh, Saban or Meyer and even then it may not have happened. SC hired a rookie head coach on top of the program having four coaches in three years. They have cycled through a myriad of position coaches and coaching philosophies and the players had to deal with drama of a new athletic director and the loss of a head coach in the middle of a season due to substance abuse. When you couple that with coming off NCAA sanctions while still being short on numbers in two recruiting classes, this is a very unstable situation.
*Though SC has been dominated in their two losses, most experts expected SC to start the season 1-2. They have lost to the best team in the country and probably the best team in the Pac-12. Overall, the Trojans schedule ranks as the toughest in the country and predictions of a 7-5 campaign were the norm. Let’s contrast that with Washington’s ridiculously easy schedule for the first three games with a down Rutgers team being their toughest opponent…they are 3-0 with a top 10 ranking yet have not played anyone close to the talent level of Stanford or Alabama. SC is probably in the top 15 against a similar schedule.
*Sarkisian’s staff did not do a great job of player development and it seems they may have recruited over-rated high school players. The Trojan roster is talented but it appears they over-recruited certain positions and didn’t fill need areas as well as they should have.
Let’s see how the season progresses before truly talking about yet another change with the staff. Helton will be SC’s coach through the end of the season regardless of what transpires.
A sign that Helton is feeling the heat…The move to Darnold quicker than expected: The original plan was to have Max Browne start through the Arizona State game and then re-evaluate if needed. However, the overall offensive inefficiency has the whole coaching staff on edge. I have heard rumblings that offensive coordinator Tee Martin pleaded with Helton on Saturday evening to give Darnold a shot. Martin has always felt that Darnold gives SC offense the best chance to be more explosive and the reality is a quarterback that can make plays with his legs can often cover-up the shortcomings of an in-effective offense.
Browne screwed by an unfortunate circumstance: QB Max Browne actually graded decently with some pro scouts. They felt Browne performed admirably and in the right system can showcase his talents. The offensive line hasn’t performed as well as expected and the lack of separation by the receivers and predictable play calling hurt his cause. Unfortunately these issues also magnified Browne’s average at best ability to check down to a third or fourth option. With a first year head coach feeling the heat of an underperforming offense, Browne was the fall guy for the shortcomings of others.
Browne’s tenure has definitely not panned out the way many thought it would for this former 5-start recruit and nation’s #1 QB recruit…however, he needs to be ready. With Darnold likely to use his legs quite a bit, his chances for an injury will increase and Browne will be right back where he started and hopefully with a more seasoned/effective offense.
Desperate times call for desperate actions…expect some fireworks with the SC run offense in Utah: Though the Utah defensive front is one of the strongest in the conference, look for the Trojans to try and establish the running game early…just in a more spread-like approach. Lots of quick passes to receivers in the flat and read-option runs for Darnold. Adoree Jackson will be utilized on offense and don’t be surprised if you see Jalen Greene line-up for the Trojans in the wild-cat or throw the ball on a double pass or pitch play. Greene has an adequate arm and some practice observers feel the wide receiver would do very well as a QB in a read-option offense.
The offense will be simpler with Darnold leading the way: Some players have mentioned the offense will be more basic and run-oriented with Darnold. The more simplistic approach will be easier to defend but it could make the offense more effective and cut-down on the mental mistakes on the offensive side of the ball. .
Why SC is a good bet against Utah: This is an extremely important game for both the coaches and the players. Their backs are against the wall. If Helton has not lost this team and these players truly believe in him, they will play focused and ready to prove a point. They are more talented than Utah and if Sam Darnold is the “special” talent practice observers and scouts have raved about then the offense will receive the shot of adrenaline they sorely need. Utah does not have a strong offense and their QB Troy Williams is shaky at best. He has a solid arm but is susceptible to interceptions. He threw three vs. BYU. They also no longer have stud RB Devonte Booker to lean on.
Where it could go wrong for SC: If the offensive line continues to struggle and play undisciplined the Trojans won’t be able to do anything offensively even with Darnold’s mobility. Utah is very physical and had 10 sacks in their victory over San Jose State last week.
If SC puts together a disciplined performance on both sides of the ball, they should escape Utah with a victory and they have four straight winnable games on the horizon to help right the ship. However, a loss, especially if it is another undisciplined performance, could lead SC on the path to one of its worst seasons in school history.
Lynn Swann impresses: New athletic director Lynn Swann spoke for close to two hours in a Sports and Business class on campus. His charisma, enthusiasm and knowledge were well received by both students and those in attendance who have collage administrative backgrounds. He seemed very comfortable and provided a level of energy that was absent under the Haden regime. He appears to be the right fit to go with Steve Lopes extensive administration background to properly guide the athletic department. He will give Helton an opportunity to prove he is up for the job over the next year or two but he also comes across as a go-getter that will truly pursue a top-level coach if the Helton hire fails and President Max Nikkias allows it.
Gold Sheet prediction: The Gold Sheet has Utah defeating SC 26-19. They feel the Utah QB is blossoming into a good player and the SC offensive line will have too much trouble with Utah’s defensive front.
Special teams continues to impress…hats off to Coach Baxter: Special teams continued its solid play right out of the gate with a blocked punt deep in Utah State territory. Adoree’ Jackson had a 77 yard punt return for a TD and K Matt Boermeester hit six touchbacks on eight kickoffs. One of the quickest ways a team can improve its fortunes is through solid special teams play and in two games it is the Trojans most impressive unit. If the Trojans can keep the ball away from McCaffrey in the kicking game while creating another big play scoring opportunity, SC should be in position to pull off the upset.
Stanford solely focused on football: Stanford has yet to start classes. They are 7-1 in its last 8 games against teams that are enrolled in classes like USC. However, that loss was to SC in 2013…
Pro Scouts prediction: A scout/assistant from an AFC West team feels SC will be in the game into the second half but Stanford will probably pull away with a double digit victory. He feels SC will wear down in the interior and lack the discipline and interior line depth/talent needed to win this type of game.
However, he did feel that if SC can play disciplined and stick to the defensive game plan employed by Pendergast, they have the athletes on offense and are a solid enough pass blocking team to pull off the upset.
Pro Scout says don’t sleep on Stanford back-up RB: Stanford back-up RB Bryce Love was spectacular in camp. He was injured and did not play vs. Kansas State but expected to play tomorrow. Described by Stanford coaches as another “special back”. He could strike for a big play when McCaffrey is out of the game. . .
Gold Sheet Prediction: Stanford 30 vs. USC 17- Analysis: SC continues to have O-line issues and Troy’s defensive performance did not inspire much confidence in keeping Christian McCaffrey under control. Both teams are dealing with QB inexperience.
Spread movement: SC opened as a 6.5 point underdog and the spread has since grown to 9 points.
Fun Fact: Since 2010, the average margin of victory in the Stanford/SC match-up is 5.5 points.
Boy have things changed in ten years: Stanford has gone from being the worst team in the conference to a program that according to Clay Helton, SC is trying to emulate, with a Heisman contending running back, true toughness and dominant line play.
Advantage at QB/WR and upgraded defensive coordinator might give SC the chance to pull off the upset: Stanford QB Ryan Burns had a solid outing (14-18, 156 yards) against a decent Kansas State defense in Stanford’s opening week win. However, the SC defense should prove to be a stiffer test and new SC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast has had success against Stanford. He shut down a vaunted Stanford offense in a 13-10 victory in 2013 despite only using 12 players when he was the DC under Lane Kiffin.
From a passing game perspective, both Max Browne and Sam Darnold have played against the best defense in college football and have two games under their belt compared to Burns single game.
Also, Ju Ju Smith-Schuster is the ultimate competitor. Some scouts labeled him “over-rated” this week. Don’t be surprised if this phenomenal athlete has a big-time performance to prove a point. Also, SC offensive coordinator Tee Martin has been under fire for not targeting him more in the offense.
Why SC may lose by double digits: SC’s Offensive line vs. Stanford Defensive line: Despite losing defensive stud Blake Martinez, Stanford had 10 tackles for loss against Kansas State and only four teams playing against power 5 opponents have more tackles. This is a little scary considering SC ranks among the worst teams in the country when it comes go giving up tackles for losses. They’ve allowed 18 through two games and they weren’t all against Alabama. It was an even split, with nine to both Alabama and Utah State. The loss of C Toa Lobendahn doesn’t help matters but Stanford starting DL Harrison Phillips has been ruled out of the game with a knee injury.
It’s all about McCaffrey: The man who should have won the Heisman trophy last year, Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey, touched the ball on 58 percent of Stanford’s offensive plays vs. Kansas State. SC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast is well aware of this and for SC to have a shot on Saturday they will need to limit the touches of the NCAA’s season record holder for all-purpose yards. McCaffrey had 461 all-purpose yards in Stanford’s 41-22 victory over SC in the Pac-12 championship game last season.
Will LB Cameron Smith be the difference vs. McCaffrey- LB Cameron Smith was out with a torn ACL when SC played Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game. McCaffrey only rushed for 115 yards in the first match-up last season in which Smith played and SC lost 41-31…he ran for 207 yards in the Pac-12 championship and Stanford’s 19 point victory.
Clearing up a few comments made by JK McKay in an interview on ESPN radio: I want to stress that McKay made some very fair points in regards to SC’s struggles in terms of still dealing with the ramifications of the sanctions and of his support of Helton’s hire. McKay is a great Trojan and did a PHENOMENAL job as a mentor and father figure for many players while overseeing the football program.
However, his comment that most coaches did not want the job when they hired Sarkisian is not true. They didn’t conduct much of a search as Sarkisian was the administration’s top choice within weeks of the firing of Kiffin (some say within days) and quite a few top ranking coaches were aware of this. Coaches like Jack Del Rio, the now popular coach of the Raiders, wanted the job but was only given a courtesy interview.
Secondly, comparing Clay Helton in his first year to Nick Saban when he was at Michigan State is awkward at best. You can survive three to four years of mediocrity at Michigan State to build a program…you can’t do that at SC. Helton is a good coach and we all hope he is the next Nick Saban but getting your feet wet at a place like Michigan State is a lot different than at SC.
Entrance into the Coliseum for SC games needs to drastically improve: It was a very frustrating experience to enter the coliseum last Saturday. It took many people over 30+ minutes to enter the coliseum thanks to new security measures now that SC is playing in a professional stadium. With only about 45K to 50K fans attending the game, how long will it take when they draw 75K+?
They will need to open more gates for entry and create some type of system that doesn’t have thousands of people literally sandwiched together trying to enter the stadium. In this unfortunate world of terrorism that we live in, this mass of humanity in tight and unsecured quarters is an inviting and unprotected target.
First, the positives:
Special teams has improved: Despite a few moronic personal foul calls and one dropped punt (he had to punt all night though), the special teams unit was vastly improved and field goal kicker Matt Boermeester and punter Chris Tilbey look good.
SC should bounce back vs. Utah State: Coming off a 52-6 drubbing to #1 Alabama, SC is not in a position to look past a decent Utah State team. The worry earlier this year was that SC would be caught looking past Utah State with a big match-up at Stanford looming next week. However, those fears have subsided and the football program is looking to make a statement this week with a focused and disciplined effort.
It won’t be easy though…Utah State has earned a bowl bid in each of the past five years and last year they had a resounding victory over then top 20 Boise State (52-26) and played Utah (14-24) and Washington (17-31) tough. Their offense is improved and will look to establish a strong running game to test the thin SC defensive line. They ran for over 400 yards, including over 200 from the speedy Devante Mays in a victory over Weber State last week. They also boast a dual threat QB that SC usually has difficulty defending. However, SC’s defensive athleticism should be able to stifle the Utah State running attack and look for defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast to try and send a message the Alabama game was an aberration.
Defensively, the Aggies are mediocre at best and though they boast two potential NFL level corners, SC should be able to move the ball well. Expect SC to immediately look to establish a strong rushing attack and get the tight ends and Ju Ju Smith Schuster involved early and often. Scouts I have spoken to feel that SC will cover the 14 point spread unless the offensive line continues to disappoint and if that is the case, they could lose and it will be a very long season.
70+ players showed up to voluntary workout on a scheduled off-day: The captains of the football team organized a voluntary work-out on this week’s scheduled off-day and over 70 players participated.
Max Browne has a strong arm and should have a solid year if offensive line holds up: Though it was a rough overall outing for QB Max Browne, his arm strength and ability to throw a nice deep ball when the offensive line gave him time was evident. His arm is on another level compared to Cody Kessler. It will be interesting to see how he can throw in roll-out situations as SC definitely needs to add that aspect to the play calling with the offensive line struggling.
Now, the not so fun stuff:
Center Toa Lobdendahn out for the season with a torn ACL…explains some of offensive line problems against Alabama: One of SC’s best offensive lineman, Center Toa Lobendahn tore his ACL early in the game vs. Alabama. He finished the game with only one healthy leg. When you combine this with losing Tackle Chuma Odoga early in the game, and having an injured Chad Wheeler replace him, one can see why SC had so much difficulty against the best defensive line in the nation. It looks like SC will have to move former back-up Center Khalil Rogers back to his original position after shifting him to defensive line. The loss of Lobendahn is a significant and this will make two straight years he is out with an ACL tear (tore his other ACL last year).
Alabama has almost twice the football support staff of SC: I don’t know the exact numbers but quite a few sources have stated that Alabama’s support staff when it comes to recruiting, office support and outside analysts, dwarfs SC’s by almost 2 to 1…and now they are adding Steve Sarkisian to the mix in hopes to have him ready to take over as the OC once Lane Kiffin leaves for a head job. Despite its reputation as a big-time program, SC actually has a smaller support staff than many of the major blue-blood college football programs…
Clay Helton inherited a bad situation…a la Chris Peterson at Washington: When Chris Peterson was hired at Washington, I commented that Peterson was dismayed and told those close to him that he was shocked at the state of the program Sarkisian left behind. He told anyone that would listen it would be a three year process to right the ship in terms of the lack of discipline and structure in the program. Well, it is year three and Washington is currently ranked in the top 10…
I get the feeling that Helton is dealing with some of the same issues, but the problem for SC fans is that Helton doesn’t have the head coaching pedigree of Peterson, who was a candidate for the SC job when Sark was hired…
Three mediocre/puzzling coaching choices in four years catching up to SC: It is very difficult to create a consistent winning environment when the leadership of the program constantly changes, especially when the coaches hired have had a pretty short head coaching resume. Finding a top level/proven coach to run a major college football program is not easy and also expensive. They are a special/rare breed.
Frankly, SC was lucky that they stumbled upon Pete Carroll after the first few choices turned the university down. Clay Helton has a great football mind and is a good man that we all want to succeed. However, the worry from scouts and fellow coaches in the college football world from the day he was officially hired is that he doesn’t have the head coaching experience or swagger to have navigate SC back to an elite level. He was better off getting his feet wet at a place like Memphis before taking on this behemoth of a job.
Carol Skinner memoriam tid-bits:
*Pre-season All-American candidate, right tackle Zach Banner gave up 1 sack, 1 hit and 4 hurries vs. Alabama…he gave up only 1 sack, 2 hits and six hurries in all of 2016.
*The same person who was involved in the process of hiring Steve Sarkisian and stated at the time of the Sark hire “we made an amazing hire…you will be thanking us three years from now”. This person also feels that Helton is a “football genius” and the he will have SC winning 10 games in his third year...hmm….
*The Alabama game was the first time SC didn’t score a touchdown against an opponent since 1997.
*SC beat Utah State 17-13 in a nail biter in 2013.
*Top WR Ju Ju Smith-Schuster needs to catch the ball at least 6+ times a game and targeted at least 10 times for the SC offense to be successful. He had only 1 catch and targeted 5 times vs. Alabama.
*Fox Football analyst Joel Klatt recently tweeted about how bad the Pac-12 South has been recently: Colorado is 2-8 in last 10, ASU is 3-5 in last 8, SC is 0-3 in last 3, Arizona is 2-5 in last 7 and UCLA is 1-4 in last 5…
*The first 50,000 in attendance for 11 AM SC/Utah State kickoff will receive a Marcus Allen bobblehead doll.
The truth behind Max Browne being named the starting QB: Redshirt Junior Max Browne is a good quarterback. In fact, players have told me he is better than Cody Kessler and throws a pro level deep ball. However, from players, coaches and scouts, the words and statements that describe redshirt Freshman Sam Darnold are “Special”, “Different”, “Tim Tebow but with an arm”, “gamer”. When the decision was made to go with Max Browne as the starter vs. Alabama, Clay Helton asked the major assistant coaches for their opinion and the majority felt Darnold won the competition and gives them the best chance to win. However, along those lines, they wanted to reward Max Browne for his hard work in the program and he was deserving of this opportunity. They also did not want to lose Browne to a possible transfer situation in which he would be immediately eligible at another school since he has graduated. Matt Fink, the third string QB, is light-years behind both Browne and Darnold as if they lost Browne, they wouldn’t have a viable Pac-12 level back-up.
Clay Helton has known since the spring that he would go with Browne to start the season regardless of what the other coaches felt. He also wanted to show recruits that loyalty matters at USC. It was the right decision. If Browne responds well, he will be a 1st or 2nd round NFL prospect and Darnold will take over next season. If he struggles, it allows for Helton to transition in another direction after a tough slate of early games. That said, Darnold will see the field against Alabama and don’t be surprised if it is more than what Helton has stated in the media.
The major concern with Browne: Though Browne has improved his ability to read defenses, he still struggles with checking down to his secondary options. He tends to get happy feet and will rush his throws to secondary targets. As the coach who recruited him to SC, Lane Kiffin is well aware of this trait.
Don't expect much from the true freshman: Though SC had a solid recruiting class, I haven’t heard any scouts or observers mention standout performances like when Mike Williams, Dwayne Jarrett, Cameron Smith, etc walked on campus. The three main names that I have heard, but with some reservation in terms of readiness, are:
Defensive End Oluwole Betiku #99:He is a beast and his physical traits are amazing. He is raw but he will definitely rotate in on the thin defensive line. As his technique improves this season, his role should increase and the feeling is he will be a very solid player next year.
Wide Receiver Michael Pittman #6: Coaches love his work ethic and precise route running. The QB’s have developed a lot of trust in him. Enrolling early has paid big dividends and he is tied for second on the depth chart. He could be special and with an injury or two on the wide-out front, he could emerge with a Cameron Smith type year. He will also contribute on special teams.
Offensive Lineman E.J. Price #75: With Chad Wheeler injured, E.J. is now the back-up at left tackle and has done a solid job in camp. Not quite ready for the big-time and will struggle but if Wheeler doesn’t return, he will be forced into action. His long-term future looks good.
Others that might see the field- Defensive End Conner Murphy, Tight End Cary Angeline and Defensive Back Jack Jones
**If any other freshman see much playing time this year it will be due to injuries and not a welcome site to SC fans.
The return of the tight end: SC will finally utilize the solid talent they have recruited at tight end. This will be a key weapon if they are going to have any success against Alabama. #88 Daniel Imatorbhebhe, a 6’4 transfer from Florida who redshirted last year, is the real deal and can stretch the field like Dominique Byrd. His blocking is a little weak but returning TE’s Tyler Petite and Taylor McNamara are complete tight ends that block well and will provide good mid-range targets for Browne and Darnold.
Hopefully Clay listens to his younger brother: Tyson Helton is a well-regarded offensive game planner and is known for putting together innovative plays that maximize the personnel on the field. He was one of the most important additions to the new coaching staff. He thinks outside of the box and offers a completely different look to older brother Clay’s ground and pound approach. Hopefully they fuse the two styles together and open things up a bit. I have heard some rumblings about a wild-cat package with Darnold that is more of a passing option…Some innovation will be needed to counter Alabama’s defensive talent.
Keys to the Alabama game: You can read a basic analysis talking about players, etc anywhere on the internet (WeAreSC and USCtrojans.com provide plenty of in-depth analysis) so this season we are going to touch on a few key points for the upcoming game that really stand out:
Offensively, SC will need to try and get some sort of running game going but this is not a game that SC will win in the trenches by running to set up the pass. Sarkisian didn’t recruit smash mouth football players and Helton needs to adapt to the players he has. If SC’s offensive line and backs can protect Max Browne, they have to take plenty of shots down the field. SC’s only real advantage is against the Bama secondary and the speed at tight end against a Bama linebacker. Browne’s strength is the middle deep to deep ball. They need to let it fly in non-obvious pass situations. They also need to let Darnold throw some when Bama stacks the box to stop him as a runner. I am all for grinding it out against teams in which they have a physical advantage but that is not the case this week.
Defensively, this is going to come down to whether SC’s defensive line and blitz packages can force Bama to make its new starting QB have to make plays. If not, Kiffin and company will simply try to run for 300+yards on SC and just wear the defense down. Having Clancy Pendergast as defensive coordinator is a definite upgrade but it won’t matter if they can’t stop the run. Finally, Special Teams will need to make some plays to give the offense good field position. SC can’t afford to be pinned deep in Alabama territory as Helton will get conservative with play calling and Bama probably ends up with great field position after a 3 and out.
SC’s mis-management of the Osa Masina sexual assault investigation: With all of the recent and deserved media attention about the major problem this country is having with college sexual assault, most recently highlighted by the cover-up of sexual assaults by football players at Baylor University and a Stanford swimmer raping an unconscious woman, how can an institution as prestigious as SC not have the investigative knowledge and or connections to know that the situation with Osa Masina was at worst brutally alarming, and at best, a concocted story that still involves illegal drug and alcohol abuse?
Clay Helton and Lynn Swann should have been out in front of this and made a strong statement earlier this week that the University is suspending him from all team activities until they have more information. Allowing him to practice and participate in team activities when you had to have known some of the details would get out, is shameful.
Even if eventually cleared, these incidents clearly involve heavy drug and alcohol use and I am not saying you kick him out of school or even off the team since no charges have been filed…but it looks like a disturbing pattern is/was emerging with his behavior. Even if these incidents are found to be consensual, is this the type of individual you want representing SC?
If Clay Helton is the leader and disciplinarian necessary to return SC back to the glory days, he needs to take a firm stance on issues like this. In the face of a major epidemic on college campuses, SC needs to be a leader in the fight against this problem and not sit back and be a passive observer.
Carol Skinner Memorial Tid-Bits: *RB’s Ronald Jones and Justin Davis have both really improved as pass catchers and seeing them as potential options on short passes is something to keep an eye on. They also need to get Aca’Cedric Ware on the field. He has a real knack for shaking a tackler loose and getting to the second level.
*Alabama will play two QB’s vs. SC in the first half with Cooper Bateman probably getting the starting nod over Blake Bortels.
*OT Chad Wheeler will probably give it a go but it might be worth not playing him and getting him completely healthy for the Pac-12 schedule.
*Expect the offensive line to be pretty good with OL Coach Callaway leading the way. I am hearing OL Viane Talamaivao is turning into a big-time pro prospect.
*Everyone talks about how tough the early season is for SC but it is the final four games (Oregon, Washington, UCLA and Notre Dame) that is the most daunting.
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