The Skinny on SC Sports

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What the informed Trojan fan should know

12/1/17

The final exam- The consistently inconsistent Trojans will face a Stanford team that has improved tremendously while having revenge on their mind since SC’s 42-24 destruction of the Cardinal at the Coliseum in September. The Cardinal have upgraded at quarterback with redshirt freshman K.J. Costello and junior running back Bryce Love (90.8 Pro Football Focus rating) is having an All-American type season.  The Cardinal defense is much better against the run and will not give up over 300 yards on the ground like they did in the first meeting.  SC will have to play disciplined football to prove worthy of finishing the season ranked in the top 10.

Keys to a Trojan Victory:

A Pac-12 championship rests on Sam Darnold’s shoulders- Though SC should have some success running the ball, Stanford is playing at a much higher level than when the teams originally met and defending the run much more efficiently.  Darnold will need to make some big plays. His best performance of the season was against Stanford (21-26, 308 yards, 4 TD’s/2 INT’s- 97.3 adjusted QBR), and he will need to match/exceed that for SC to come away with the victory.  The Cardinal have one of the best defensive backfields in the conference and he will need to stay away from a multiple interception game while making some plays with his feet.  The Trojan passing game should be in good form with the growth of Tyler Vaughns and Michael Pittman to compliment the ever steady Deontay Burnett and a healthy set of tight ends.

Limit turnovers and penalties- Stanford is #1 in the Pac-12 with a turnover margin of +14.  SC has struggled away from the coliseum with multiple turnovers and they will have to avoid that.  Stanford will also look to bait SC into penalties with the SC averaging a whopping 10.3 penalties per game in their last four contests.

3rd and 4th down efficiency- The Trojans have struggled in this area recently and with Stanford focused on limiting SC’s big play ability, driving the ball consistently and converting on short-yardage 3rd and 4th down plays will determine the success of the offense.  This was a priority at practice this week.

Defensive secondary has to play better- K.J. Costello gives Stanford a vertical threat they did not have when the two teams met earlier this season.  On passes 20+ yards downfield, Costello is 13/26 with 4 touchdowns and 135.4 passer rating.  Cornerbacks Inman Marshall and Jack Jones have been disappointing lately (see Marshall’s startling below average Pro Football Focus rating later in the report) and Stanford will look to challenge and frustrate them.   Making tackles in the open field against Love will also be extremely important to help limit his big-play capabilities.

**Check out Tom Haire’s in-depth preview of the Pac-12 championship via trojanfootball.com

Geller’s Pac-12 Championship Take- Different game this time around- When the Trojans took on the Cardinal at the Coliseum back in week 2, the game plan was take away Bryce Love since Stanford’s quarterback play was underwhelming with Keller Chryst.  This time around it will be different.  After an abysmal offensive performance against lowly Oregon State, David Shaw made the decision to handover the offense redshirt freshman quarterback K.J. Costello. In Costello’s four starts, he has only had one game with a passer rating less than 120: Washington State, a team known for blitzing opponents heavily, this year. It is clear that he can manage a game and make some incredible throws—see performance against Notre Dame—but it should also be noted that he is much less effective under pressure. Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast and the USC defense will need to dial up a number of blitz packages against Stanford, or Costello could torch a Trojan secondary that has struggled as of late. If they can apply pressure, the Trojans will have a higher chance to win the Pac 12 title game. -Austin Geller is a senior at St. Monica Catholic High School and has interned for uscfootball.com

The real reason why Chip Kelly is a great hire for UCLA- Though his accomplishments at the collegiate level make this look like a home-run hire for UCLA, the key to this hire is they now have an extremely bright and completely focused leader who truly only cares about being a trendsetter when it comes to  developing an elite program.  People close to Kelly and even his ex-wife, will tell you that nothing personally will get in the way of his football pursuits and his failure in the NFL will only fuel that fire. He is a grinder who doesn’t have a family to worry about (Jim Mora’s divorce was a contributing factor to UCLA’s struggles and Jimbo Fisher is going through similar trials at FSU).  Kelly is also in the process of hiring an elite staff that will most likely include ace recruiter Ken Norton Jr. who was just let go as the Oakland Raiders defensive coordinator and Jerry Azzinaro (highly regarded Cal defesnive line coach). One of the major knocks on Mora was that his overall coaching staff was considered weak outside of new offensive coordinator Jeff Fisch and Cornerbacks coach Demetrice Martin.

Why UCLA hiring Kelly is not a bad thing for USC- Great competitors want to beat their rival at its best.  This will make SC work harder in every area of the program to maintain their elite status while also raising the sinking profile of the Pac-12 on a national level.  Expect SC to look at upgrading the coaching staff and the athletic department will have more administrative pressure to provide the program resources Clay Helton has been pushing for, and in some cases denied, when it comes to recruiting and staffing.  Also, as long as SC maintains their identity as a pro-style program, they should have a bigger edge when it comes to recruiting top pro-style quarterbacks and wide receivers.  Josh Rosen probably doesn’t end up at UCLA under Chip Kelly.  Also, current defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast has done well schematically against fast type read/options offenses.

Tee Martin to Tennessee?- We have heard unsubstantiated stories that Tennessee was in contact with  Tee Martin and his agent as early as Sunday evening after Tennessee backed out of hiring Greg Schiano. Martin’s contact was through his old head coach Phillip Fulmer, who was just named the new athletic director.  Though Tennesee spoke to multiple coaches this week, I get the sense that Tee Martin may have always been the guy they wanted after the Schiano fiasco.  Martin quarterbacked Tennessee to their last national championship and despite not having any head coaching experience, he is recognized as a potential future star in the coaching world and would be considered an acceptable hire.  At USC’s request, even if an agreement was reached, it would be kept top secret until after the Pac-12 championship game.  The timing of Clay Helton’s extremely appreciative and extremely complimentary statement about how great of a head coach Tee Martin will be was also interesting as SC heads into a championship game.

Further coaching staff rumors- As we have stated the past few weeks, rumors of coaching changes within the program continue to gain steam.  Even if Martin does not get the head job at Tennessee, he will be heavily recruited as an offensive coordinator and his frustration with the lack of full play-calling responsibilities may lead him to another job, especially if Sam Darnold enters the NFL draft.  Martin is well-liked within the administration and with several boosters so it will be interesting to see how that plays out.  Offensive line coach Neil Callaway and Defensive backs coach Ronnie Bradford are said to be intrigued about other opportunities and some believe that defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast might try and get back to the NFL if an opportunity presents itself.  Current UCLA offensive coordinator and interim head coach Jedd Fisch would probably be a strong candidate to join the offensive staff should Martin leave.

How Trojans have graded out via Pro Football Focus this season- Here is a quick look at SC’s top performers and disappointments when it comes to being graded on every snap this season.

Grades 85 or higher are considered NFL ready, 80-84 are very good while grades 50-60 are below average and below 50 is poor. Running Back Ronald Jones II- 91.2 (2nd in the country); WR Deontay Burnett- 87.5; OLB Uchenna Nwosu 85.9; OT Chuma Edoga 84.7; S Chris Hawkins 83.4; WR Tyler Vaughns 82.5; OG Chris Brown 82.5; LB Cameron Smith 81.2; WR Steven Mitchell 80.2; OT Toa Lobendhan 80.0 QB Sam Darnold79.9 (was over 90 last season)—The most disappointing grades this season- TE Daniel Imatorbhebhe 49.8 (though very limited snaps); OLB Jordan Iosefa 48.4; CB Inman “Biggie” Marshall 47.7.

Betting info- SC opened as a 2-5 point favorite and it quickly jumped to 3.5 points.  Stanford has won eight of its last nine and is 5-6-1 against the spread (ATS) on the season.  SC is 3-8 ATS on the season.  In their last ten neutral site games, Stanford is 8-2 ATS while SC is 0-5 ATS in their last five played at a neutral site.  The North division has beaten the South in all six previous Pac-12 title games, and there have been four rematches with the team that won the first game prevailing three times…Ironically, Stanford is the team that prevailed in all those season sweeps.  The total is 58.5 and the under is 7-0 after a straight-up win by the Cardinal. The over has hit in five of the last six SC games.

Quick-Hitters-

*This is the 16th time in SC football history they have recorded back-to-back 10 win seasons.  They were also unbeaten in the Coliseum for a second straight year…not a bad way for Clay Helton to begin his coaching tenure at SC.

*Freshman tailback Stephen Carr is finally 100% and will be incorporated back into the offense like he was prior to his foot injury. He has looked fantastic this week with several big plays in scrimmage situations.

*Will we see Carr and Ronald Jones in the backfield at the same time? A few of these scenarios popped up in practice and led to some intriguing possibilities.

*Offensive lineman felt lost against the new defensive scheme that UCLA presented and some openly complained as to why the coaching staff didn’t anticipate changes.

*Guard Viane Talamaivao and outside linebacker Porter Gustin are the only starters who played in the first game that will be unavailable for the rematch.

*November has been a rough month for Pac-12 teams coming off a bye- Washington State got blown out by Washington after their bye and Colorado was destroyed by Utah.  The only team in November to win coming off a bye was Oregon.

Basketball Note- SC was physically outmatched by a very good Texas A&M team (Great 8 level) in a 75-59 loss at the Galen Center this past Sunday.  The Trojans only shot 4-24 from 3-point range and much of that can be attributed to the coaching staff admittedly running the players too much after the Thanksgiving holiday.  The good news for Trojan fans is that as bad as they played on Sunday (shooting 28% from the field), they were still in the game with 8:00 minutes left and that is without D’Anthony Melton who should be eligible by conference play.  Sophomore forward Nick Rakocevic has greatly improved and played the best of any Trojan (11 points/7 rebounds in 20 minutes) against an Aggie frontline that is one of the best in the nation.  His development is critical since the Trojans weakness is on the interior and rebounding the ball.  The next two games at SMU (12/2 7pm ESPNU) and Oklahoma (12/8 7:30 @ Staples Center) are critical for SC and the Pac-12 which looks like it might only get three teams into the NCAA tournament based on the conferences poor play thus far.

Carol Skinner Memorial Tid-Bit- USC is undefeated in games in which Ronald Jones II carries the ball 15 or more times.

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11/17/17

Concern internally when SC looks ahead to the 2018 season- Some within the program have expressed some serious concern about the Trojans prospects for a strong season next year, especially if Sam Darnold departs for the NFL.  Though the Trojans are having success physically beating up the Pac-12, rather strong opinions have been expressed regarding the team’s ability to stand up to the physicality of top teams in other Power 5 conferences.  The team was beat up both physically and mentally at a much higher level than any other time this year after games against Texas and Notre Dame.  It has been suggested that SC’s strength and conditioning program needs to be revamped and they need to find more recruits that fit the Porter Gustin mold when it comes to toughness.

Both the offensive and defensive lines have good young talent but the concern is whether they have the mentality to be great.  We will find out quickly next season if SC has made progress in this area.   After a home game with UNLV to start the season, SC plays a brutal four game stretch that includes three road games with teams that will probably be in the top 25 (Stanford, Texas and Arizona) with another one of those ridiculous Friday night games at home with a Washington State team that will be well rested after playing two home games against non-power 5 schools.  The Trojans will have a bye and only one set of back-to-back road games but a potential 2-3 start is possible.

Speaking of 2018…expect a few graduate transfers to bolster the roster:  Earlier this year I stated that SC will be in the running to land a significant graduate transfer QB provided Sam Darnold goes pro.  The wheels have been in motion on this since the summer and it is still expected to happen but an injury to this talent has created some concern.  SC will also look to bolster the defensive line with an experienced player like Stevie Tu’ikolovato who transferred from Utah and played a significant role in the 2016 campaign.

Biggie will be back- Cornerback Inman “Biggie” Marshall is expected to play vs. UCLA and will split time with Isiah Langley who has performed well in Biggie’s absence.

Why UCLA could pull off the upset- Rivalry games bring out the best in the underdog, especially when the schools are 13 miles apart and a head coach’s job could be on the line.  The Bruins showed some serious fight last week with their victory over Arizona State after falling behind 14-0.  A team that had given up on the season and its coach would not have come back to win that game.  The Trojans are also consistently inconsistent and unexpected turnovers combined with undisciplined penalties will even out the enormous advantage SC’s offense has against UCLA’s defense.  When you combine that with UCLA having one of the best NFL prospects at quarterback in Josh Rosen, who has UCLA ranked 8th nationally in passing offense (333 ypg) and 26th in scoring offense (35.2ppg), UCLA definitely has a chance to make this a season defining victory. Should SC have to pass more in a game of catch-up, UCLA’s only strength defensively is their pass defense which ranks 34th nationally.

Why SC could blow out UCLA-  The Bruins have one of the worst defenses the Trojans will face all year ranking dead last in the nation in rush defense (over 300 yards a game!), 123rd in total defense(499 ypg) and 122nd in scoring defense (38.6 ppg).  The Trojans have made it their identity to be a run first team and if UCLA cannot step up and stop the run, SC should be able to run for 300+ yards while opening up the passing game for Sam Darnold who is playing his best football of the season right now.  The Trojans rank 1st in the Pac-12 in pressuring the quarterback and should be able to make things uncomfortable for Josh Rosen who will be without his top two receiving targets in tight end Caleb Wilson and receiver Darren Andrews who are out with injuries. UCLA has a massive mountain to climb to pull off the upset and if SC doesn’t help them out with turnovers and penalties, SC should pull away rather easily in the second half.

Here is a link to Tom Haire’s in-depth analysis of the USC vs. UCLA game.  Tom writes for uscfootball.com and does a great job of covering all the angles.

Ronald Jones II is a special athlete having a banner year- Junior Ronald Jones II continues to prove why he will be picked in the first few rounds of the NFL draft.  His athleticism is off the charts with USC track coach Caryl Smith Gilbert stating he would be a world class sprinter if he was focused on track. In his only appearance with the track team in 2015, he ran the third leg of the victorious 400-meter relay in the UCLA dual meet in which the quartet clocked 39.89 seconds.  He currently ranks 6th in school history with 3,293 yards and is only 430 yards away from finishing #3 on the all-time list. This is extremely impressive in an era where running backs tend to split carries and passing is more prolific.  His rare combination of top-end speed and the power to gain yards after contact will be missed next season, even with a talent like Stephen Carr ready to take over.  Despite missing the Cal game and being held to just 32 yards on 12 carries at Notre Dame in which SC fell behind early and abandoned the run game, Jones II has already rushed for 1,224 yards and 14 touchdowns.  In the last three games, he has averaged 184 yards rushing on 23 carries and could easily run for well over 200 yards this week against the Bruins. Enjoy his last few games as a Trojan!

Geller’s Take- Stephen Carr is ready to roll- Though Ronald Jones will be the featured back and should have a big game against the porous UCLA run defense, it is pivotal that Stephen Carr works his way back into the offense. After suffering an injury in the loss to Washington State earlier in the season, Carr has been sidelined and severely limited. He and the coaches now say he is 100% healthy, and look for one of SC’s most explosive threats to get back into the flow.  Carr's pass catching abilities should lead to huge chunks of yardage against the Bruins. This is the last game before the Pac-12 Championship next Friday and this will be Carr’s last opportunity to shake off the rust before the conference championship game in which he will likely play a key role. *Austin Geller is a senior at St. Monica Catholic High School and intern for uscfootball.com.

Basketball note- Melton expected to be cleared by conference play- The 10th ranked men’s basketball team, which already appears to be one of the most athletic in school history, could get its best all-around players back by the start of conference play.  Multiple sources close to the program have stated that the schools own thorough investigation led by former FBI director Louis Freeh, has yet to find any evidence that directly links Melton or his family to any wrongdoing in the Tony Bland case.

Cam McDonald de-commitment was expected-  Long Beach Poly Tight-End Cam McDonald, a heavily recruited four-star athlete,  made headlines this week by de-committing from the Trojans.  Though this seemed like bad news, especially after losing tight end Cary Angeline early this year, the coaching staff welcomed the news.  McDonald’s original commitment to the Trojans caught the staff by surprise and as they have gotten to know him, he never seemed to be the right fit at SC.  Plus, the Trojans are really happy with the development of freshman Josh Falo and think they have an outside chance of flipping four star Mustapha Muhammad who has verballed to Michigan. Apparently he had a great unofficial visit with SC but soured on the Trojans after the commitment of McDonald.

Betting Info- SC is currently a 16 point favorite.  The over/under is 71.5.  SC is 3-0 in their last three against the spread and 4-7 ATS on the year.  UCLA is 3-7 ATS and have not covered on the road all season, losing their last four road games by an average of 23 points.   The under is 9-2 in the last 11 games between the schools but the score has gone over in seven of the last ten UCLA games and four of SC’s last five games.

Quick-hitters:

*With Rosen’s favorite target, Darren Andrews out with an injury, receiver Jordan Lasley will be Rosen’s top target.  Despite missing three games, he has 30 catches on the season for 705 yards and four TD’s.  He had seven catches for 162 yards and a TD against Arizona State last week.

*UCLA offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch is well-respected in the coaching world and will be a head coach sooner rather than later…he will dial up a great offensive game plan for the Bruins.

*SC might finally show off some special teams magic with UCLA’s punt and kick-off return defenses ranking 96th and 111th nationally.

*SC is 7 for 20 on 4th down tries this season, ranking 115th in the nation…maybe it’s time to take a direct snap on 4th and short and not telegraph the dive up the middle out of the shotgun?

*UCLA is just 6-25 on third down in the past two seasons against the Trojans.

Carol Skinner Memorial tid-bit- In the Trojans recent three game win-streak, the Trojans only turned the ball over twice. Before then, SC had turned the ball over at least two times in every game.

11/10/17

*The SC defense did a masterful job of containing Khalil Tate for 2.5 quarters Saturday.  A great defensive scheme that was performed well across the board, until they lost their way late in the third quarter.  Arizona only averaged 2.9 yards per play on their first eight drives. It takes an extremely focused effort to contain an exceptional running quarterback like Tate, and with the third quarter taking over 1 hour and 15 minutes with multiple penalties and booth reviews, it inevitably led to the young defense not being able to maintain their focus.  The game completely lost its rhythm and when a player like Tate gets going, it is extremely difficult to stop his momentum.  Fortunately, he made an ill-advised throw late that allowed SC to pull away in a game that should have never been that close in the first place.

*SC had five sacks vs. Arizona…Arizona had only allowed five sacks all season.  SC blitzed on passing downs 53% of the time, its second highest frequency on the season.  They average 37% on the season. SC will most likely dial back the blitz frequency to normal levels as they face pocket style quarterbacks in the next two games.

*Play of the game- Ronald Jones III making an over the shoulder catch on a flawless Sam Darnold throw on the run in the fourth quarter when the game was tied and momentum had shifted to Arizona. . .Jones has improved his pass catching ability tremendously since arriving on campus. This play is indicative of why both should have solid NFL careers ahead of them.

*Continuing to hear the coaching staff will definitely have some changes heading into next year.  Most the chatter centers around offensive coordinator Tee Martin having frustrations with how play-calling is handled on gameday and Neil Callaway prefers to coach in the South.  Martin will also be a prime head coaching candidate for low to mid-level Power 5 jobs.

*SC has run the ball for over 300 yards two weeks in a row and will look to continue that streak against both Colorado and UCLA.  Helton strongly feels the Trojans are a much better team overall when running the ball 60% of the time.

*Look for freshman running back Stephen Carr’s role to increase quite a bit this week versus Colorado.  Carr shook off some rust in limited action last week vs. Arizona and has had a very good week of practice.  It should be a successful day for him since Colorado gives up about 200 yards per game on the ground.

*SC is 6/17 on fourth down this season, ranking 111th in the nation.  With all of SC’s weapons, especially an elusive QB, it is surprising to see how many times they telegraph running up the middle in those situations.

*Defensive end Christian Rector is a game-time decision (broken hand) but we are hearing he should see limited action. Despite missing the past two games, his 6.5 sacks is second most in the Pac-12 behind Rasheem Green who has 7.

*Colorado is better than their record (5-5) and are well-coached.  SC has not had a great week of practice and some observers have voiced concerns about this being an ultimate trap game with SC coming off a big victory over Arizona and facing crosstown rival UCLA next week.  Colorado running back Phillip Lindsay, the school’s all-purpose yardage leader is third in the conference in rushing (1,344 yards) and QB Steven Montez is solid with 2,404 yards and 16 TD’s against 7 interceptions, lead the way for an above average offense.  They have a solid group of receivers led by Shay Fields and have been in every game they have played.  They were up 10 in the 4th quarter on ASU last week before they had some major defensive breakdowns. Colorado had enough offense and quality coaching to pull off the victory.  However, they have one of the worst defenses in the Pac-12 and as long as SC does not turn the ball over multiple times, they should get out of Boulder with a solid win.

*Colorado will have an advantage in the kicking game with SC placekicker Chase McGrath nursing a groin injury which will not allow him to kick long field goals.  Colorado freshman James Stefanou is 16/18 on field goals and 31/31 on PAT’s.

*Here is Tom Haire’s in-depth preview of the Colorado game via usctrojans.com.

*Should SC win the next three games and finish within striking range of the College Football playoff, not scoring from the two yard line in four offensive plays, which would have given them a commanding lead at Washington State, will sting even more.

*Some of the SC fan base has been highly critical of Clay Helton and in their defense, the team has fallen short of pre-season expectations.   However, it is important to keep in mind the following- Since he took over in 2014, he is 24-9 and 18-5 since 2016...only a handful of college coaches can lay claim to that type of record.

*Basketball tickets were sent out late last week and they featured a picture of every major returning player…except one of the best players in D’Anthony Melton. It is definitely looking like we won’t see this future NBA player suit up again for the Trojans.  Hope we are wrong but it is definitely not looking good. However, Duke transfer Derryck Thornton, a former five star recruit, has looked very good lately and should do a good job of filling the void. He also provides SC with a legitimate second point guard with Jordan McLaughlin.  When SC employed a two point guard system with Julian Jacobs two years ago, they were extremely effective.

*The basketball team looked much better against University of San Francisco in a closed door scrimmage last week and kept it going against Cal State Fullerton with Chimeze Metu, Bennie Boatright, Jordan Mclaughlin and Derryk Thornton leading the way in an 84-42 blowout of Cal State Fullerton

*One thing to remember in terms of the FBI investigation of Assistant Tony Bland.  The FBI is not accusing the University of any wrong-doing and have even stated the University may have been defrauded and damaged by his actions.  This type of language may help SC avoid any significant issues with the NCAA as long as the players in question did not receive benefits with the premise of attending USC and the university can prove nobody had any knowledge of Bland’s actions.

*Unless both USC and UCLA lose this weekend, a source confirmed with me that ESPN/ABC plans on taking the USC vs. UCLA game in the 5pm slot.  It could also be moved to 12:30pm but that is the current plan.

*Sam Darnold’s 15.6 yards per completion were a career high. He completed a pass of at least 10 yards to nine different receivers. However, he has at least one turnover in 11 consecutive games.

*Betting Guide- SC opened up as a 10.5 point favorite and the line jumped to 13.5 points.  Both teams have been a disappointment from a betting perspective and are just 3-7 against the spread.  The over/under is 63.5. SC is 1-4 against the spread “ATS” in its last five road games and Colorado has the same record in its last five ATS at home.  The total has gone over for both teams in four of their past five games.

Carol Skinner Memorial Tid-Bit- Linebacker Cameron Smith is one of nine finalists for the Lott trophy.

11/3/17

Helton delivers again under pressure- The Trojan nation was not happy last week about the Trojans underwhelming season after the blow-out loss to Notre Dame.  When you couple that with strong rumors of coaching staff hostility and player frustrations leaking out into the media, the SC football team looked like it was headed toward a loss against the surging Sun Devils.  However, Helton, in his trademark calm demeanor, circled the wagons late in the week and got everyone on the same page after meeting with defensive back Chris Hawkins as well as members of the offensive coaching staff.  Everyone in the locker room stepped up and whether you think Helton is ultimately the right person to lead the program or not, he deserves credit for righting the ship under difficult circumstances.

Helton Part II- It is not all positive though.  Linebacker Porter Gustin is out for the Arizona game after supposedly re-injuring his fractured toe.  The ASU game was his first game back after barely practicing for six weeks and as we noted last week, he was set to only play 15-20 snaps.  He ended up playing 37 snaps and into the fourth quarter of a blowout.  Would Gustin, who is one of SC’s best defensive players, be available for this pivotal match-up with Arizona and its multi-dimensional QB Khalil Tate had he stuck to just playing 20 snaps?  Gustin has an extremely high pain tolerance and is the toughest guy on the team to shut down but that is not an excuse for not sticking to the original plan.

The greatness of Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate- One of the biggest determining factors in Saturday night’s match-up will be the Trojans ability to contain the multi-dimensional Heisman candidate.  In the last four games since taking over as the starting quarterback for the Wildcats, Tate has rushed for 840 yards and eight touchdowns (210 yards per game) and thrown for 743 yards and six touchdowns.  He ranks third in the nation in rushing yards…as a quarterback! He has only thrown two interceptions while completing 70.7% of his passes.  Tate has been named the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week four consecutive times, the first time in Pac-12 history. Notre Dame QB Brandon Wimbush rushed for over 100 yards against the Trojans and he is not as dynamic as Tate.  Side-note- Tate faced the Trojans in his first collegiate start last year and had 72 yards rushing and 58 yards passing in 2/3 of the game. The Trojans won 48-14.

Geller’s Take- Iosefa and Houston are the next men up- Khalil Tate may be as good as an all-purpose quarterback USC has faced since Marcus Mariota of Oregon back in 2014. It is hugely important the Trojans keep him inside the pocket, and force him to beat them with his arm. Without Porter Gustin, Sophomore Jordan Iosefa and Junior John Houston will fill in at outside linebacker and if they are able to consistently make open field tackles against Tate, and limit his scrambling, the Trojans will claim a commanding lead in the Pac-12 South race. –Austin Geller is a senior at St. Monica Catholic High School and an intern with usctrojans.com.

Tate is great but is Arizona really that good? – Arizona has deservedly been the talk of the PAC-12 since QB sensation Khalil Tate has burst onto the scene. Arizona has won four straight despite being considered a pre-season favorite for the basement of the Pac-12 south standings, and they riding a ton of momentum into the coliseum, but are they a true title contender?  They barely beat a mid-level Cal team in double overtime, beat a below average Colorado team by 3 and beat an over-rated Washington State team by 17 points, with 21 points coming off 4 Cougar turnovers (2 interceptions were in the Cougars red zone).

Keys to a Trojan victory- #1- Limit turnovers and untimely penalties- SC played a clean game against ASU and looked like a championship level team, despite playing the second leg of a back-to-back road trip.  SC ranks 119th nationally in turnover rate (17.1% of drives result in a giveaway) and is still 7-2. If SC just ranked around average nationally in turnover rate, they would be 8-1 and the loss to Notre Dame would not have been as big of a blowout and the complexion of that game could have been totally different.

2- Limit Arizona’s big plays- The wildcats lead the country with 36 plays of at least 30 yards this season.  The mistake opponents have made against Tate is they are loading the box with defenders and exposing the secondary. This allows Tate or the running back to make a big-time run if they get through the line of scrimmage and it also allows Tate to make throws against a barren secondary.  The key will be to shadow Tate and rely on the SC defensive line, which is better than any of the lines Arizona has faced on their current win streak.  Make Arizona prove they can consistently score touchdowns in the red-zone.  Washington State gave up three touchdowns on plays 30 yards or longer and Cal gave up four touchdowns of 25 yards or longer against the Wildcats.

3- Establish the running game early- Though Arizona just gave up almost 600 yards of passing against Washington State last week, the key for the Trojans will be to get the running game established behind Ronald Jones II and Stephen Carr, who will see his first action since injuring his foot against Washington State.  Establishing a strong run game will allow SC to win the time of possession battle (wear down a young Arizona defense) and force Arizona to blitz more often from the secondary allowing bigger passing lanes for Darnold to torch the Wildcat secondary.  The Arizona secondary is known to give up big plays (last in the Pac-12) but also has 14 interceptions on the year, so SC wants to avoid too many obvious passing situations.

Arizona’s opponents have been held to three-and-outs just 25.3% of the time and opposing offenses score a touchdown 56.5% of the time when they achieve at least one first down on a drive and SC achieves a first down on 79% of its drives. Meaning, SC should have a ton of offensive success.

For a great preview of the game, check out Tom Haire’s in-depth article from usctrojans.com -

Pac-12 has a hard time getting it right-  The best game in the Pac-12 this weekend is SC vs. Arizona, which features two top 25 teams, a divisional race hanging in the balance, the hottest player in college football (Tate) and a traditional power in the Trojans.  Yet, the game will kick off at 10:45pm on the east coast.  The networks have a certain order in how they choose the games but this is where Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott has to step up and make sure this game is played nationally at a more reasonable time.  Should Khalil Tate have another break-out performance, his talent deserves to be seen nationally and launch him as a bonafide Heisman contender.  If the Trojans shut him down, it should be a showcase moment to help erase the lasting national memory of the Notre Dame beat-down and create conference momentum heading into the championship game.  Instead, with SC’s last two games kicking-off at 10:45pm on the east coast and the Colorado game set for the Pac-12 network and UCLA struggling, SC will not have a significant national audience until the Pac-12 championship game.

Basketball ranked 10th in the AP but…looks like Melton is out?- This is the highest the Trojans have been ranked in the pre-season Associated Press poll since the 1974-75 season.  However, SC had a closed-door scrimmage against a young San Diego State team featuring a new head coach, and SC got hammered 98-76 according to the San Diego Union Tribune.  SDSU is picked to finish sixth in the Mountain West conference while SC is slated to finish second in the Pac-12.

It was just a scrimmage and Enfield was looking at a lot of different combinations, but this has raised some serious red flags with some close to the program for two reasons.  One, potential NBA first round pick and SC’s most complete player, D’Anthony Metlon did not play as he is rumored to be tied to the FBI bribery investigation of former assistant Tony Bland.  Though SC’s roster is loaded, a player like Melton is irreplaceable.  Secondly, the distraction of the FBI investigation and losing a talented assistant in Bland might be wearing on the team more than it appears.  Hopefully for Trojan hoops fans, Melton will be cleared of any wrongdoing in the same way Louisville’s Brian Bowen was.

Quick-hitters- Arizona

*They are 3-0 on the road in Pac-12 play and #5 in the country as a rushing offense averaging 338 yards per game.  They are one spot above Notre Dame which ran for nearly 400 yards on the Trojans.  The Wildcats also rank 5th in country in sacks allowed only giving up five all year.

*The defense rank 108th in the country and second to last in the Pac-12 in yards allowed (449).  Arizona’s las five opponents have averaged just under 37 points per game.

*The Wildcats rank 6th in the nation in both punt return average and kickoff return average.

*Talk about a youth movement…The roster features 61 true and redshirt freshman.

USC-

*SC currently has a 14-game home winning streak, third nationally behind Navy’s 17 and Alabama’s 16.

*13 starters from the season opener have missed at least one game.

*Former stud wideout JuJu Smith-Shuster was the sixth receiver taken in the 2017 NFL draft.  His 424 yards receiving for the Pittsburgh Steelers is more than the five receivers taken before him…combined!  Easy to see why Sam Darnold has struggled a bit this season without having a talent like that as a consistent target.

*USC will be honoring its latest Hall of Fame class at halftime- Chris Claiborne, Troy Polamalu, J.K. McKay, Troy Polamalu, April Ross and long-time Sports Information Director Tim Tessalone headline the class.

Betting info-  The Trojans are 7.5 point favorites and are just 2-7 against the spread (ATS).  Arizona 5-3 ATS and the total has gone over in four of Arizona’s last six games.  The over/under is a mighty 76.5.  In their last nine road games, the Wildcats have gone 2-7 ATS, but they are 4-2 ATS in their last six road games at USC. The total in eight of the last 11 games between these teams has been under.

Carol Skinner Memorial tid-bit- SC is 11-0 in Ronald Jones II career when he has at least 18 carries.

10/27/17

Clay Helton is experiencing some “second-year blues” with the coaching staff- The honeymoon phase is over and tension between some coaches and differing philosophies has reared its head.  This is somewhat expected considering this is Clay Helton’s first rodeo as a head coach.  Regardless of how the season ends up, expect some changes to the coaching staff, especially on the offensive side of the ball, where some discontent has already leaked to the media.

Helton Part II- Clay Helton is well-liked by the administration and most of the players appreciate his no none-sense/calm approach.  He will be given every opportunity to build a championship program despite what you may read online. Unless the wheels fall completely off the bus, Helton will be evaluated after three years.  The time period will provide a fair assessment of where the program stands and it also financially makes sense when it comes to Helton’s contract.

Athletic Director Lynn Swann is not part of the long-standing SC athletic administration-  If the day comes in which he leads the search for a new coach, the sense around campus is that it will have a much different feel then the past three hires.

Fall camp was an early preview of the turnover issues that plague SC- Turnovers have been a big problem for the Trojans, especially when it comes to Sam Darnold. In the past three weeks, Darnold has committed five fumbles on top of throwing two interceptions.  If you look back at fall camp, Darnold had issues with consistently turning the ball over.  The excuse of young receivers and a solid defense was used. Unfortunately, this was a precursor of things to come.  Last season, Darnold threw only one interception during fall camp and threw just nine all season.  Interestingly, Matt Barkley threw a lot of interceptions in the fall camp of 2012 on his way to 15 for the season…he threw only 7 in 2011 when he threw hardly any in camp.

Pac-12 is going to continue to fall behind other Power 5 conferences- According to Jon Wilner of the Bay Area News group, who has a very informative blog about the Pac-12, he projects each conference school in the Big Ten will get $51.1 million next year from all broadcast revenues. Each SEC school will get $45 million while each Pac-12 school will get about $32.5 million. Over the next five years, that’s a $95 million deficit for each Pac-12 school against a comparable Big Ten school.

Wilner Part II- According to Wilner, every Pac-12 school that has played back-to-back road games with the second being on a shortened week, has lost.  It is an 0-5 mark over the past two seasons.  Only one Pac-12 team has had to do it twice- USC…speaking of which…

Back-to-Back road games are brutally hard to win…especially after flying across the country-  The Pac-12 did everything it could to handicap SC this season when it came to the schedule.  It is extremely difficult for a college football team to play well in back-to-back road games.  The season is already a physical and emotional grind and adding two straight games of traveling, twice in one season, and without a BYE is ridiculous.  SC was already tripped up with a loss at Washington State in which they played very poorly after traveling to Cal the week before.  Now, they just traveled to Chicago and took an emotional butt-kicking and now have to turn around and play in Tempe in front of a sold-out crowd against a resurgent Sun Devil team with a shot at the Pac-12 title on the line.  If SC does pull out a victory and/or even plays well it will be a minor miracle.  SC needs to demand the Pac-12 surround the Notre Dame game with home games and not have to play two back-to-back road match-ups in one season.

It was obvious SC was going to get blown off the line of scrimmage vs. Notre Dame- Notre Dame has arguably the best offensive line in the country and they were all seniors while the SC defensive front was riddled with injuries and only had one senior.  Six of ND’s front seven on the defensive line were seniors with no major injuries while SC started two true freshman and only showcased one senior.  Experience is a major factor when it comes to line play.  Defensive lineman Brandon Pili will be a stud one day, but not as a true freshman who was expecting to redshirt and not in the physical condition to play 40+ snaps.

Quick look at ASU- The Sun Devils (4-3) are the hottest team in the Pac-12 despite being picked to finish fifth in Pac-12 South preseason poll.  ASU is exceptional in the red zone converting 96% of the time and the one trip without a score was a kneel down against Washington at the end of the game.  QB Manny Wilkins ranks fourth in the conference in passing yards per game and 6th nationally in completion percentage.  Wilkins has been phenomenal under pressure with an 88.9 QB rating when facing pressure, which ranks third nationally.  He is also a good scrambler that can pick up quite a bit of yardage when plays breakdown.  It is a good thing that Wilkins has been so good under pressure since he pressured nearly 35% of the time on his drop-backs which ranks them for the 13th most nationally when it comes to QB hurries and they give up a ton of sacks, ranking 125th in the nation.  Pac-12 analyst and former SC assistant coach Yogi Roth feels Wilkins manages the zone read better than anyone in the conference.  6’5 receiver K'Neal Harry is his top receiving threat with 51 catches and Jalen Harvey gives them one of the best 1-2 combos at wideout in the conference.  The Sun Devils have a solid running back duo in Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard who have combined for ten rushing touchdowns but they aren’t necessarily big play threats.  ASU largely looks to Wilkins to set the pace of the offense which ranks 1st in the Pac-12 in time of possession, which is concerning considering SC’s depth issues on defense.

Defensively, ASU will follow the recent successful theme against SC which is to constantly mix-up coverages and throw an assortment of blitz packages at the young Trojan line.  ASU is extremely disciplined and rank first in the nation for fewest penalties.  Jojo Wicker leads the team in tackles for losses and sacks.  LB’s Christian Sam and DJ Calhoun lead the team in tackles and are amongst the leaders in the Pac-12.  For an in-depth look at the game, check out Tom Haire’s in-depth preview.

Geller’s Take- Consistently running the ball and involving the tight ends will be the key offensively vs. ASU- When the Trojans have been at their best this season from an offensive standpoint, they have consistently run the ball and involved the tight ends.  In both of SC’s losses, the tight ends did not have a reception and SC did not consistently run the ball. When the Trojans defeated Stanford and had a great offensive performance in the second half against Utah, the common themes were utilizing the tight ends and running the football.  It seemed obvious heading into the Notre Dame game the tight ends would be a key factor but that obviously did not happen.  SC has too much talent at tight end and running back to not have them heavily involved in the offense.  *Austin Geller is a senior at St. Monica High School and interned for uscfootball.com

SC needs something out of its special teams- In the first seven games, SC has just 6 punt returns for 27 yards. . .Last year, Adoree Jackson had 27 returns for 414 yards. . .SC is on pace to be 87% worse than last year.  That said, despite Jack Jones fumbling his first ever punt return attempt at South Bend (why was that his first attempt instead of say Oregon State?), he is the right guy for the job and we expect him to make some big plays in the next couple of weeks.

Quick-Hitters-

*Linebacker Porter Gustin might be available for about 15-25 plays against ASU. This would definitely give a boost to the defense that lost his back-up Christian Rector to a broken hand in practice this week.

*CB Iman “Biggie” Marshall injured his knee against the Irish and will be out at least 2-3 weeks. Isaiah Langley will make his first start.

*Look for wide receiver Jalen Greene to get an opportunity to throw the ball this week on a double-pass or reverse.

*Sam Darnold’s adjusted Quarterback rating “QBR” for the 2016 season was 86.2.  This year, it is only 70.3, and he has only been above last season’s average once, which was the Stanford game in which he had a 97.4 rating.

Betting guide- SC is favored by 3.5 points over the Sun Devils after opening as 4.5 point favorites.  SC is 1-7 on the season against the spread while ASU is 4-3.  ASU is 7-2 ATS in its last nine games at home against teams with a winning record.  The over/under is 59 and the total has gone over in seven of SC’s last ten games on the road against ASU.  ASU has won two of the last three meetings at ASU and SC is 1-3 ATS in its last four games on the road vs. ASU.  SC has a history of bouncing back the week after losing to Notre Dame with a 42-24 win over Utah in 2015 and a 19-3 win over Utah in 2013.

Carol Skinner Memorial tid-bit- USC has the second most turnovers in the nation…yet they are 6-2 while playing one of the toughest schedules in the nation.

10/20/17 

A tale of two halves against Utah shows SC’s Jekyll and Hyde nature- The first half of the Utah game was extremely concerning and this type of play has happened far too much this season for SC to truly be considered a true playoff contender.  The lack of focus combined with three turnovers an absurd amount of miss-tackles felt like one was in a time machine back to the end of the Paul Hackett era.

However, the Trojans picked things up in a major way in the second half behind one of Sam Darnold’s better performances of the season and SC was able to overcome the 21-7 first half deficit.  It was vintage Sam with the SC going 7/10 on third and fourth down in the second half and Sam throwing for 358 yards/3 TD’s and no interception.  Darnold lead all of SC’s second half scoring drives from inside the 15-yard line. The defense should also be applauded for making some key halftime adjustments and it was another stellar performance out of linebackers/captains Cameron Smith (16 tackles) and Uchenna Nwusu.  The Trojans held stud Utah wideout Darren Carrington II to just 9 yards receiving on just 2 receptions. It must be noted that SC caught a big break in playing Utah without their starting quarterback Tyler Huntley who is a definite improvement over Troy Williams.

SC showed the potential of what they can/should be in the second half, but from an overall perspective, they have only graded well in eight of the twenty-eight quarters played this season.  This trend has to reverse starting this week to avoid a disappointing season.

Tyler Vaughns is the real deal- Redshirt freshman receiver Tyler Vaughns has emerged to become one of Sam Darnold’s favorite receivers, especially in clutch situations.  He made two tremendous fourth down grabs in critical moments against Utah and Washington State.  He has developed a strong rapport with Darnold and is beginning to understand how Darnold sees the field when the pocket breaks down.  His maturation will be a key factor if SC starts to get rolling offensively.  Darnold now has two reliable outside receivers in Burnett and Vaughns and with the tight end being utilized more, we expect to see more of the old Sam Darnold.

Geller’s take- Tight end will be utilized explosively- With Daniel Imatorbhebhe coming back from injury and true freshman Josh Falo (two TD catches in the last two games) showing similar tremendous athleticism to that of Imatorbhebhe, Darnold has explosive options that he did not have earlier in the year. Plus, junior Tyler Petite has developed into an extremely reliable possession receiver, including two touchdown grabs last week.  Despite only playing a handful of plays against Utah, Imatorbhebhe helped spring two big Ronald Jones runs at critical moments in the second half and he was also used successfully as a decoy on some big pass completions.  His return to the line-up along with the development of Petite and Falo cannot be understated.  The Trojans will be one of the few teams nationally that can have multiple vertical threats out of a double tight-end set. *Austin Geller is a senior at St Monica High School and interned for USCfootball.com.

Why it could be a long evening in South Bend- Notre Dame is rested after coming off a bye and have had two weeks to prepare for what is a playoff-elimination type game for both teams.  Irish head coach Brian Kelly has a career record of 19-2 and 8-1 at Notre Dame when coming off a bye.  On the flip side, SC is coming off a very physical game with one of the Pac-12’s most physical teams in Utah and have lost three defensive lineman in ten days while also not having defensive star Porter Gustin and Rasheem Green only able to play at around 70% due to a high ankle sprain.  The Irish boast a physical ground-based offense, which is in the national Top 25 in rushing offense, scoring offense and total offense. Notre Dame is led by dual threat QB Brandon Wimbush who is who is just an adequate passer completing 52.3% of his passes but he’s a huge run threat with 402 yards rushing and eight TD’s.  RB Josh Adams is seventh nationally in rushing (129.3) and has 2,544 career rushing yards. Notre Dame’s defense is allowing just 16.8 points per game with a strong defensive line and linebacking unit.

How the Trojans pull out a victory-

*Clancy comes up with a great defensive scheme- Though the coaching staff is very concerned with the defensive line depth, defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast and crew have put together a new scheme they feel will be successful in slowing down Notre Dame's rushing attack.  More than likely they are going to deploy an extra defensive back in the box (Inman Marshall is strong against the run and Yikil Ross had success in second half against Utah in a similar role) while leaving the corners to fight for themselves.  Trojans will need to force Notre dame into obvious passing situations and keep the time of possession battle equal.  The weakness of this Irish team is they convert just 39.6% of their third down conversions and Winbush is not going to win games with his arm.  When #3 Georgia defeated Notre Dame earlier this year, they held Notre Dame to just 55 yards rushing.

Convert touchdowns in the red zone- Against Utah, SC showed some nice improvement in the red zone and will need to continue that trend to pull out a victory. Notre Dame has been strong all year in the red-zone with a 70% conversion rate which ranks 18th nationally.

Heisman-like performance from Darnold- Sam Darnold will need to play his most complete game of the season for SC to escape South Bend with a victory.  When he is playing confidently, the team will follow and it will adversely impact the psyche of Notre Dame.  *Darnold had one of his best practice weeks of the year…

Play a clean/disciplined game- SC must take care of the ball and show improvement with tackling. It will be extremely difficult to overcome a multiple turnover game.   Against both Utah and Washington State, the Trojans really struggled with initial contact tackling.  Utah running back Zach Moss had close to 100 yards of rushing after contact last week and Notre Dame’s Josh Adams is more of an elite back.

Here is Tom Haire’s in-depth analysis of the SC-ND match-up courtesy of USCfootball.com.

Defensive lineman Brandon Pili will be a 1st round pick in a few years—but asking him to start against Notre Dame is a tall order- #91, true freshman Brandon Pili, a 6’4, 320 pound defensive lineman out of Alaska is easy to spot when he comes in the game.  He literally looks like a human refrigerator when rumbling on the field and despite that size, he can supposedly do a handstand and reverse dunk a basketball.  Pro scouts loved bringing his name up in fall camp and it is a subject we touched on in this blog early in the season.  You could really see his athleticism in a handful of snaps against Utah (played 17 snaps).

Though his potential is enormous, Pili is from Alaska and didn’t see nearly the competition or sophistication he is experiencing now.  The coaches preferred to redshirt him but with the amount of unfortunate injuries along the defensive line, he has been forced into action this season.  Pili is good enough that he will give you some “wow” moments against the Irish, however, his lack of experience and overall conditioning, while going up against one of the best offensive lines SC will play all year, will be frustrating for Trojan fans.

Quick-Hitters-

*True freshman sensation running back Stephen Carr, will continue to be out with a foot injury but they hope to have him back for ASU…Look for redshirt freshman Vivae Malepeai’s production to continue to increase with Carr out.  He rushed for 42 yards on just 4 carries against the Utes.

*Tackle Chuma Edoga will definitely play against Notre Dame after unexpectedly sitting out the Utah game.  We have repeatedly talked about Edoga’s significance to the offense and his presence should be positively felt in South Bend.  Pro Football Forecast grades Chuma as one of the best performing tackles in college football this season.

*The trio of Deontay Burnett, Tyler Vaughns and Steven Mitchells combined for 20 catches…Also, Trevon Sidney has looked really good in practice lately.

*Sophomore defensive lineman Christian Rector leads the Pac-12 in sacks and recovered fumbles.

*SC has been tied or trailed in five of seven fourth quarters this season.

*The loss of Defensive lineman Josh Fatu to concussion protocol after being in a car accident is a significant loss.  Fatu has recorded 27 tackles and five sacks on the season. SC has lost three defensive lineman in ten days..Fatu, Marlon Tuipulotu (back surgery) and Kenny Bigelow (retired). . .SC is just 65th nationally against the run.

Betting Guide- This is the first underdog line for SC since Washington was favored by nine last year and SC not only covered, but pulled off the upset in Seattle.  The Trojans have won 11 of the past 15 meetings with the Irish, but all 4 losses have been since 2010.  SC has lost the past two in South Bend.  Both teams claim a victory over a ranked squad with SC beating Stanford and ND defeating Michigan State. SC is just 1-6 against the spread while ND is 5-1.  The over/under is 64.5 and it has gone over in six of Notre Dame’s last eight games.

Basketball note- SC hoops is ranked pre-season #11 in the pre-season coaches’ poll.  . .Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott has already attended two USC basketball practices due to the US Attorney’s Office investigation of USC assistant coach Tony Bland. . .

Carol Skinner Memorial tid-bit- *According to the Sagarin schedule strength rankings, no one in the top 25 has played a tougher schedule than SC.  The Trojans have faced five teams with winning records, including four teams ranking in the top 40 of S&P+ rankings.

10/13/17

SC has four quarters to figure it out- The only game in which the Trojans looked like a top-10 team was in their dominant victory against Stanford.  Otherwise, SC has been mediocre at best.  If the Trojans want to stay relevant nationally, they must establish confidence and a physical identity against Utah as they head into their rivalry game at Notre Dame.   The Notre Dame game will be the toughest regular season test the Trojans will face this year with Notre Dame coming off a bye week and seeing the game as a chance to launch into the top 10.  Notre Dame is vastly improved and also playing a very physical brand of football.  If SC does not play at an optimal level, they could be staring at a double-digit loss.

Geller’s take- Next man up- tight End Daniel Imatorbhebhbe-  With USC struggling to find consistency in the passing game and #1 receiver Deontay Burnett possibly missing the game with a toe injury, the return of redshirt sophomore Daniel Imatorbhebhe, even in a limited role this week, is hugely important. He was considered the #2 receiving target coming into the season with the potential of having a break-out season with the way he finished his freshman campaign.  He’s not only a big target at 6’3, but his speed allows him to be a deep threat.  His presence should be a calming influence on Darnold and look for the combination of Tyler Petit and Imatorbhebhe to be targeted frequently in the short to mid-range passing game against the Utes.  -*Austin Geller is a senior at St Monica High School and interned for USCfootball.com this past summer.

Imatorbhebhe Part II- He quietly developed into the best run-blocking tight-end on the team.  His return should bolster the running game, especially when the backs get beyond the line of scrimmage and he’s able to block downfield.

Offensive line will make a statement vs. Utah- Right tackle Chuma Edoga is expected to play this week after missing the majority of the WSU game and all of the Oregon State game.  Whenever he has been out, the offense has struggled.  With left tackle Toa Lobendahn returning last week, Sam Darnold will now have two of his best offensive lineman back in action, providing a little more confidence to step-up in the pocket and SC’s offensive coaches will look to re-commit to the running game.  The SC coaching staff feels they can establish a successful running game against the Utes despite all of the talk about Utah’s strong defensive front.  Utah’s top two defensive tackles are dealing with injuries and we are hearing a lot of positive chatter out of the football office about a great offensive performance expected against the Utes.

SC will use more of a two tight end set- Against Oregon State, SC used more double tight end looks then they have all season and it was effective. The return of Imatorbhebhe will allow SC to create mismatches in this formation against Utah’s 2-4-5 nickel defense.  SC will typically run out of this formation but from a passing game perspective, it should help create quick throwing options for Darnold.

SC is getting healthier- Though SC lost freshman nose tackle Marlon Tuipulotu to season-ending back surgery this week, linebacker Jordan Iosefa and wide receiver Jalen Greene are back from concussion protocol and should play. Wide receiver Deontay Burnett sat out of practice this week to rest his toe and shoulder injuries but should be available. The coaches are hopeful that linebacker Porter Gustin will be back for the Notre Dame game.  Freshman running back Stephen Carr is most likely out at least two more weeks with his foot injury.

Utah game Preview- (*for a detailed report, check out Tom Haire’s uscfootball.com preview- USC vs. UTAH-

Quick-hitters Utah-

-Utah’s defense ranks #2 in scoring defense giving up only 18.4 points per game.  However, the combined record of their opponents is 7-17.

- Utah has the third best rushing defense in the conference but Arizona and Stanford each rushed for around 200 yards and Arizona was not playing with Khalil Tate at QB.  Tate ran for over 300 yards versus Colorado last week.

-Senior linebackers Sunia Tauteoli (7.5 tackles for loss) and Kavika Luafatasaga (26 tackles) will be the players to watch on the Utes defense.  They are great against the run and will need to be with a few of the Utah defensive tackles banged up.  Helton believes they are the best linebacking tandem SC will face all year.

-Utah QB sophomore Tyler Huntley is a great dual-threat QB that went down with a shoulder injury against Arizona and the offense has not been the same with Troy Williams leading the way.  Huntley is most likely not going to play but if he does, the SC defensive front will face a tougher test.  Williams is no slouch though as he played his best game against the Trojans last year with 270 yards passing and 3 td’s.

Quick-hitters USC-

-Sam Darnold was the second best QB in the nation last year when throwing under pressure with a 67.4 % completion rate. This year, he has regressed significantly and it didn’t improve against lowly Oregon State.  He completed just 2 of 7 passes for 17 yards with one interception, two sacks and two fumbles.

-SC ranks ninth nationally in sacks with 16 and cornerback Jack Jones has four interceptions.

- Junior defensive lineman Rasheem Green has been one of the Trojans most consistent defenders and deserves the same amount of credit that Cam Smith and Uchenna Nwusu receive. Despite playing on a sprained ankle, Green already has more tackles for loss in one half of this season then he did all of last year.

Betting Info- SC opened up a 13.5 point favorite and the spread has since dropped to 12.5.  SC is 3-0 straight up and against the spread in their last three home games against Utah.  SC is 9-0 SU and 6-3 ATS in their last nine home games against Pac-12 opponents.  SC is 1-5 ATS on the season. Utah is 6-3 SU and 8-1 ATS in its last nine games as a road underdog.  The total for the game is 53 and the under is 7-1 in Utah’s last eight games.

Carol Skinner Memorial Tid-Bit- Since taking over for Porter Gustin, Christian Rector is tied for the most tackles for loss on the team with six tackles and leads the team with 4.5 sacks while forcing two fumbles.

**This report is dedicated to the memory of Jon Geller (51), the father of Austin Geller that contributes to this weekly report.  Jon suddenly and tragically passed away Wednesday evening.  A loyal Trojan who often traveled to road football games with his family, was a loving husband, father of two and a great friend to all of those lucky enough to know him.

10/6/17

Edoga’s injuries handicap the offense- Junior Chuma Edoga is emerging as one of the best tackles in the country and the minute he exited the games against both Texas and Washington State, the offense struggled.  The media has under-reported his importance to SC’s offensive success.  His presence and ability to anchor the offensive line is hugely important to the success of the running game. Edoga is expected to miss the Oregon State game with a leg injury but hopeful for a return against Utah.

Inability to gain three yards in three plays doomed SC- With the Trojans up 14-10, and the ball on the 3-yard line after Uchenna Nwusu’s acrobatic interception, a touchdown puts SC up 21-10, and more importantly, claim full momentum in a hostile road environment.  Instead, SC goes out of the shotgun near the goal-line and tries to block eight in the box with only six on a running play.  They try and isolate freshman tight-end Josh Falo on a passing play but he hasn’t caught a ball all year and then on third down SC ran the ball literally right where the Cougars had a 2 to 1 advantage on SC’s blockers.  Washington State holding SC to a field goal put the momentum on the Cougars side and demoralized the SC offense.

Red-zone efficiency must improve- Compared to last season, SC is headed in the opposite direction when it comes to one of the most important offensive statistics-red-zone efficiency (converting touchdowns inside the opponents 20 yard-line). From the moment Darnold took over as the starter last season, Darnold was the best quarterback statistically in the nation when it came to red-zone offense. Through five games this season, only 13 of 21 trips inside the red-zone have resulted in touchdowns, less than a 62% ratio that ranks 64th out of 130 FBS teams.

Hard to play QB when you can’t set your feet and have inconsistent receivers-  A pro scout from an AFC West team told me this week- “It is tough to be a great QB when 75% of your throws are rushed and receivers don’t break-off routes correctly, etc.  Sam has always thrown off his back-foot more than you would like to see but now it is exasperated.  It is also a massive mental challenge to make tough throws when you don’t have confidence in guys around you. It reminds me of what Rosen over at UCLA dealt with last season before his injury…Until Darnold gets healthy guys back or the depth develops well, it is going to be a struggle…Despite Darnold’s struggles, SC is probably 1-4 or 2-3 without him.”

Pro Scout on Darnold going pro after this season and what he is hearing: “We prefer franchise type quarterbacks starting at least 2.5 years in college. Most GM’s and evaluators will tell you that.  You want to see a progression in leadership and skill development before making a substantial investment in a franchise QB. It would really help Sam’s long-term development to stick around another year and nail down a quicker release from his footwork through his release point. However, his physical attributes and feel for the game are rare and that makes him high to mid-high 1st rounder without that extra year.  We are hearing he probably comes out due to some financial limitations on the home front and he’s a little shaken at the team’s recent offensive performance, but a lot can happen in the next few months to sway him to stick around. This is shaping up to be a loaded QB class and he is one guy who could take a bigger progressive step with more experience.”

Prep for Oregon State- This is as close to a bye week as SC will get. They are 34 point favorites against the 1-4 Beavers.  However, Oregon State only trailed #6 ranked Washington 7-0 at halftime before losing 42-7 and only trailed Washington State 28-16 well into the third quarter before fading down the stretch. In their four losses they’ve been outscored 200-71, including being outscored 147-49 in the second half this year.

The Beavers will be without their top QB Jake Luton who is out with a back injury. Back-up Darell Garretson only had 94 yards passing against Washington. The top offensive threat is RB Ryan Nall but he is dealing with an ankle injury and was held to just 18 yards rushing vs. Washington.

Defensively, they are adept at rushing the passer and will look to harass Darnold and create turnovers. However, they are one of the worst FBS teams in the nation and are at or close to last in every major statistical category in the Pac-12   SC should have plenty of opportunities to create big plays offensively and force turnovers.

Bottom Line- After a strong week of practice, SC should be able to handily defeat the Beavers and give much needed rest to banged-up players in the second half.

Betting Guide- Two of the worst bets in college football are SC (1-4 ATS) and Oregon State (0-5 ATS).  SC opened a 31 point favorite and it was quickly pushed to 34.5 by the betting public.  The Beavers only victory on the year was a three-point win over Portland State despite entering the game as a 26.5-point favorite.  SC is 6-2 ATS in its last eight games in the conference while Oregon State is 7-2 ATS in its last nine games in Week 6.  The total has gone under in Oregon State’s last three games against SC.

Geller’s Take vs. Oregon State “Next Man Up” spotlight- During last Friday night’s loss to the Washington State Cougars, the Trojans most experienced offensive lineman, senior right-guard Viane Talamaivao suffered a season ending injury with a torn pectoral muscle and will be out for the remainder of the season. Tackle Chuma Edoga is also banged up, but has not been completely ruled out for the game against the Beavers.  It will likely be freshman Andrew Vorhees who will start at right tackle—and be attributed with this week’s “next man up” spotlight—in Talamaivao’s absence, or possibly in place of Edoga if he sits. The four-star true freshman graduated high school early and participated in spring practice.  When fall camp rolled around, Voorhees passed up more experienced lineman with his toughness and ability to pick up the playbook faster than most.  Oregon State held the sixth ranked Washington Huskies to 7 points in the first half last week and with the blueprint to stop Sam Darnold out, that being to attack the banged up offensive line and put him under pressure, expect the Beavers to send numerous blitz packages and attempt to confuse the youth and inexperience on the USC offensive line.  Vorhees will need to play well in order for the Trojans to sustain drives.

Quick-hitters- .

*Freshman running back Stephen Carr has not practiced this week and is most likely out for Oregon State.

*SC is hoping to have tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe and linebacker Porter Gustin back by the Notre Dame game.

*Left Tackle Toa Lobendahn and wide receiver Steven Mitchell Jr. are expected to play against Oregon State.

*SC has 16 sacks this season, including 13 in the past three games. . .the total ranks ninth in the country.

* A pair of walk-on specialists--true freshman Placekicker Chase McGrath and Punter Reid Budrovich--are in the national Top 20 in field goal percentage and punting, respectively.

*SC’s defense ranks 116th nationally in number of plays of 20-or-more yards allowed.

Carol Skinner Memorial tid-bit: The Washington State game was the first time since 1982 that SC did not complete a pass to a running back or tight end.

9/29/17

Loss of tight-end Carey Angeline is a big deal- Redshirt freshman Carey Angeline had a reputation with his teammates for catching everything in practice with defensive backs stating he was “unguardable” and a future “first rounder” due to his height and athleticism (6’7, 240).  He was projected to play a prominent role in the tight-end rotation this season, especially with Daniel Imatorbhebhe injured. However, his playing time was limited and he felt he would never get a true shot to play and has left the team. Apparently, he isn’t the only one frustrated by this development.  Many of his teammates and even some of the coaches have wondered off-the record why he didn’t get more opportunities this season.  He struggled with blocking technique and learning some of the playbook but his talent for pass-catching should have netted him more opportunities.  Tight-ends with his combination of athleticism and size are tough to find.  He will most likely end up at Penn State who has not been shy in letting him know that he was being underutilized.  The loss of Angeline is a reminder of how good former tight-end and eventual all-pro Jordan Cameron looked in practice, yet was under-utilized in games by Pete Carroll & company.

Difficult to play back-to-back road games- A professional sports gambler would tell you that one of the best bets you can make is against a college team in the second game of a back-to-back road trip.  A shortened week of preparation also stacks the deck with one less preparation day for the Cougars.  The environment in Pullman will be loud and electric which is something the Trojans didn’t deal with at Cal.  This will also be WSU’s fifth straight home game. Bottom line- Even if the Trojans win another ugly game, it will be a major victory considering the circumstance.

Avoiding a slow start vs. Cougars is key- Through four weeks, Washington State (WSU) has averaged 24 points per game before halftime.  During this stretch, they are outscoring opponents 87-19.  SC is only averaging 12 points per game in the first half.  SC can’t afford to fall behind by a large margin early, especially with top receiver Deontay Burnett banged up.

WSU- offense- The #16 ranked (4-0) Cougars will be the best offense the Trojans have faced all year.  They are led by Senior All-American candidate QB Luke Falk who leads the nation in completion percentage (77%) and has already thrown 14 TD passes (2nd in the nation) with only 1 interception.  Head Coach Mike Leach’s fast-paced air-raid offense has an added wrinkle this year.  They are throwing to the running back twice as much as in the past.  Running back James Williams is 5th in the nation in receptions (37) and has caught 3 TD passes.  Receivers Tavares Martin Jr. and Isiah Johnson-Mack are solid pass catchers and will give the SC secondary all they can handle.

SC defensive game-plan- Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast seems to have figured out these fast-paced, throw it 80% of the time offenses better than most.  SC employed a dime package against Cal with great effectiveness and we expect to see more of that look on Friday night. Boise State had success pressuring WSU without having to blitz so expect SC to do something similar.  Falk is a momentum QB. He is prone to get down on himself and compound mistakes if SC can pressure him into bad throws. On the flip side, if he can establish a good rhythm, SC will be in trouble.

WSU- defense- Leach is not known for having great defenses, but this is one of the most talented defensive groups he has coached.  They rank 12th nationally in overall defense (262 yards per game) as well as pass defense.

SC offensive game-plan- SC will look to run the ball and also get Darnold out of the pocket more than they have in prior games. Look for the offense to be a bit more conservative with more throws to the tight-end and swing passes to RB Stephen Carr.  The Trojans will still attack over-the-top but the coaching staff strongly feels they will be able to run the ball effectively and not need to take unnecessary risks.  The hope is the running game and short passing game will draw the Cougar secondary in and then allow for longer passing plays later in the game.

Red-zone efficiency must improve- During the first four games, SC is 73rd nationally in red-zone efficiency and something the Trojans specifically addressed this week in practice.  Last year, the Trojans were one of the best teams in the nation in the red-zone when Darnold took over at QB.

Stephen Carr’s role in passing game set to increase- SC is going to start increasing the number of times it targets Stephen Carr in the passing game.  He has been very effective catching the out of the back-field and almost always makes the first or second defender miss.  He is seeing more reps in practice where he is split out wide and has some of the best hands on the team.  Look for him to possibly run a few go-routes to stretch the Cougar defense.

Don’t try and be superman Sam- Sam Darnold needs to get back to reacting to what the defense gives him.  He doesn’t have the mature receivers he had last season that made big-time plays on 50/50 balls.  Nothing wrong with the short throw to the tight-end and softening up the defense for bigger plays later in the game…Against Cal, Darnold was 1-10 for 14 yards on throws of 11+ yards.  This statistic must improve for SC to stay in the national playoff picture.

Geller’s Take: “Next Man Up” Volume 3- Five weeks into the 2017 season without a BYE week—and none to come—has been rough. The Trojans survived Cal and the newly injured list was significantly shorter than post-Texas; however, receiver Deontay Burnett is among the short list with a separated shoulder. Although coach Clay Helton said Burnett will play, he is going to need help and the answer is redshirt freshman Tyler Vaughns, who surfaced with 3 catches for 32 yards in the win at Cal. Vaughns has been blowing up in practice this week and showing off his incredible athleticism and great hands. It’ll be interesting to see how he responds to the first sell-out crowd/crazy environment of his career—but given the questionable status of Burnett and Steven Mitchell, and the mediocrity of the Cougars’ secondary, it could be a major coming out party for Tyler Vaughns.  -Austin Geller is a senior at St. Monica Catholic High School and USCfootball.com intern.

Betting trends- SC is currently a 4 point favorite after the lined opened at 5.5. SC is 8-5 against the spread (ATS) during its current 13 game win streak.  This year, SC is 1-3 ATS while the Cougars are 2-2.  The total is set for 65 and the under is 3-1 in the last four games they have played against each other.  Historically, the Cougars are a favorable match-up, with SC 9-1 Straight up and 7-3 ATS in the last 10.  Though SC fans view the weeknight game negatively, WSU is just 1-7 under Mike Leach when playing on a Thursday or Friday night and 1-4 when playing on short rest.  SC is 3-1 in its last four Friday night road games…

Quick-hitters

*Left-tackle Toa Lobendahn did not make the trip to Pullman per multiple online reports this morning.

*Rain is expected in the second half Friday night in Pullman…

*Top tight-end target Daniel Imatorbhebhe will either be back around the Notre Dame game or out for the year as a set-back in rehab might mean a more significant injury to his upper leg.

*Starting running back Ronald Jones III will return against the Cougars.  He won’t be 100% so expect Stephen Carr to possibly get more carries.

*SC is closing out games strong…They have now outscored opponents 62-31 in the 4th quarter.

Carol Skinner Memorial tid-bit(s)- Cornerback Jack Jones, who had two interceptions against Cal, was named Pac-12 Defensive player of the week… Defensive end Christian Rector’s two forced fumbles are tied for the second most in the nation… Linebacker Uchenna Nwosu is tied for first in the country with 8 pass break-ups.  His ability to deflect passes will be extremely important this week.

9/22/17

Texas victory shows SC’s resiliency- SC did not play or coach its best game.  In fact, SC probably deserved to lose.  They were sloppy, lacked focus and suffered key injuries. However, they escaped with the win.  Most teams in a similar position lose that game.  Remember, these are mostly 18-21 year olds asked to play at a premier level every week.  It is not going to happen.  This is the type of ugly win you need to get to a national playoff.   However, SC has already had two of these performances and can’t afford too many more.  As they head into back-to-back road games, which includes a shortened week, they will need to play more focused/disciplined otherwise they will suffer a defeat.

Sam Darnold playing better then perceived/reported- Though Sam is considered a potential top pick in the NFL draft, the criticism of his start to the season, especially after the Texas game is short-sided.  SC receivers dropped five balls in the first half, with one going right off Jalen Greene’s hands for a pick-six.  Numerous offensive penalties hurt drives and he was without his best offensive lineman (Chuma Edoga).  Arguably his best receiving weapon in TE Daniel Imatorbhebhe has not played this season. Yet, against a well-coached Texas team, Darnold threw for 397 yards and 3 TD’s while leading the team down the field for a game-tying field goal and eventually a win in overtime.

The future SC QB- We have heard from multiple sources that if Sam Darnold goes pro after this season, a current high-level major college quarterback will unexpectedly graduate early from his current institution and enroll at SC.  It will shock the college football world if this player is able to pull this transfer off and immediately be eligible for the Trojans.  Though the coaching staff likes Jack Sears potential, he is at least a few years away from being a Pac-12 championship caliber QB which makes a graduate transfer situation appealing to all parties, should Darnold head to the NFL.

Offense will roll when Imatorbhebhe returns- The coaching staff feels that once sophomore tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe returns from his hip flexor injury, they will finally be running on all cylinders.  He is a potential All-American that can stretch the field and is invaluable in the red zone. It will probably be a few more weeks until he returns.

Porter Gustin out 3-6 weeks with bicep tear/defense banged up- One of the Trojans best defenders, Porter Gustin, is most likely out anywhere from 3-6 weeks with a partially torn bicep.  A strong source within the program states it is just a partial tear but if it is a full tear, he will miss most of the season.  This is a huge blow to the defense that is not operating at 100%.  Linebackers Uchenna Nwusu, John Houston Jr. and Cameron Smith, defensive lineman Rasheem Green and Marlon Tuipulotu, and cornerback Ajene Harris are all nursing injuries.  They are expected to play with the most concerning of these injuries being Tuipulotu (knee), Green (high ankle sprain) and Harris (hyperextended).

Edoga will play vs. Cal- Potential All-American offensive tackle Chuma Edoga is back after leaving the Texas game early due to the pain from his wrist injury. He practiced all week with it heavily taped and doesn’t anticipate encountering the same issue.

Expect to see Michael Pittman Jr./Tyler Vaughns- It appears former five-star recruit, sophomore Michael Pittman Jr. should finally be close to 100% after sustaining an ankle injury in fall camp. With Steven Mitchell Jr. probably missing the game with a groin injury, redshirt freshman Tyler Vaughns should start and Pittman Jr. will be worked into the rotation.

Wilcox hired a great staff at Cal- First year Cal head coach Justin Wilcox understands the importance of hiring great people around him.  Some pro scouts feel that Wilcox has assembled one of the best staffs in the Pac-12.  Wilcox took less money than former coach Sonny Dykes but was able to get Cal to significantly increase staff pay.  The move has paid off with Cal surprisingly 3-0 with victories over Ole Miss and North Carolina. The staff appears to make great halftime adjustments with Cal outscoring opponents 57-13 in the second half.  Cal was expected to finish near the bottom of the Pac-12 this season.

What to watch for: Cal Defense- Look for Cal to employ some of the same blitz/slant packages that confused the SC offensive line last week vs Texas.  Cal has a solid front seven that is led by senior linebacker Devonte Downs who leads the conference in tackles and has already been named Pac-12’s defensive player of the week twice.  Cal loves to blitz and already have nine sacks on the year.  They have a bend but don’t break philosophy defensively (similar to SC) which means they give up a lot of yards per game (457/9th in Pac-12) but typical of Wilcox, they are very strong in the red zone with opponents scoring on just 7 of 11 trips.  They have only given up 22 points per game and forced nine turnovers which ranks them third nationally in forced turnovers.  They held Ole Miss scoreless for the final 43 minutes and tend to get better later in the game.

Trojan offensive game-plan- Despite Cal’s strong front seven, SC will still look to establish the running game early.  The coaching staff respects what Cal has done defensively but doesn’t feel that Cal has faced an offensive line as physical as the Trojans.  The weakness of Cal’s defense is in the secondary (Weber State and Ole Miss combined for 794 yards passing) and on third down where opponents convert 42% of the time, which is a strength of the Trojans.  If SC is able to establish the run, look for them to attack the mid-level passing game over the middle where Cal will be susceptible to giving up big plays.  SC’s offensive success will come down to the consistency of the receivers and how the offensive line picks up Cal’s blitzes.

Cal offenseSophomore Ross Bowers is a solid QB converting on 60% of this throws and threw for 363 yards and four touchdowns in the win at North Carolina.  However, his production has dropped off in the last two games with a big drop in QBR and only one passing TD to go with two interceptions. His top targets are Demetris Robinson, injured but expected to play, and Vic Wharton III is another.  Despite losing starting running back Tre Watson to a knee injury, the Cal rushing attack has been solid with Patrick Laird and short yardage specialist Vic Enwere.  Laird has some speed and big-play capability that Cal will try to take advantage of.

SC defensive game-plan- Cal has a mediocre offensive line and they don’t have a lot of depth.  Bowers has been hit quite a bit and already has five fumbles (only 1 lost) to go with four interceptions.  If the Trojans can impede Cal’s run game and put Bowers in obvious passing situations, they will rattle the young signal caller and stifle the Cal offense.  Cal is averaging 4.6 yards per carry on the year so it will be interesting to see how this plays out with the injuries to SC’s defensive interior.

Concerning familiarity between SC’s current win streak and when the 2009 streak ended- The last time SC won 12 straight was in 2009 when they lost their first conference road game of the season, against an unranked Washington team that was led by former offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. SC is facing former defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox.  The 2009 win streak also included a Rose Bowl victory over Penn State.  That said, SC represents a major step up in competition for Cal.  The North Carolina and Ole Miss programs are staring at stiff NCAA sanctions and aren’t playing with much momentum.

Geller’s Take- Next man up philosophy key vs. Bears-  Three straight weeks of physical games has left the Trojans with an injury list is as long as it has been in recent memory—and the Trojans travel to face a much improved Golden Bears team. Among the many reasons USC made it through that tough stretch 3-0, was the Trojans’ resilience and their success with the “next man up” strategy. With Porter Gustin, Uchenna Nwosu, and Rasheem Green all re-aggravating previous injuries, or sustaining new ones, there was real concern in the second half and overtime about how USC would stop Texas. Defensive lineman Christian Rector stepped up big time stopping the run and stripping QB Sam Ehlinger at the goal line in double overtime, essentially winning the game for Southern Cal. With Gustin out and questions regarding Green and Nwosu’s health this week, expect another big performance out of Christian Rector against the Golden Bears.  -Austin Geller is a senior at St. Monica Catholic High School and USCfootball.com intern.

Bettor’s trends- The spread favors SC by 16.5 and SC has won 13 straight over the Bears.   Cal is 2-1 against the spread (ATS) with both victories coming as an underdog.  SC is just 1-2 ATS to start the season and 0-2 as a double digit favorite. Cal is only 1-4 ATS in its last five games after winning as an underdog.  SC is 7-1 ATS in its last eight vs. Cal.  1st year Cal defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter was 2-0 straight up (SU) against teams ranked in the AP top 10 in his first year as Texas A&M’s defensive coordinator (2010). - The total has gone under in 11 of the past 13 SC/Cal games.

Carol Skinner Memorial Tid-Bit- RB Ronald Jones III had 241 (223 rushing) total yards and 2 touchdowns in the Trojans 45-24 victory over Cal at the Coliseum last year.

9/15/17

Fun stats/quotes from the Stanford victory- As the Stanford offensive coordinator stated – “SC beat us at our own game. We just got Standforted”.  Stanford head coach David Shaw without hesitating “They’re really good”.

*SC gained 623 yards- the most Stanford allowed in the David Shaw era. *In 73 offensive snaps, SC had only one that lost yardage.  *SC was of 10/12 on third down. *SC had 13 first-down plays which gained 8 yards or more.

Early preparation by the coaches and acknowledging their own tendencies paid off- The coaching staff relentlessly prepared for this game in the offseason and they also employed a Pete Carroll tactic of charting their own tendencies as a staff and looking for areas where they could be less predictable.  Some of the running plays on third down as well as the different defensive looks are a few examples of this.  A great job top to bottom by the coaching staff.

Stars in the trenches- The offensive line had one of its best performances in years and offensive tackle Chuma Edoga was dominant.  A pro scout told me that if he continues getting to second level blocks and sealing well on the outside, he could be a projected 1st round NFL pick.  Defensively, outside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu lived in the Stanford backfield and proved why Clancy Pendergast feels he is so vital to the defense.  Nwosu only had four tackles but read the QB very well and batted down five balls and had one sack.

Thank Keyshawn Johnson for helping deliver un-heralded Deontay Burnett to SC- Top wide-out Deontay Burnett was all set to go to Washington State but some issues popped up with the Cougars and it put the situation in limbo.  Burnett didn’t have many options at the time.  Burnett’s dream school was SC and though wide receiver coach Tee Martin loved his athleticism they didn’t have room in the 2015 recruiting class, which was still restricted by the NCAA.  Former SC all-time great Keyshawn Johnson mentored Burnett when he was in high school and believed he was vastly underrated and under-recruited.  Johnson peppered Sarkisian and Martin about the importance of getting Burnett into a Trojan uniform by “blue-shirting” him and having him receive his scholarship after arriving on campus and counting toward the next recruiting class.  Thankfully Sark and Martin listened to Keyshawn and SC’s offense is now reaping the benefits in ways only Keyshawn and Deontay envisioned.

Mitchell answers the call- Steven Mitchell stepped up and had a great game versus one of the best defensive backfields in college football.  His 4 receptions for 92 yards and 2 TD’s was a welcome sight to Trojans fans concerned about the Trojans’ receiver situation outside of Burnett.  Great to see him comeback like this after two torn ACL’s.

Reasons for current wide receiver depth chart- An offensive coach let us know that part of the reason we don’t see talented players like true freshman Joesph Lewis, getting more opportunities is that receivers Steven Mitchell, Jalen Greene and Velus Jones have a clear understanding of the offense and do subtle things from correct blocking to hustle plays that jump out to coaches but not the fans and the media.  Jones is also one of the fastest players on the team and they feel it is just a matter of time before he builds up a rapport with Darnold and makes big-time plays.   Joseph Lewis will continue to get more reps but the offense is complex and tough for a freshman to grasp.  Expect to see Michael Pittman get an expanded role once he is back from injury and redshirt freshman Tyler Vaughns has been receiving more first team reps in practice.

Key injuries could start to be a problem- Top tight-end target Daniel Imatorbhebhe will most likely be out for three or more games so he can fully recover from his hip flexor injury. Defensively, linebacker Porter Gustin and true freshman defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu, who started against Stanford, are both doubtful to play on Saturday.  Gustin injured his shoulder against Stanford but the MRI came back negative. However, he had surgery on Wednesday to repair a cracked toe.  He could possibly still play this week but more likely he’s back for the Cal game.  Gustin led USC in tackles for loss last season and sets the edge on the defense which will be very important against Texas, a team that stretches the field and targets defensive ends and outside linebackers with read-option runs.  Texas has averaged 252 rushing yards in its first two games.  The potential loss of Gustin and talented freshman Tuipolutu against a talented Texas run game that plays at a fast pace is not something to take lightly.

Why Texas (1-1) is a legitimate concern despite being a 15 point underdog- Besides the injuries we just discussed, Texas is always talented and will be looking to make a statement.  Defensively, they have All-American outside linebacker Malik Jefferson, a renowned run stopper that boasts athleticism that SC has not seen this year.  The Trojans should still be able to overwhelm them with the best offensive backfield in college football but keep an eye on Jefferson.

Sam Darnold has thrown 4 interceptions in two games. If SC is sloppy in the passing game and the wideouts drop balls like they did against Western Michigan, Texas will be able to keep the game close.

*Texas can score- Through two games they have 97 points and can run the ball. Running back Chris Warren III had 166 yards rushing and two TD’s versus San Jose State.  Top QB Shane Buechele was 34-52 for 375 yards in a week 1 loss (51-41) to Maryland. Buechele got banged up and back-up QB Sam Ehlinger was an efficient runner and ran the ball well against San Jose State.  Buechele should be ready to go and is the better thrower but Ehlinger could also provide a dual threat look to mix things up against SC.

*Potential let-down and penalties- It is tough for college level players to stay focused and hungry after a big victory.  Also, SC is averaging 92 penalty yards per game, ranking as one of the most penalized teams in the nation.

Why the Texas game is concerning – Part 2- The Herman factor- New Texas coach Tom Herman plays the role of the underdog better than anybody in the country.  He was 5-0 as the head coach at Houston when they were an underdog and he was 6-0 as the offensive coordinator at Ohio State in the underdog role.

Why SC will roll over Texas- SC is playing with the positive swagger and momentum of a top 5 team. The team has a Carroll era feel to it. This can break the Longhorns morale early if the offense starts rolling as SC possesses the best offensive backfield in the country. Texas does not have near the confidence of the Trojans. Though Texas has an explosive offense, they won't cover the spread if SC plays a disciplined game.

Bettor’s Guide- The spread opened with SC as a 14 point favorite and has since traded between 15 and 16 points. The over/under is 67.5.

USC is now 11-1 straight up “SU” and 8-4 against the spread “ATS: in games Darnold has started, while averaging 40 points per game. The Trojans have gone 8-3 ATS at the Coliseum under Helton. Ironically, SC is 0-3 straight up and against the spread in its last three games in week 3.   The total has gone over in SC’s last four games. Yet, the total has gone under in eight of Texas’ last nine games. Texas is 2-8 ATS in their past 10 road games.  SC is 7-2 ATS in its last nine games…

Geller’s Take: Defensive rotations are key for the Trojans vs. up-tempo Longhorns- The Texas Longhorn offense moves at a much higher pace than that of the Stanford Cardinal. While last week’s game was a war in the trenches, this Saturday’s game will be won by defensive rotations. The fast tempo of the Texas offense will mean Clancy Pendergast must rotate in players constantly, to keep bodies fresh. With key defensive players such as Porter Gustin, Marlon Tuipulotu, and John Houston questionable for this week, it’s a next man up situation. Look for Uchenna Nwosu to continue his dominance around the edge, and for Connor Murphy, who has had a fantastic week in practice filling in for Gustin as a rusher, to lead the front seven. Texas quarterback, Shane Buechele, is much more of a dual threat than USC faced last week, so the Trojans will have to keep him contained in the pocket and apply pressure; though he is a bit dinged up, he is expected to play Saturday. Pendergast will also need to dial up the blitzes, as he did last week against the Cardinal with great success.  -Austin Geller is a senior at St. Monica Catholic High School and USCfootball.com intern

Carol Skinner Memorial tid-bit- USC is ranked No. 7 in the nation in Athlon’s preseason college basketball top 25.

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9/8/17

An ugly win but not as bad as it is portrayed- It was concerning at the Coliseum for 3.5 quarters, but the Trojans pulled out the victory and learned a few important things.  Like we stated last week, this set-up perfectly for a solid Western Michigan team to push an un-focused Trojan team and coaching staff and magnify some weaknesses. However, too much is being made of the struggles.  SC stuck to a basic game plan on both sides of the ball and had no interest in showing very much to a Stanford team they believe will be the toughest game of the season. The coaches were able to experiment with putting certain players in different situations to see how they would perform while also not exposing new personnel packages that will be important this week.  When the Trojans needed to pull out the victory in the 4th, Sam Darnold was flawless and the defense took things to another level. SC was 4-of-4 on third down conversions in the second half compared to WMU’s 2 –for-7 output.  SC scored a touchdown on each of its final four possessions.  Yes, lots of things to work on but the sky is not falling.

Darnold is a closer- Despite a shaky first half, Darnold settled down in the second half and was flawless at the most important time.  He completed 12 of 14 passes (1 was dropped) in the second half, and he had a fourth quarter passer rating of 191.13.  His rare ability to finish strongly creates an infectious confidence in his teammates and that is what separates him from other great college quarterbacks.

Speaking of QB’s…time to move Jalen Greene back to QB?- Against better opponents Darnold is going to be forced to make plays with his feet and could easily get injured. Even if he is out for a few series, SC does not have an answer for this.  Greene is the second best asset at QB in the program.  Obviously they should keep him involved as a wideout but reducing his role and making sure he is getting quality reps at QB in practice would be a smart move. Like it or not, Darnold will have a target on his back every week and Green is not a standout at the WR position.

Cameron Smith is the heartbeat of the defense- It was obvious the defense was without its leader in the first half vs. WMU. The projected 1st round NFL draft pick must stay healthy throughout the season.

Stephen Carr will be a superstar- Last week we stated Ronald Jones III “Ro Jo” and Stephen Carr will be the best RB tandem at SC since White and Bush. They are off to a good start and unless Carr loses his focus, he will play a vital role in SC making a playoff push.  His ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and make initial defenders miss is what will separate him from other elite backs.  An opposing Pac-12 assistant coach feels he will be the top running back in the conference by the end of the season and that same coach believes Ro Jo will follow closely behind.  The other benefit Carr will have is running behind a very talented, albeit young offensive line who should only improve this year and be a force next season.

Pac-12 championship game preview?- Some Pac-12 coaches and pro scouts believe people are sleeping on Stanford and this could be a Pac-12 championship preview.  The young recruits they have won’t fully fill the gap of losing players like Christian McCaffrey, but it is not the drop-off people expected and they have a lot of all-around talent in the trenches.

Pendergast will need to mix things up or Stanford will run out of the Coliseum with a victory- Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast is known for his success against pass-happy/spread attacks in which he can employ his 2-4-5 nickel defense successfully. However, he has consistently struggled against more traditional pro-style offenses, and that is a major concern heading into the Stanford game.  WMU ran for close to have 300 yards and they don’t have near the offensive line talent of Stanford.  We have heard SC has packages they specifically worked on in fall camp for this game that employ 3 and even 4 defensive lineman.  Pendergast will be the MVP if they stifle the Stanford ground attack.

Young defensive line talent needs to start playing a bigger role- If the staff and pro scouts feels that true freshman DL Brandon Pili is the next Leonard Williams and Marlon Tuipulotu can play at/or near that level as well, then they need to be on the field. Freshman mistakes will happen but without their power and ability to make plays, SC does not appear to currently have the elite defensive line that is needed to be a national playoff team.

Stanford defensive game plan- Even though Darnold is a Heisman level QB, Stanford highly respects the SC running game and believe the key to the victory is making SC beat them through the air.  They will stack the box and rely on the Pac-12’s best secondary to disrupt the SC passing game. The secondary includes three NFL level players in cornerbacks, Alameen Murphy and Quenton Meeks and safety Justin Reid. They will force SC to beat them with another receiver not named Deontay Burnett.

SC offensive game plan- SC knows what they have at running back and will want to run the ball around 55-60% of the time.  The SC coaching staff believes the Stanford secondary is the best they will face all year and will need to successfully run to win. However, don’t be surprised if they come out early throwing the ball, especially to the tight ends and running backs. Besides Burnett, SC needs to establish a second wide-out. Look for the tight ends to get to the second and third level far more than they did against WMU, especially if Daniel Imatorbhebhe is healthy enough to spread the field. If SC still struggles identifying secondary targets beyond Burnett, Darnold will need to improvise and create positive yardage with his feet.

Stanford offensive game plan- Stanford will attack relentlessly on the ground with RB Bryce Love (180 yards vs. Rice) and will employ short-yardage back Cameron Scarlett.  QB Keller Chryst is a solid but not spectacular QB and he will look to get the ball in the hands of freshman tight end Colby Parkinson, the #1 TE recruit in the nation last year, and fellow freshman Connor Wedington.   They will keep things simple and do not want to throw it more than 45% of the plays.

Inexperience in the kicking game looms large- The loss of Boermeester could be costly on Saturday.  SC’s last two wins against the Cardinal came down to field goals.  Walk-on Chase Mcgrath will handle the field goal duties.  He looked fine on his extra point attempts against WMU but didn’t attempt a field goal.  Stanford also has a new kicker in Jet Toner. He was 8/8 on extra points and made both of his field goal attempts (34 and 40 yards) in their blowout victory over Rice.

The Bettor’s Guide- SC opened around a 4 point favorite and it immediately jumped to 7 points before settling down at 6.5 points.  SC has won its last 10 at home and is 7-3 against the spread “ATS” in those games.  Stanford is 8-3 ATS in its last 11 game as an underdog and 6-2 straight up as an underdog.

SC is 2-7 in the last nine games against the Cardinal while being 3-6 ATS.  The last time SC was a favorite against Stanford at home (2015), they lost 41-31.

The total is 56.5 points. The over is 4-1 in Stanford’s last five games and 3-0 in SC’s last three games.

Geller’s Take- Time for true freshman WR Joseph Lewis to bolster the passing game – The Stanford Cardinal have the best secondary in the Pac-12, and it will make it extremely difficult for Sam Darnold to connect with receivers. Assuming the Trojans can establish the run game early with a talented trio of running backs in Jones, Carr and Vavae Malepeai, the Trojans need to get freshman wide out Joseph Lewis involved. Lewis, with elite speed and big size (6-foot-2), has been playing well in practice and getting more first and second team reps; Helton even said Wednesday, Lewis may be “a faster JuJu Smith-Schuster.” We know what Deontay Burnett can do, but if he is the lone target, Stanford will double him. With a banged up Daniel Imatorbhebhe not playing at full speed, Lewis’ involvement will be essential this week to the Trojan air attack.

-Austin Geller is a senior at St. Monica Catholic High School and USCfootball.com intern

Carol Skinner Memorial tidbit- Since 2007, Stanford is 9-1 following a bye week and under head coach David Shaw the Cardinal are 6-1 with two weeks to prepare.

9/1/17

Tight ends will spark offensive passing game:  It will take some time for the young SC WR to get going but SC is stacked at Tight End with a hybrid WR in redshirt sophomore Daniel Imatorbhebhe and big targets in junior Tyler Petite and redshirt freshman Cary Angeline.  The group is underrated nationally and will provide QB Sam Darnold with consistent targets.

Darnold’s release is 15% quicker:  The one knock on Darnold by pro scouts was his slow delivery of the ball.  He worked diligently this off-season on his mechanics and according to ESPN Sports Science, his delivery is 15% quicker and the difference is noticeable in practice.

Back-up quarterback situation is bleak: Darnold must stay healthy to match preseason expectations as he will have a huge target on his back.  Current back-up Matt Fink is not a true Division 1 level QB.  Heralded true freshman Jack Sears is struggling and needs a redshirt year to get acclimated.  Should Darnold be out for a multiple game stretch, look for starting junior WR Jalen Greene to take over at QB…he is without question, the second best QB on the team. It is surprising they don’t have him participating in some QB drills to prepare for an emergency scenario. Having him ready could be the difference in a win or loss.  Depending on Sears’ development, look for SC to potentially be in the market for a graduate transfer QB should Darnold head to the NFL.

Jones and Carr will be best 1-2 punch at running back since Bush and White:  As long as the offensive line can efficiently run block, junior Ronald Jones III “Ro Jo” and true freshman Stephen Carr may steal some of Darnold’s Heisman thunder.  Ro Jo is the leader of returning Pac-12 running backs in terms of longest runs from scrimmage and the minute Carr walked on the practice field, he has turned heads.  He combines top-tier speed with fantastic footwork in the trenches while already possessing good hands.  A pro scout told me that If it wasn’t for Ro Jo, Carr would be a true freshman starter and is a legit 5-star talent.  Junior Aca’Cedric Ware might see the field earlier then Carr in the first few games but from a talent perspective he will most likely be the odd man out.

Don’t sleep on RB Vavae Malepeai: His promising 2016 fall camp debut was ended with a broken collarbone and he was forced to redshirt. However, the former four-star RB from Hawaii dominated in the spring and has had a great fall camp. He has flown under the radar due to Carr’s emergence but expect to see him get carries, especially in short yardage situations.  He has great burst in-between the tackles.

Loaded at linebacker:  This is one of the best linebacking groups that veteran defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast has worked with at the college level. Ultimately, defense wins championships, and Porter Gustin, Ochene Nwosu and Cameron Smith will play as big a role as Darnold for SC to make it to the national playoff.

Pendergast extremely high on OLB Nwosu:  If you catch Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast in a social moment away from football, he will tell you that senior captain OLB Uchenna Nwosu has become one of the best, if not the best pound for pound defensive talent on the team.  He has improved dramatically, especially when it comes to the mental aspects of the game and is now considered a high-level NFL prospect.

Scouts are raving about dreshman defensive tackles Marlon Tuipulotu and Brandon Pili:  Both possess the athleticism and strength to be future All-Americans and will immediately be in the defensive line rotation.  They have helped ease the concern regarding the defensive line depth.  Fun fact- Pili is 340 pounds and can dunk a basketball and Helton describes him as a “340-pound dancing polar bear”

Offensive line run blocking could be a problem: The run blocking has looked shaky against the first team defense in camp and they will need to get this sorted out in a big way before Stanford rolls into town next week.   SC lost 112 starts on the offensive line between Zach Banner, Chad Wheeler and Damien Mama.

Cameron Smith out for the 1st half vs. Western Michigan: Due to Smith’s ejection from the Rose Bowl for a targeting call, he will have to sit out the 1st half on Saturday and Jordan Iosefa will start in his place…Iosefa had a fall great camp.

Walk-ons Mcgrath and Burdovich to handle kicking duties: Freshman Chase McGrath (not even listed in the media guide) beat out redshirt freshman Michael Brown for the placekicking duties.  Expect a decent drop-off in consistency compared to Matt Boermeester.  Surprisingly, junior Reid Burdovich displaced last year’s consistent Australian style kicker Chris Tilbey.

Western Michigan is not the team SC thought they were scheduling: If SC had a crystal ball when this game was scheduled a few years back, they would have looked elsewhere for a prep game to start the season.  Western Michigan is coming off a 13-1 campaign with it’s only blemish being a 24-16 loss to Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl.  They had wins over Northwestern and Illinois. They did lose some huge components to that success in head coach P.J. Fleck (Minnesota), and the schools’ all-time leaders for passing and receiving. Despite that, they have 16 returning starters and they are not going to be intimidated by the Coliseum or the SC jersey.  They have a good offensive line, a stud CB who is a threat on special teams and a one-thousand yard rusher who is expected to be a high-level NFL pick.  Plus, the defense only gave up 19 points per game last year.

This game has “UGLY” written all over it: The Trojans should overwhelm WMU in the second half and salt away a victory with the running game.  A pertinent point to keep in mind though- A classic look-ahead game for SC with a 2:15 pm kick-off and temperatures expected to be over 100 degrees on the field.  The opponent is a talented non-Power 5 school that may not catch the Trojans’ full attention, with #14 Stanford coming to the Coliseum next week.

The bettor’s guide: The line is fluctuating between 27 and 28 points…USC only won two games last year by that margin (Utah State and Arizona)… The over/under is 58.5…SC was 8-5 against the spread last year while WMU was 10-4 and 6-2 away from home.  Dating back to 2014, WMU has won their last four true road games against the spread at Power five teams.

Fight on Max Browne, we are cheering for you- Former SC QB Max Browne will be the starting QB and team captain for Pittsburgh after transferring at the end of last season.  Max was a model student/athlete (graduated in three years with honors) and handled a tough situation last season with total class.

Carol Skinner Memorial Tidbit: This is the first time SC will play 12 consecutive games without a bye since the 1995 season.

1/1/17

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.

11/25/16

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.

11/18/16

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.

11/11/16

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).

11/4/16

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. . .

10/14/16

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.

10/7/16

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.

9/30/16

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.

9/23/16

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.

 

9/16/16

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.

9/9/16

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.

9/2/16

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 MurphyTight 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.