By Greg Katz – WeAreSC.com
In my humble opinion, cardinal and gold thoughts on what I see, what I hear, and what I think.
The Destination: The USC Trojans (8-5) will return to the San Diego Holiday Bowl on Dec. 30 (7:30 .m. PT/ESPN), and it will be a Back to the Future matchup with an historic, nostalgic, and very appealing matchup with the No. 23 Wisconsin Badgers (9-3) of the Big Ten.
The destination – Part 2: My first Rose Bowl Game was the 1963 Pasadena thriller between the Trojans and the Badgers, but that’s for discussion later. Given Saturday night’s results against Stanford, this is still a very sellable bowl game. Wisconsin will bring the whole cheesehead state for a crack at the Trojans, and San Diego is a great place for the Trojans to battle the Badgers outside of Madison, L.A., or Pasadena.
The destination – Part 3: The only upset for the Holiday Bowl is if the game isn’t a sellout, which I believe it will easily be. This Trojans team deserves to be supported, Wisconsin is a brand name with history, and San Diego is a great city for Trojans fans to travel. Last season’s experience was outstanding, and those that attended the game came away satisfied - albeit a bit cold from the elements.
The evaluation: The 41-22 loss on Saturday night to Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship Game hurts, but the Trojans have nothing to hang their heads about. It could have been worse had Stanford converted touchdowns and not field goals in the first half. What was gained was in the second half of the championship game was the Trojans gallant comeback bid, but Stanford was just the better team with perhaps the 2015 Heisman Trophy winner in running back Christian McCaffrey (a record 461 all-purpose yds.). Sometimes you have to just tip your cap and say the other fella is just better and this was certainly the case.
The bottom line: Obviously, the better team won in Santa Clara. Stanford won the first time back in late September, 41-31, and won the second time, convincingly, 41-22, on Saturday night. See a pattern there, especially defensively? I do. There were, however, positives even in the loss. The Trojans learned what a big game is like since none of Helton’s men – other than last week against UCLA – have ever been in a huge game where a Rose Bowl bid on the line.
Big game inexperience: Trojans safety Chris Hawkins said afterward that the last time he was in a championship game was in 6th grade. You can’t teach experience; you just have to play in it and through it. The Trojans will be in a better position to win if they can make it back next season to Levi’s Stadium.
The game changer: In the third quarter, Cody Kessler was sacked, fumbled, and the ball was picked up by Thomas Solomon and ran back 34 yards for the score with just 0:04 left in the third quarter. With the PAT, the Cardinal went up 27-16 and never looked back.
Trojans head coach Clay Helton comments: “Very sad for them that we did not play our best game today against a very, very talented Stanford team. We've talked about our blueprint to winning, running the ball, stopping the run, and winning the turnover battle, playing great special teams, and we lost the rush game. We lost the turnover battle. Usually that, against a team like that, that's going to equal a loss.”
More Helton: “Got some hurt kids in that locker room. They've given tremendous effort to get to this point, and obviously are extremely saddened by not finishing the job. I look forward to having a tremendous bowl game with a bunch of unbelievable seniors who have helped us get to this point.”
Stanford head coach David Shaw comments: On the difference between the first game against the Trojans and the Pac-12 Championship game, Shaw said, “It was very, very similar. Now they ran the ball a little bit more this game, and they ran it really physically. It was tough, it was tough to stop. They cracked a couple runs and they've got good players, they've got good backs.
“We needed to tackle better at times, but at the same time, you miss tackles because you're going against really good football players. Those guys are known to break tackles and we rallied around and made enough plays. We knew it was going to be tight, we knew it was going to be close. But at some point we're going to have to bow up and make a couple plays to separate, and that's what our guys did.”
The Cardinal adjustments: So how did Stanford adjust to the Trojans when they came out hot in the third quarter? David Shaw said, “The biggest thing for us was corralling those receivers. You know, JuJu, we know he's not a hundred percent. He's a special, special football player. He can make guys miss. And Alijah Holder did a really good job in the second half just getting him on the ground. Once he catches the ball, we are able to play, just getting him on the ground and rallying him to the running game.
“So those guys who break tackles and make people miss. Our safeties took good angles. Our linebackers kept fighting. Up front defensive line had a couple stops and a couple of tackles for loss.”
No Rose Bowl: On not being able to play in the Rose Bowl after the loss to Stanford, Trojans senior quarterback Cody Kessler said, “Obviously I wish we would have gotten to the Rose Bowl for our last game, but, like I said, I fell in love with this school. I fell in love with this team, my teammates, this guy, all the coaches I've had. We've been through so many tough times, and I'll look back -- right now it hurts, but I'll look back some day and be proud of the person I became and the players I got to play with.”
The barometer: On Saturday, the Trojans scored 22 points against Stanford. The Trojans entered Saturday’s game averaging 36.0 points per game.
The barometer – Part 2: On Saturday, the Trojans defense gave up 41 points to Stanford. The Trojans entered Saturday’s game allowing 24.7 points per game.
The Heisman Trophy candidate: On his performance against the Trojans, Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey (208 yds. rushing/105 rec./2 TDs.) said, “I think I was just able to -- I was put in a bunch of different situations to be successful, I think. I can't talk enough about the O-line and the holes, especially in the first half. We knew that if we wanted to win the game, we were going to have to run the ball efficiently, and those guys were unbelievable.”
The Heisman Trophy candidate – Part 2: On the catching passes that killed the Trojans, Christian McCaffrey said, “As far as in the pass game, my job was kind of easy. Hogan over here got us to the right check, and threw the ball on the money and I kind of had a straightaway run.”
Flag goes back up: The Trojans were penalized 7 times for 62 yards. The Trojans come into Saturday’s game averaging 70.1 penalty yards per game.
Tackling the issue: The Trojans were led in tackles by linebacker Olajuwon Tucker who had a team-high 13 tackles. Senior linebacker Anthony Sarao followed with 9 tackles.
Adoree’s speaks: On trying to tackle Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, Trojans sophomore All-Pac-12 corner Adoree’ Jackson said, “You have to go high on him because he runs low. He follows his blockers and reads his blocks. Give credit to their offensive line and to McCaffrey.”
The announcement: Trojans All-Pac-12 right offensive tackle Zach Banner said afterward that he would announce whether he is going to the NFL early this week.
From the press box…Reggie time: It what was truly a stunning revelation, former Trojans All-America tailback Reggie Bush, who is banned by the NCAA for being at a USC event, walked into the Trojans locker room before the game and was greeted with a raucous USC players celebration. Bush was allowed to see the team because No. 5 was part of the Pac-12 All-Century team and celebration.
Reggie time – part 2: Given how the NCAA treated the Trojans with the draconian sanctions from the Bush situation, most Trojans supporters said “to hell with the NCAA” and some, who still are not exactly Bush fans, actually backed the Bush appearance.
A learning experience: On starting his first game of the season in the Pac-12, the Pac-12 Championship Game no less, center Nico Falah said, “I was a little nervous at the start, but the guys helped. Playing against UCLA last week was a big steppingstone. Stanford was a very physical front, but last week I played against Kenny Clark.”
A numbers game: The Trojans three first-half points were its fewest against Stanford since 2001, when the Cardinal built a 21-0 halftime.
The thermometer: Temperature at kickoff on Saturday night was 55 degrees with cloudy skies.
Scouting the talent: NFL scouts in attendance on Saturday included the 49ers.
Body count: Attendance for Saturday’s Pac-12 title game in Levi’s Stadium was 58,476.
The post-game show…Full support: Despite Saturday night’s outcome, I’ll say it again, Clay Helton is the right choice at the right time for the Trojans. He will do a great job, but his No. 1 priority after the season is to assemble a standout staff of coaches that share his offensive and defensive philosophies. Helton is one of the most down to earth and “real” USC coaches I have met covering or watching the Men of Troy the past 53 years.
The return: If current Trojans wide receiver coach and passing game coordinator Tee Martin isn’t named offensive coordinator by Clay Helton in the future, it wouldn’t shock me if beloved Trojan Kennedy Polamalu, current assistant at UCLA, returned to the Trojans as offensive coordinator since his views on power football are well known to Clay Helton.
Recruiting outlook: Clay Helton will do an outstanding job of recruiting, and it wouldn’t be a shock here if he regained some of those former verbals that went astray when those high-profile prospects saw what the rest of us saw, a program that was spiraling out of control and its future in murky waters.
The media speaks: Even though I am part of the media, I am somewhat amused at those national columnists that do not cover the Trojans on a daily or weekly basis and their testy perspective on the hiring of Clay Helton. Of course, much of their discord was not directed at Helton but at Pat Haden.
Friends: After the word came out regarding the hiring of Clay Helton, a few of my respected old cronies called me to ask my “insiders” opinion. I told them I thought it was a very good hire. Most my buds almost fainted that I gave Helton huge props. One said, “I can’t believe I am actually hearing you say something positive about a Trojans head coach football hiring. I can’t believe it. YOU just said they got the hiring right?” Hey, just telling it like it is.
The last word: Don’t know about you, but I am tired of hearing the words “due diligence” overused by so many decision makers.
Garry Paskwietz (1966-2019)
Garry Paskwietz was a pioneer in bringing team-specific sports coverage to the internet. He founded WeAreSC in 1998 and was an Emmy winner for his work with Fox Sports West. Always generous with his time, knowledge, and compassion, he touched the lives of countless USC and high school football fans.