2016 Utah Preview
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.