• John Skinner

Inside dirt heading into Arizona

The AD search- Members of the search committee are very tight lipped about candidates and the process. The University does not want any unnecessary interference or rumors causing issues with this important hire, especially with candidates having likely employment at major institutions. Preferred candidates are being interviewed and the hope is to land a director with successful administrative experience dealing with tradition rich football and basketball programs. Though some top-notch college football writers claim to have inside knowledge, it is important to remember how easy it is for inaccurate information to be circulated from sources such as agents, influential alumni and media types hyping interest in a candidate/scenario, even though they are not being considered.

Expect the tempo of the offense to pick-up as Slovis gets more experience- Picking up the pace was a point of emphasis in practice this week and for good reason…the Trojans played quicker in the second half vs. Notre Dame (38 plays/4 drives) and had far more success developing a rhythm. SC is only averaging 68 plays a game, 7th in the Pac-12 while offensive coordinators Graham Harrell’s offence at North Texas last year averaged 74.3 plays per game. Harrell wants the Trojans averaging at least 75 offensive snaps a game during the second half of the season.

Slovis 2nd half performance at Notre Dame extremely positive- After playing conservatively and a bit unsure of himself in the first half, Kedon Slovis had a great second half against one of the best pass defenses in the country. Over the past few seasons, the Trojan offense typically struggled in the second half, and that was not the case in South Bend. In only his third college start, in one of the most iconic settings in college football history, Slovis proved his performance against Stanford wasn’t a fluke and he should be able to take the Trojan offense to another level heading into the second half of the season. Four of SC’s next six opponents, rank 102nd or worse in pass defense.

SC’s offensive numbers should increase dramatically over the next two weeks- The Trojans have played three of the best defenses in the country (Utah, Washington and Notre Dame) and BYU’s pass defense ranks in the top 30 nationally. The Trojan offensive numbers are fairly pedestrian and not the numbers expected with the Air-Raid offense. However, they will be playing against two of the worst defenses in the conference (Arizona and Colorado) over the next two weeks and Slovis appears ready to take things to the next level. Plus, breakout RB Markese Stepp’s carries will continue to increase, making it more difficult for teams to readily drop eight defenders into pass coverage.

Speaking of Stepp- Markese put the nation on notice that even though the Trojans run the Air-Raid, they have a power back capable of moving the chains at an elite level. Stepp and Stephen Carr will be the Trojans “Thunder and Lightning” light with starting RB Vivae Malapeai undergoing knee surgery this week. Stepp ranks 30th in the nation in yards per carry (6.89).

Next man up- will we see freshman speedster RB #23 Kenan Christon?- The Trojans fastest RB is Kenan Christon, who had some big-time runs in fall camp and was not caught from behind once he got into space. The plan is to redshirt Kenan, who is still quite green when it comes to pass blocking and understanding the offensive concepts. However, per NCAA rules, he is allowed to play in four games while still maintaining his redshirt. If the coaching staff wants to save him for later in the year, #27 Redshirt Junior Quincy Jountti, a transfer from Sacramento State, is more than capable to fill a “spot” role if needed.

Trojans are “very thankful” Chris Steele came back to LA- True freshman CB Chris Steele has been one of the four highest-graded USC defensive players in four of the last five games, delivering excellent consistency in the defensive backfield. With mounting injuries, Steele is a vital component to the defense and could easily be doing this at the University of Florida, where he participated in spring practice. Thankfully for SC, Steele had a roommate getting into trouble and the Florida football staff failed to help Steele which gave him an opportunity to get back to Los Angeles and have immediate eligibility.

Defense really banged up- SC will likely be missing four defensive starters vs. Arizona- Outside linebacker Palaie Gaoteote IV suffered a bad ankle sprain and will probably miss at least the next two games. Sophomore Kana’I Mauga will start in his place. The defensive backfield, where the Trojans have the least amount of experienced depth, is a mess. Nickleback Greg Johnson is out with a shoulder injury, CB Olajiah Griffin is out with a bad back and CB Isaac Taylor-Stuart has a high ankle sprain and is doubtful but did lightly practice Thursday. Thus, another true freshman, Dorian Hewett, who was converted to CB from safety about a month ago, is in line for his first defensive snaps of the season, with fellow freshman Jayden Williams next behind him. Hewett would start if Taylor-Stuart is unable to go. In practice on Wednesday, the first team secondary was made up of only freshman and sophomores.

Defensive lineman Christian Rector is still struggling with a high-ankle sprain which Notre Dame attacked with great success. He graded out a season low 39.4 (including 24.4 tackling grade) vs. the Irish. He will start against Arizona but his mobility is something to keep an eye on.

Defense has to get better on third down- The Trojans have struggled in creating 4th downs for the opponent. They rank 80th nationally in this category, allowing opposing drive to continue close to 40% of the time. This was a killer in the 4th quarter of the Notre Dame game when the Irish converted four 3rd down opportunities (two of which were 3rd and long) during a back-breaking seven minute drive to take a 30-20 lead. SC has only forced 21 punts this season, ranking near the bottom nationally. It will not get any easier against Arizona who ranks 11th nationally in third down conversion and is 2nd in the Pac-12 in total yards per game (509).

Defense Part II- The inability to stop outside runs back-breaking- It is safe to say the Trojans might be 5-1 and at worst 4-2 if they defended outside-the-tackle runs better. The Trojans have allowed 6.1 yards per carry on those type of runs, worst in the Pac-12 and 111th among FBS programs. Notre Dame attacked this repeatedly leading to over 300 yards rushing and breaking one run for a 51-yard touchdown. It has been an issue since the Fresno State game and if it can’t be strategically dealt with, the Trojans will not win the Pac-12 South.

Don’t be surprised if SC wins the Pac-12 championship- Despite all of “negative noise” and talk of who might be the next SC head coach, if the Trojans can stay relatively, they have a legitimate shot at finishing 5-1/6-0 and playing for a Pac-12 title. After communicating with several players, the vibe feels different than last year and they were extremely positive and “hungry” despite the loss to Notre Dame. Some stated the second half performance at Notre Dame will be seen as a turning point. They would have gotten blown out in that scenario the last two years. Even some Notre Dame coaches stated off-the-record, they would want nothing to do with the Trojans later in the year. According to the Sagarin ratings, SC has played the 4th toughest schedule in the country thus far, and at this point, will be favorites in at least four and probably five of the remaining games with the toughest opponent, Oregon, at home. The Pac-12 is still relatively weak and this is the best coaching staff under Helton, with the young talent improving.

On the flip side…why so many expect the Trojans to stumble- Under Clay Helton, the Trojans have struggled to a 10-13 record in true road games and though the toughest road games are out of the way, it is still a slippery slope. Next week, they play on a Friday evening at Colorado…opposing road teams are just 5-15 straight up in the shortened week Pac-12 game. It is also a “look-ahead” game with #12 Oregon the following week. They play back-to-back road games against solid Cal and Arizona State teams…back-to-back road victories happen at a low % at the college level. Secondly, the defense is facing some significant injury issues and they are struggling to defend against the run.

Quick note on Arizona’s offense- The Wildcats have put up impressive numbers offensively, ranking 2nd in the Pac-12 many statistical categories They have three games with more than 350 yards passing, and two games this season with more than 300 yards on the ground. QB Khalil Tate runs an impressive RPO offense and is the best dual threat QB the Trojans have faced. He’s completed a career-high 65% of his passes has rushed for over 230 yards and mobile QB’s have haunted defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast throughout his SC tenure. However, if SC is is able to contain him to the pocket, he has the propensity to throw interceptions and get rattled. When Arizona faced a comparable defense, in Washington, Tate and the offense did not live up to the stats above and got blown out. Along those lines, don’t be surprised to see highly touted freshman Grant Gunnell if Tate struggles early. Gunnell is a more accurate thrower than Tate and was impressive in a victory over UCLA when Tate was out with a hamstring injury.

Red-Zone conversions will be the key factor for both teams- The Wildcats offense ranks 29th (70%) in the nation in red zone touchdown conversion. QB Khalil Tate has an excellent passer rating of 164 in the red zone and when you combine that with his ability to run and make plays outside the pocket, Arizona might be an even stiffer test than Notre Dame near the goal line. That said, the Trojans rank 11th in the nation in limiting red-zone touchdowns.

Offensively, SC has been disappointing in the red zone, ranking 90th nationally in the red zone and only scoring touchdowns 56% of the time. The Trojans should improve on that though against the Wildcats who rank 126th nationally, giving up scores 95% of the time and touchdowns 63% of the time.

Extensive Game Preview- Here is a link to Tom Haire’s extensive game preview via uscfootball.com.

Betting Guide- The Trojans are 9.5 point favorites with the over/under at 67. The over is 4-0 in the Wildcats past four road games, and 5-1 in the past six Pac-12 games. However, the under is 4-0 in SC’s past four, and 4-1 in the team’s past five meetings. Arizona is 1-5 ATS in their last six against the Trojans and are 2-3-1 ATS on the year. The Trojans are 3-3 ATS this year and 7-13 ATS in their last 20. 63% of the worldwide money has been bet on the Trojans. Though 67 points is a lot, due to Trojans defensive injuries and Arizona’s overall defensive issues…that appears to be a good bet.

Carol Skinner Memorial Tid-bits-

*There will be an F-16 flyover before the game.

* #19 Ralen Goforth, a true freshman linebacker who graduated early and participated in spring practice, continues to excel in practice and special teams play. With Gaoteote out with a sprained ankle, Goforth will get some looks in the defensive rotation. He was rated a 3*coming out of high school but is starting to prove to the coaches he may have been an underrated recruit.

* The SC defensive line has 14 sacks, tied for 3rd in the Pac-12; they also have 37 tackles for loss, also tied for 3rd in the conference.

* Arizona’s pass rush has tallied just five sacks all season, ranking 124th nationally.

*The Trojans have managed to go turnover-free in just two games but they have failed to create a takeaway in five. USC’s turnover margin sits at minus-7 through six games, ranking 121st in the nation.

*The 2019 Graduation Success Rate of USC student-athletes hit an all-time high for the sixth consecutive year, reaching 90%, according to data released by the NCAA. The 2019 GSR measures how many student-athletes in the classes of 2009 through 2012 graduated within six years of their enrollment. That 90% figure is four percentage points higher than USC's 2018 mark. It also is 23 percentage points higher than it was when the NCAA first released GSR numbers in 2005.