• John Skinner

Inside dirt heading into the Holiday Bowl

Why Helton is back- This was addressed in the Skinny prior to the UCLA game but do feel it is necessary to revisit the facts of the situation that unfortunately many members of the media fail to provide. The intent is to provide information without getting caught up in the “fervor” that creates false narratives.

This is not to dismiss legitimate criticisms of Helton (win/loss record last two years, lack of disciplined/tough play, recent recruiting efforts, bad losses to top tier teams, etc) or the supreme importance to the Pac-12 that USC be a national power, but since those are already prolifically discussed, it is important to understand why he was retained from a rational, fact-based perspective.

*Bad Timing- the University and the athletic department are still in the midst of dealing with major scandals and figuring out how to move on in a positive fashion. The ramifications of these events handicap the university in terms of who they can legitimately pursue as a coach in the short-term. The Varsity Blues investigation is ongoing and will most likely lead to further changes within the department. A top-tier coach wants stability. Furthermore, the new administration is just getting settled into major roles and wrapping their hands around an institution with around a $5 billion dollar annual budget. Another year or two will allow new athletic director Mike Bohn and his staff to put together a proper a game plan, if needed, to acquire the right coach without all of the drama the department is currently dealing with.

*Economic Reality- The department is reeling from what is rumored to be around a $50M hit from losing the ability to sell naming rights for the Coliseum. They received some money for the field naming rights but it is not close to what they would have received for the stadium naming rights. The Pac-12 media deal pays significantly less than anticipated and the department is on an antiquated deal with Nike that is up for renewal in a few years. When you add this to the cost of dismissing Helton and the current staff along with the cost of a new staff, unless you have a sure fire winner, you could dig yourself in a deeper hole. Plus, the Coliseum is not the only place with less fans…college football attendance is down 13% across the board since 2004.

Helton’s Performance- SC beat oddsmakers expectations (7.5 wins) with an 8-win regular season despite facing one of the toughest schedules in the country, starting a true freshman back-up QB and dealing with major injury issues across the board. The season would have been hailed as a success by many if SC was under a coach not named Clay Helton. His overall track record includes a Rose Bowl win, Sugar Bowl appearance and two Holiday Bowl appearances over a five year period.

The results of the last two seasons do not match the expectations of the fan base, but once again, based on the circumstances, without a home run hire (Urban was never going to happen), it could prove to be foolish to make a change.

True freshman QB Kedon Slovis had one of the best seasons in NCAA history for a true freshman QB in an offense in its first year of Graham Harrell’s offensive makeover. Offenses typically make a big leap in year two and with the bulk of the offense returning, it would be detrimental to shake that up.

The coaching changes made last season strengthened the staff and a likely changes at defensive coordinator and special teams may further those efforts. Furthermore, Helton played a key role in retaining Graham Harrell who had significant job opportunities elsewhere and would have jumped ship if he didn't think they could have a great season next year.

Clay and his staff deserve credit for recruiting better than the rankings last season. The 2019 class produced some gems and two of the biggest recruits (Kyle Ford and Bru McCoy) red-shirted. The class would probably rank in the top 10 based on their contributions this season.

Finally, Helton has the support of the locker room. Outside of the Oregon debacle, the team fought through every game and talented seniors who are potential NFL first/2nd round picks (Pittman and Jackson) chose to play in the bowl game when they could have easily sat out.

Media needs to paint the whole picture not just one side- When reporting on the Helton retention, many members of the media failed to paint the whole picture (USC is partly to blame here). The opinion that USC made a mistake is fine but to not dig deeper and provide the reasoning as to why the decision was made was unfortunate only leading to further the negative backlash. Based on my limited exposure to journalism classes at USC, even when expressing dissenting opinions, acknowledging the other side is a key element.

Speaking of which…the trusted sources- Should you want truthful breaking news regarding USC football pay attention to Bruce Feldman and Pete Thamel. Others who seem to have a direct line are Joel Klatt and Brian Griese. Some SC “insiders” seem to be literally running with stories from anonymous chat room sources that are completely erroneous. How some of these experts get national sports talk show exposure with little to no credibility is crazy.

USC Public/Media relations needs to be more proactive- Across the board it seems the University needs to start getting out in front of stories or putting together a game plan to make sure their side of the story is heard. Releasing a tweet instead of a legitimate press release along with a Q and A to discuss a significant situation created more drama.

It is understandable the University has been in reactionary mood due to recent events. However, with most of the new administration in place, it seems to be a great time to forge better relationships with the LA Times, etc to help create a more positive narrative…though, unfortunately it may not help as negative and/or completely inaccurate storylines lead to more clicks and subscribers these days.

No Thank You Alamo Bowl- Since USC recently played at Texas and is opening next season in Dallas against Alabama, it didn’t make much sense for SC to play in the Alamo Bowl even though they were the preferred choice from a TV ratings standpoint.

Bohn will be more present in 2020…the imprint will start to take shape- The explanation as to why Bohn has not been at some games is quite simple…he has family in other parts of the country and packing up a home in Ohio…normal life stuff. He took over the SC job in the middle of the academic year and not during the summer so it is a little more complicated. From what I know of Mike, he is a hard worker that is very competitive to go with a “get it done” mentality. Once the new year rolls around he will be more present and you will start to see his imprint on the athletic department take shape, especially with his right hand Brandon Sosna officially coming on board. Transitions of this magnitude take time and don’t happen overnight. Start judging his leadership capabilities three years from now…

Down year recruiting wise but next year appearing to be a return to form- No way to sugarcoat the Trojans current recruiting class that ranks last in the Pac-12. Though it will end up around the middle of the Pac when all is said and done and offensive line coach Tim Drevno really like the size and athleticism of the lineman he recruited, not landing an elite linebacker talent like Justin Flowe, among others, hurts and can’t happen two years in a row.

USC is currently projected to have a top-10 class next year based on early verbal commitments. A ton can change over the next year but the current staff knows the extreme importance of next year’s class both for the program and themselves.

Keys to a victory over Iowa-

Kedon Slovis vs. Iowa Secondary- Slovis has feasted on suspect pass defenses this season and toward the end of the regular season he threw for over 400 yards and four touchdowns in four of his final five games against defenses ranking in the bottom third nationally against the pass. However, against the better defenses against the pass, he has thrown multiple interceptions and was easily confused, especially in the Oregon game.

Iowa ranks 11th nationally in passing yards allowed and only two QB’s have surpassed 200 yards against them. The Hawkeye defensive line is strong with sack happy defensive end A.J. Epenesa leading the way.

This will be one of the fiercest tests the Trojans offense has faced. However, Iowa has not faced an offense with the firepower the Trojans possess as they didn’t play Ohio State in Big 10 play.

Slovis will need a 275 yard + performance and avoid multiple interceptions for the Trojans to secure a victory.

Don’t let Iowa dominate the time of possession- Iowa does not have an explosive offense but they are experienced and disciplined with three-year starter Nate Stanley leading the way behind a strong offensive line. Iowa will look to put together long drives and wear down the Trojan defensive front to grind out a victory. The majority of their wins this season happened with the offense scoring less than 20 points but dominating the time of possession.

Convert in the red zone- Opportunities to score could be limited against this tough Iowa defense and the Trojans have struggled in the red zone this year. The Trojans will need to buck that trend to head into next year with a high level of confidence.

Betting Guide- USC is currently a 2-point underdog in a battle of contrasting styles. Turnover margin appears to be the market tiebreaker installing Iowa as a small favorite. Iowa’s safer approach led to a +6 differential on the season. USC’s attack was -7. The Trojans have covered in their last three games, the longest such streak they have had in the past three seasons. Overall, they were 7-5 ATS while Iowa was 5-7. The over/under is 52.5. The under hit eight times in Iowa games this year while the over was achieved in seven of SC’s games. The total has gone over in the last five games Iowa has played against Pac-12 schools.

In-depth analysis- Here is Tom Haire’s in-depth analysis of the Holiday Bowl via uscfootball.com.

Men’s Basketball update- The Trojans (9-2) picked up a key road victory over TCU and a neutral site win over LSU which should prove to be beneficial come selection Sunday time. However, the Pac-12 is strong with seven teams fighting it out for probably only four or five bids. The Trojans are going to have to play a tougher brand of basketball, especially defensively, along with closing games out better if they want to dance in March.

It will be disappointing and possibly devastating for Enfield if the Trojans don’t make the NCAA tournament with the talent they possess. The good news is the highly touted recruiting/transfer portal class has mostly lived up to their billing and this should be the type of team that continues to improve throughout the season. Upperclassman Nick Rackocevic and Jonah Matthews have had some great moments this year but need to be more consistent/reliable, especially when the game is on the line.

Carol Skinner Memorial Tid-bits-

*RB Markese Stepp has been ruled out of the game and starting right tackle Drew Richmond is 50/50.

*USC’s special teams rank 129th out of 130 teams nationally in return yards allowed while Iowa ranks in the nation’s top 10 in the same category.

*Iowa hasn’t allowed more than 24 points all season…the Trojans average 33.2 points per game.

*USC is 13-2 in their last 15 games against the Big 10. SC’s last victory over Iowa was when the Trojans routed the Hawkeyes in the 2003 Orange Bowl.

*The Trojans will be predicted by some to win the Pac-12 championship and a potential threat to be in the college football playoff despite going up against one of the most difficult schedules in the country…most of the starters and key reserves return across the board. QB Kedon Slovis will also be considered one of the early favorites to win the Heisman trophy.