• John Skinner

Inside dirt heading into UCLA

Why Helton will be back with a victory over UCLA - With a win on Saturday, especially convincingly, expect Clay Helton to lead the program in 2020. Though fans might be disappointed that Bohn would retain Helton, rationally speaking, when looking at the facts, it is arguably the right choice. Why?—

*The economics are rough at best. 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 (thanks Janice Hahn). The Pac-12 media deal pays half of what Big-10 schools get and the department is on an antiquated deal with Nike that is up for renewal in a few years.

*The dream of Urban Meyer is just that. Neither side has shown much interest and fans tend to forget his health struggles and though the timing might seem perfect to fans from a football perspective, it doesn’t appear to be from an administrative and cost perspective.

*Who else guarantees a better situation?- Outside of Penn State’s James Franklin, which would be difficult hire to pull off, what other coach that doesn’t have a significant buy-out guarantees top 10 level success?

*Administratively, both the university and the athletic department are in the midst of major changes and dealing with fall-out from various scandals.

*Dr. Folt and her leadership team have been praised for their initial efforts in making cultural changes with the Lord Foundation recently committing $270M to the University. Though winning football is important to school spirit and a positive contributor to University success, it is not the focal point sports fans believe it is in terms of fundraising a multi-billion dollar endowment.

Performance wise-

*After a disastrous 5-7 season, SC will have beat oddsmakers expectations with an 8-win regular season despite facing one of the toughest schedules in the country, starting a true freshman QB and dealing with major injury issues. A win over UCLA probably puts them in the Alamo Bowl against Baylor or Texas. Yes, the Alamo Bowl is not what Trojan fans strive for, however, this season would have been considered a success under the circumstances if SC’s coach was not named Clay Helton.

*Should Kedon Slovis play well against UCLA, he is on track to have one of the best seasons in NCAA history for a freshman quarterback. This is happening in Graham Harrell’s first year as offensive coordinator. Offenses typically make a big leap in year two. With the bulk of the offense returning, it could be very detrimental to potentially shake that up.

*The coaching changes made last season strengthened the staff. Does a change at defensive coordinator further those efforts?

*Clay and his staff deserve credit for recruiting better than the rankings last season. The 2019 class has produced some gems and two of the biggest recruits in Kyle Ford and Bru McCoy are red-shirting. This year’s class will rank low but it is only a 12 scholarship class and SC will also have a shot at some top players in the transfer portal who want to get back to the West Coast.

*Another year allows Bohn to get firmly settled at SC and put together a proper game plan to acquire the right coach if needed. Either way, it is clear from former players and other that have spent time with Bohn that he will want a more physical program...both football and basketball.

**Though, if UCLA upsets USC on Saturday, it would most likely mean the end of the Clay Helton era despite the financial constraints. Two consecutive ugly losses in the Coliseum and going 0-4 against the ND and UCLA over the last two seasons will be a hard sell at best.

Prepping for UCLA / what to expect- Despite coming off a blow-out loss at Utah (49-3), the 4-6 Bruins won the previous three games in convincing fashion over Colorado, Stanford and Arizona State. Offensively, UCLA works with a physical run game and misdirection plays. Everything starts with running back Joshua Kelley, who ranks second in the Pac-12 in rushing this season, gaining 104.3 yards per game. He has 10 touchdowns and has been on a roll. He’s rushed for at least 125 yards in four of UCLA’s past six games, including 176 yards and a 9.8 yard-per-carry average against Stanford, and four rushing touchdowns against Arizona State.

Kelley still averaged more than four yards per carry in the loss at Utah. Last season, Kelley rushed for 289 yards and set the single-game record for rushing yards in a USC-UCLA game last season.

Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson can be a dynamic playmaker, and he can also be a liability with some of his decision making and ball security issues. He’s completed just 59.9% of his passes for 2,056 yards and 17 touchdowns, but has thrown 10 interceptions and has fumbled several times inside the red zone. He has the ability to run with at least a 15-yard rush in each of his past six games.

UCLA will overload the line of scrimmage with offensive linemen and tight ends, and will shift pre-snap to go to unbalanced lines. The Trojans have struggled at times against this type of offense and this could be a bigger test then it appears. UCLA starts two true freshman on the left side of the line and will not be able to dominate the SC front seven like they did last year. Despite Kelley’s great stats, the Bruins average just 3.8 yards per rush and rank fifth in the Pac-12 in rushing offense. They have allowed 28 sacks on the year, 109th nationally while the Trojans are one of the best teams at procuring sacks in the Pac-12. They are 11th in passing offense and UCLA has struggled mightily in the red zone, ranking last in the Pac-12 and 102nd nationally.

Defensively, UCLA employs a 3-4 base look that ranks 10th in the conference and 123rd overall in passing defense. The rush defense is better but still ranks only 6th in the conference. The big issue for the Bruin defense is its inability to slow down strong passing teams like the Trojans and have only four interceptions on the season. The strength of the defense is upfront and combined with exotic pressures using linebackers and the secondary, they will test the SC offensive front and look to force Slovis into a multiple turnover game.

In terms of special teams, the Bruins have some explosive players in Demetric Felton and Kyle Phillips. Felton is one of the best kick returners in the nation and Phillips averages 22.5 yards per punt return. USC is one of the worst teams in the nation when it comes to kickoff coverage, ranking 128th. (UCLA preview credit to Erik Mckinney wearesc.com)

Keys to a Trojan victory-

*Limit Kelley’s explosive plays- Kelley is a special talent and UCLA head coach Chip Kelly will figure out ways to get him going. It might be unrealistic to fully contain him but the key will be to cut down his big plays and hold him around 100 yards rushing.

*Strong offensive line play and semblance of running game- If the offensive line is able to give Slovis time and the Trojans are also able to create some balance on offense with a solid rushing attack, Kedon Slovis should be able to have a big day against a Bruin secondary that will not be able to keep up with SC’s talented receivers.

*Contain UCLA’s return game and limit turnovers- If the Trojans do not turn the ball over multiple times and keep the ball out of Felton and Philipps hands in the return game, the victory bell will be back in USC’s hands.

Extensive Game Preview- Here is a link to the extensive game preview by Tom Haire of uscfootball.com

Betting Guide- The current spread has the Trojans favored at 13.5 points after hitting 14 points earlier in the week. The total is 66.5. The Trojans are 5-5-1 against the spread (ATS) and 6-5 going over on the point total. The Bruins are 4-5-1 ATS and 5-4-1 going under the point total. SC is 4-2 ATS in their last six and UCLA is 5-2 ATS in their last seven against USC. Oddshark currently has a projected score of USC 35 – UCLA 21. UCLA is 1-9 in their last ten trips to the Coliseum. USC is just 5-10 ATS in their last 15 home games.

Carol Skinner Memorial Tid-bits-

*The Trojans finally have three healthy running backs with the return of Vavae Malepeai, who missed five game due to knee surgery.

*UCLA ranks last in the Pac-12 in giving up plays of more than 50-yards. They rank 10th or worse in the conference when it comes to pass plays of 10+, 20+, 30+ and 40+ yards.

*Another strong game from Wide Receiver Michael Pittman Jr. could land him the Biletnikoff award for the best receiver in the nation. He has 82 catches for 1,118 yards and 9 TD's. He is also one of the best downfield blocking wideouts in the country. Will Amon-Ra St. Brown fill these shoes next year.

*Wide Receiver Drake London was named Pac-12 Freshman of the Week after his six-catch, 111-yard effort against Cal. He’s the third freshman on the team to earn that honor this season, joining quarterback Kedon Slovis and running back Kenan Christon.

*USC and UCLA combine for almost 14 penalties per game (USC 7.27, UCLA 6.6), and they rank 11th and 12th in the conference in turnover margin.

*Kedon Slovis graded out at an elite 90.5 per Pro Football Focus, going 29/35 for 406 yards and 4TD’s. He completed 19/21 passes in the middle of the field for 254 yards.

*The Trojans are ranked 23rd in the college football playoff rankings.