How do you know that your football program is having a bad start to the season?
Let me count the ways: have two players embroil themselves in rape investigations and a third suspended for stomping on an opponent’s groin, have your best player get into a fight and walk out of practice, lose your starting center for the season and drop out of the AP Top 25 at the earliest point of a season in a non-sanction year since 1993 — all on the heels of a historically devastating 46-point drubbing to No. 1 Alabama following months of preparation.
Welcome to USC football in 2016, where the only silver lining in losing to Alabama is perhaps that Los Angeles is not located in the state of Alabama.
Few experts predicted that the Trojans would upset the Crimson Tide, but the hope was that the game would be competitive, that an 0-1 record would not look too bad if USC at least made Alabama head coach Nick Saban’s powerhouse work hard for the win. The Trojans did that for about 12 minutes, and then it was like the Crimson Tide reached the apex of the world’s longest roller coaster and simply glided down for the next three quarters.
Nearly everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Head coach Clay Helton, who has had three consecutive chances to make a strong impression in big games with the USC faithful, is 0-3 to start his head coaching career, with losses in the Pac-12 Championship Game, the Holiday Bowl and now this debacle. His quarterback pick, redshirt junior Max Browne, had a primetime stage for his debut and put up a bland performance. When Helton turned to Sam Darnold, hoping for a flash in the pan, the redshirt freshman responded with uninspiring three-and-outs.
The list goes on. Junior wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, one of the top wideouts in the country, had just one catch. The offensive line, vaunted as one of the most experienced in the country, was manhandled by the Alabama defense. According to Pro Football Focus, USC’s entire offensive line received a grand total of one positively graded run block in the entire first half. You read that right — one.
The run game, which we were promised would be a staple of the offense, was limited to 2.1 yards per carry and just 64 yards in all. The defense, after a strong start, wound up being shredded apart, missing coverages, leaving receivers wide open and allowing long runs — all with a true freshman quarterback under center for Alabama for much of the game. And we haven’t even talked about Lane Kiffin (whose Twitter game is elite) or Steve Sarkisian (who must be the happiest newly-employed man on the face of the earth).
Even the most ardent of supporters would be hard-pressed to sugarcoat this loss. When both the head coach and athletic director come out and say that one loss doesn’t define who they are, you know they’ve run out of silver linings because there are really just two positives: It’s only been a week, and the next opponent is not Alabama.
Instead, it is Utah State of the Mountain West Conference. This is a home game against a relatively unknown team, kicking off at 11 a.m. and airing on the Pac-12 Network. Finally, USC can show what it is capable of while under a hundred times less pressure than its season opener — and it better.
The Trojans need to do to the Aggies what the Crimson Tide did to them. They’re “only” 16-point favorites to beat Utah State, but a 16-point win might not even cut it on Saturday.
“We’ve got a mad football team right now,” Helton said after a spirited practice on Tuesday. “I wish we could play today to be honest with you.”
USC has to channel the pent-up anger from its opening night humiliation and let it out — all of it. This is Browne’s time to shine, air a few balls downfield and prove that he deserved to be a top recruit and the rightful heir to Cody Kessler. This is Smith-Schuster’s time to have his typical monster game, rack up 100 yards or more and get reacquainted with the offense. This is the time for the featured running backs — sophomore Ronald Jones II and senior Justin Davis — to be the imposing presence they were supposed to be, for the offensive line to play up to its experience and for the defense to shore up its mistakes.
Essentially, this is the time for the Trojans to show who they are. This is an immensely talented team that boasts some of the most gifted players in the Pac-12. They are clearly better than their week one performance, but first they need the confidence to know that for a fact. Scoring a touchdown and getting Helton his first win as a head coach would be a good start.
Utah State is not going to simply roll over, but it is far and away the weakest opponent on USC’s unforgivable schedule. This is the Trojans’ only chance to work out their many kinks before the road gets harder and harder (have I mentioned they play Stanford on the road in eight days?).
It is imperative that USC stretches the margin of victory over Utah State as much as possible. That way, perhaps the echo of Lane Kiffin’s laugh won’t be too loud on the flight up to Stanford.
Eric He is a sophomore majoring in print and digital journalism. He is also the sports editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Grinding Gears,” runs Wednesdays.