Consult the message boards and you’d think the Trojans were 3-8 and on the verge of a teamwide mutiny. But in a season filled with fan negativity, head coaching rumors and crippling injuries, USC has a chance to finish the regular season 8-4 with a win over UCLA.
The players deserve credit for staying focused through adversity and maintaining a championship mindset even when their season appeared to be taking a nosedive three or four different times.
Seniors like wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. deserve credit for keeping the locker room together after the team’s most crushing setback — an embarrassing 32-point loss to Oregon.
Once winning the Pac-12 South became a long shot, Pittman could have made the season all about improving his NFL Draft stock. In the past few years, we’ve even seen players of his caliber — including Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa and LSU running back Leonard Fournette — cut their seasons short to start prepping for the Combine.
Pittman, who stayed for his senior year following USC’s worst season in almost two decades, would sooner drop a wide-open pass in the end zone than think of turning his back on his team.
Pittman has certainly earned himself a lot of money on the field this season. But he’s also helped keep the team together by leading by example. Following the Cal win, he could have basked in his ridiculous 11-catch, 180-yard performance. He certainly earned that right. Instead, he showed why NFL teams are going to fall in love with his attitude just as much as they will with his leaping ability, speed and ball skills.
USC has often shown flashes of brilliance but rarely the consistency to put it together for all four quarters. An impact coaching change will be the first step in marrying elite talent with elite execution.
“Honestly, I felt like I didn’t play that good,” said Pittman, who should really teach a class on humility. “I felt like I left 100 more yards out there.”
Freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis also deserves loads of credit. Not only did he take over an offense that could have collapsed after losing sophomore starting quarterback JT Daniels, but he made that offense prolific. Slovis has thrown for 400 or more yards in three of his last four games. To put that in perspective, former USC quarterback Sam Darnold topped 400 yards just once in 27 career games.
Slovis’ decision-making and pocket presence have gotten better with each and every week. He’s also thrown for four touchdowns in three of the past four games. Forget him putting together one of the best freshman seasons by a USC quarterback: He’s having one of the best seasons by a freshman at any position in school history.
Speaking of Slovis’ development, offensive coordinator Graham Harrell deserves credit for grooming the three-star recruit this offseason and letting him power the offense once he assumed the starting job. Time and time again, Harrell has given the Arizona native room to take risks and make mistakes.
A few weeks ago, Harrell talked about how excited he was to have Slovis for another full offseason, touting the improvements his former protege Mason Fine made at North Texas from year one to two in his offense. The caveat is that no one is certain Harrell will get the chance to continue working with Slovis beyond this season.
Whatever happens, Harrell has coached himself into the conversation of sticking around. Sure, there have been spotty moments and questionable calls in the red zone. But it’s tantalizing to imagine how much further Slovis could grow under his tutelage with much of USC’s talented receiving corps returning next season.
Many will be quick to call this a lost season for the Trojans, but it feels more like a transitional one. With a freshman quarterback and young stars such as freshman defensive end Drake Jackson and sophomore safety Talanoa Hufanga on defense, this team will be stacked with talent for the foreseeable future.
USC has often shown flashes of brilliance but rarely the consistency to put it together for all four quarters. An impact coaching change will be the first step in marrying elite talent with elite execution. New athletic director Mike Bohn seems likely to bring someone in to fill head coach Clay Helton’s role, with names like Urban Meyer and Penn State’s James Franklin floating around.
For now, the Trojan fan base should celebrate these players and what they’ve accomplished this season despite being written off time and time again… Change is coming, and the institution realizes the program isn’t where it needs to be.
For now, the Trojan fan base should celebrate these players and what they’ve accomplished this season despite being written off time and time again. It may feel like settling for something less than greatness, but it’s not. Change is coming, and the institution realizes the program isn’t where it needs to be. Until that happens, players like Pittman, Slovis and Jackson deserve your support, even if they’re not playing for a Rose Bowl.
Of course, I can’t write about the state of USC football without mentioning its abysmal 2020 recruiting class that ranks behind teams like Appalachian State, Bowling Green and North Texas, according to 247 Sports.
So, I’ll leave you with this: We know recruits are tuned into the uncertainty at head coach and the embarrassing losses like the one against Oregon, but they’re also tuned into fan negativity. The players will suit up for this Saturday’s crosstown showdown and treat it like it’s the Super Bowl. They deserve at least half of that energy from their own fans. Because right now, USC’s recruiting ranking matches up with the attitude of its fanbase.
If the fans want USC to be a championship contender, they must commend the efforts of the players in this transitional season.
Trevor Denton is a senior writing about sports. He is also a former sports editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “T-Time,” typically runs every other Thursday.