Perhaps it was for the best that USC’s 41-28 loss to Utah was buried in the Los Angeles sports headlines on Saturday, with the Dodgers winning the pennant and a fight breaking out at LeBron James’ Lakers home debut. It deserved to be hidden on television on the Pac-12 Network and on radio — due to the Lakers game — on a country music station.
It wasn’t worth watching or listening to anyway.
The same, predictable things happened. The Trojans jumped out to a 14-0 lead, but not on the offense’s merits. The first touchdown, an ill-advised throw into double coverage from freshman quarterback JT Daniels to junior wide receiver Michael Pittman, should’ve been intercepted. The second was a defensive score.
Despite the early lead, at no point did the offense have a rhythm. At no point did Daniels look comfortable. At no point did this team, stacked with five-star recruits, look even slightly in control against a far-less talented Utah team. We’ve been over this, time and time again.
It was hardly a surprise when Utah came back, a la Texas. When USC failed to score on its final five possessions of the first half, it was already over. The halftime score read 20-14 in favor of Utah, but it felt like total domination.
In the end, it was. The Utes scored 34 unanswered points and racked up 541 total yards of offense, more than doubling USC’s 205 yards. The Trojans managed 73 yards on the ground and 132 yards in the air. They started the game 0-for-10 on third down conversions and possessed the ball for more than nine fewer minutes than the Utes.
Translation: not good.
“We hadn’t had a night like that since Alabama in ’16,” offensive coordinator Tee Martin said.
I was at AT&T Stadium two years ago for that rout, a 52-6 loss to open the 2016 season. I never thought I’d witness anything close to it again. But Saturday was, in fact, USC’s worst offensive performance since that game, when the Trojans recorded 194 yards of offense against the Crimson Tide.
In that game, with USC down big in the second half, a backup redshirt freshman quarterback by the name of Sam Darnold saw his first action in garbage time. It wasn’t long before he took over the team, and we took the quarterback position at USC for granted. It didn’t matter that the playcalling was suspect, or the defense slipped up, or something happened on special teams — Darnold cleaned up the mess for the next two seasons.
Now, with a true freshman at quarterback, USC no longer has that luxury. We’ve known this since the opener against UNLV, and especially after Weeks 2 and 3, when Daniels showed growing pains in losses at Texas and Stanford. It is Week 7, and he still hangs in the pocket too long, still throws off his back foot when he doesn’t need to.
But the losses aren’t on Daniels. Plenty of college football teams have freshman quarterbacks who are inexperienced and make mistakes in their debut seasons. That’s fine. That’s what happens when you trust an 18-year-old to run the offense.
Head coach Clay Helton said it himself in his postgame presser, so I won’t sound too accusatory: Blame the team’s shortcomings on him.
“I’m going to put everything on me, as far as performance,” Helton said. “My job as head coach is to make sure we’re performing at a high level, and we didn’t do go enough to win the football game.”
Step one is recognizing the problem. Helton did that. Step two is solving it.
It starts with putting the quarterback in the best situation to succeed. That means establishing the run game so Daniels is not forced to throw the ball on third-and-long. It is incredible that with three stellar running backs, USC’s rushing attack is still inconsistent and failed to hit 100 yards against a Utah defense that played a Cover 2 formation — which invites the offense to run the ball or throw for short gains — for much of the night. Not only did the Utes clamp down on Daniels’ pass attempts, but they also shut down the run.
“We hit it up a couple times [on the ground], but not consistently enough to take them out of Cover 2 and we weren’t running it consistently enough [for Utah to] feel like they needed to change,” Martin said.
That responsibility — calling the plays, making in-game adjustments — rests on the shoulders of the coaching staff. Week in and week out, this team has far too much talent for play-calling to drag everything down. This team is too good to not be in control of the Pac-12 South.
But that’s where we are. If, for some reason, you didn’t want to watch the Dodgers or Lakers on Saturday and flipped over to USC football, you saw exactly what has plagued this team all season long. And as the mediocrity drags on for the remainder of this season, one can’t help but wonder what the tipping point is for the people in charge at Heritage Hall.
Eric He is a senior majoring in journalism. He is also the managing editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Grinding Gears,” runs Mondays.