And in that corner… The USC Trojans

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Every time Notre Dame plays USC, there’s intrigue. But while most thought the Trojans’ loss to Washington last Thursday night dampened the enthusiasm for a potential matchup of two Top-15 programs, the abrupt dismissal of Steve Sarkisian changed everything.

On a Saturday packed full of big-time matchups, Notre Dame’s game with the Trojans might not be the biggest when it comes to playoff implications. But all of college football will be watching as USC plays for interim head coach Clay Helton, in charge of steering the Trojans through some remarkably rough waters. Helton is the fourth different head coach to face Notre Dame in four years, shocking after Pete Carroll’s tenure building one of the finest programs of the modern era.

There to see it all has been Shotgun Spratling. One of the busiest guys on the SoCal beat, Shotgun covers the Trojans for Scout’s USCFootball.com among the half dozen other places you’ll find his byline.

In one of the craziest weeks I can remember, Shotgun brought his A-game. Enjoy.

 

Okay, let’s tackle the Steve Sarkisian suspension / firing from a football perspective first. How badly does this impact USC’s preparation for Notre Dame this weekend? What do you expect from this team now that Clay Helton is the man in charge? 

Strangely, the craziness swirling around Heritage Hall this week might actually be good for the Trojans. When any kind of big incident happens in life, “work” can be a welcomed distraction. You can lock in and focus on one thing rather than being bothered by everything else. The player that might hang out in the quad, go to a party or any other social activity might instead spend the extra hour or two watching film in their room. No one wants to answer a constant barrage of questions about someone else’s actions.

With Clay Helton’s experience taking over previously and having gone through the interim experience before, he has a great idea of what will work and what may not to get the team motivated and focused in this type of situation. If the leaders on the team step up and show the right maturity, the Trojans are likely to have an “us against the world” type of attitude.

 

Off the field, this is a horrendous story for a jillion reasons. What do you make of the 180 Pat Haden made in the time between Sunday’s meeting with the media and Monday’s decision to fire Sark? And what do you make of the man in charge of Trojan sports? He’s coming under pressure now, too, and understandably when you look at the direction football and basketball programs have gone, not to mention the gamble on Sark. 

I don’t think it was necessarily a 180 as much as Pat Haden needed some time to digest, research and decipher what exactly had just happened. He was at a basketball event at the Galen Center when he was informed Sarkisian wasn’t at practice. I actually saw him leaving as I was arriving for the event and he definitely did not have a smile on his face. Sarkisian was scheduled to speak to reporters after the Sunday afternoon practice, so when he was unavailable, someone had to take his place. That put the wheels in motion and somewhat forced Haden to make a comment.

After he had a day to determine exactly what was going on, rather than an hour, I’m sure he was able to take his findings to the legal team, those he trusts and those he reports to and eventually come to the decision of firing Sarkisian. More than a 180, I think this was ultimately a progression of events during the 24-hour span.

Haden is coming under a lot of fire for the Sarkisian hire and that pressure definitely should be on his shoulders. This was his guy and Haden has said that Sarkisian was vetted “extensively” prior to his hire. The biggest concern is that Sarkisian had been known in coaching circles to have a good time. Obviously, if done responsibly, there’s nothing wrong with that and by virtue of him having no previous incidents or run-ins with authorities, you likely assume that he had done so responsibly in the past. But with abuse of any substance, there is almost always an escalation. Sarkisian is currently in the midst of a divorce and potentially losing his three kids as well. What effect did that have on him?

After former basketball coach Kevin O’Neill had an incident that involved alcohol and led to a suspension, it seems Haden should have come down more stringent against Sarkisian after the Salute to Troy event before the season began. If he did, maybe we all wouldn’t be in the current situation.

 

All of this comes after USC laid an incredible egg against Washington in the Coliseum on Thursday. Did you see that coming? And how did the Trojan offense get stopped?

The last five years while I’ve been in Los Angeles, I’ve grown to expect the unexpected. Thursday night’s game was very similar to the Washington State game in Lane Kiffin’s final half season. Turnovers and offensive ineptitude allowed an inferior team to beat a USC squad with vastly superior talent.

The offense actually stopped itself more than it got stopped. During the Arizona State game, the Sun Devils blitzed constantly and completely shut down the rushing attack, but rather than constantly trying to run it (which UCLA tried and failed to do the next week), USC attacked with the pass. Washington was the exact opposite. With big running lanes and continued struggles in the passing game, partially due to losing All-American center Max Tuerk and two starting receivers, USC didn’t just take what the Husky defense was giving them.

They continually tried to fling it around the yard. After a fourth quarter touchdown drive that featured a pass to a running back and four runs for 46 yards, USC got the ball back and went three-and-out on three consecutive pass plays. Then on a critical third-and-6 from the 25-yard line — an area Sarkisian has often run on third down when he plans to go for it on fourth down — the Trojans tried to pass despite the four previous runs on the drive averaging 7.5 yards per attempt. Cody Kessler, who had an uncharacteristically poor performance, took a sack and then USC inexplicably attempted a field goal down five points and Washington needing just a first down to assure that it could run out the clock.

 

Notre Dame’s had its share of injury woes. Now it appears the bug has caught the Trojans. All Pac-12 center Max Tuerk is done for the year with a knee injury. Defensive lineman Claude Pelon looks doubtful. What’s the status of this team physically?

Unfortunately, all of college football has been subject to injuries. It’s terrible, but the sport is becoming a war of attrition. The team with the best top-end talent is rarely going to win any more, but the team with the most quality depth has a much better chance.

Any time you lose an All-American caliber player like Tuerk it’s a big blow. Not only is he strong at his position, but he made all the calls on the offensive line, so he made his offensive line mates stronger as well. But even more important is that he was the “heart and soul of the offensive line and probably the offense” as sophomore lineman Viane Talamaivao told me after the game. It was an emotional blow to the unit. But the good thing is that the Trojans had been rotating in seven offensive linemen most of the time. Now Talamaivao just moves into the starting lineup. Toa Lobendahn, who is the Swiss Army knife of the unit, takes over at center where some think he should have been playing to begin with (with Tuerk moving back to tackle where he began his career). If Lobendahn makes the right calls, there might not be much of a discernible drop off.

Other injuries the Trojans are currently dealing with include Claude Pelon, who is doubtful after a knee sprain that saw his leg go a different direction than the rest of his body, and a pair of receivers. One of the Trojans best blockers and most consistent route runners, Darreus Rogers, was injured on the first play from scrimmage against Arizona State and missed the Washington game while explosive slot receiver Steven Mitchell Jr. took a direct hit below the knee while being wrapped up by another defender right before halftime last week. Rogers should be back, barring a setback, but he’s dealing with a hamstring pull and those are easy to re-injure. Mitchell Jr. is questionable. Freshman starting cornerback Iman Marshall (abdominal) also left the Washington game after a vicious blindside hit, but he is expected to play this weekend.

 

Last year, the Trojans torched an injury-ravaged Notre Dame defense in the Coliseum. This year, the key matchup will be an Irish secondary that’s underperforming take on the SC skill talent. How confident do the Trojans feel about this matchup?

You can bet that USC will show some clips from last season’s game leading up to this weekend’s visit to South Bend and it will be repeated over and over to the offensive line that they have to give Kessler some time in order for there to be a repeat performance. Explosive plays have been the Trojans’ calling card all season and that’s definitely a matchup they’ll try to exploit. But the injuries to Rogers, Mitchell Jr. and Marshall (because all the cornerbacks need to be healthy in order for the always dangerous Adoree’ Jackson to have extensive side on the offensive side) could play a big role.

 

Can this team keep it together? Can Helton’s ascent be similar to what happened when Coach O took over?

If there is any team equipped with trial-by-fire leaders, it’s this squad. Fifth-year senior Cody Kessler may have the most controversy- and drama-filled tenure of any quarterback in college history. He’s pretty much seen it all with four different coaches, including Helton as the interim for the second time.

The Trojans need to circle the wagons and take on the “us against the world” philosophy as I said before. And if Helton is wise, he will draw from Ed Orgeron’s actions when he was took over as interim coach and focus on the family and make sure that everyone is playing for one another the rest of the season.

 

You’re Pat Haden. Who do you hire as the next USC head football coach? Do you think he’ll be given the chance?

All the tires will be kicked and all the rocks will be overturned. Similar to in 2013, the Trojans have a good amount of time before a hire has to be made, so there is no reason that they shouldn’t spend as much time finding the right candidate as possible.

If it was up to me, I’d really be going hard after power five conference coaches that have proven themselves already. In that regard, the first names on my list (in order) would be Gary Patterson, Dabo Swinney, Kevin Sumlin, Mark Dantonio, Kyle Whittingham and Mike Gundy. At least a passing chat with the college football bonafides (Meyer, Saban, Fisher, Miles, Stoops) would also have to take place just to gauge to see if there is any interest.

I don’t think Haden will get the chance to make the final decision, but he has a great relationship with the USC president, Max Nikias, so it’s still possible.