On the early morning drive to the airport, we could only hope there weren't too many USC fans tuned into the Texas sports talk show host. Since we didn't see too many rental cars running off the road, we figured the Trojans were not.
Good thing. The guy started off praising Houston's Tom Herman. "A quirky, maybe a bit of an arrogant winner who gets it done," was his take on Herman, the Southern California native whose Cougars knocked off No. 3 Oklahoma Saturday. Good thing USC didn't make a run at him, the host said, a year ago, happy that Herman stayed in Texas.
Said he couldn't imagine why USC wouldn't have done that. And it's hard not to agree. Herman was the person to single out and make a pitch to that he could not refuse. But the host was glad now for the sake of Texas college football that no one will be able to make a run at Herman now. He'll have his pick, if he wants to make the move.
LSU after Les Miles, Texas A&M if Kevin Sumlin can't keep dodging bullets or Texas, where Charlie Strong's Longhorns have to get it going against Notre Dame are three programs that might be looking the way USC could have been last year.
The problem at USC was that no one trusted anyone to do the looking. If you'd allowed Lane Kiffin to linger and were responsible for bringing in Steve Sarkisian despite what everyone knew about his issues, how could you be trusted by Max Nikias to come up with the right guy to pay multiple millions of dollars to when the second midyear firing in three seasons occurred.
You couldn't, of course. So that led to good guy Clay Helton as the solid family man holdover who USC hoped could hold it together. But not everyone -- very few actually -- can succeed at the level USC needs a coach to function.
Saturday's 28-minute meltdown that saw USC go from leading 3-0 against a first-time freshman quarterback who had turned the ball over to the Trojans almost the first time he touched it, to trailing 52-6 says this may be beyond Clay's pay grade. He'll have a chance in the next few weeks to show that it isn't. But Saturday's historic 46-point beatdown has shortened significantly his time frame for proving himself.
Which is too bad. And not absolute. Pete Carroll's first-year Trojans went 6-6 with a 10-6 loss in front of 22,385 at the Las vegas Bowl. But as our talk show host pointed out in describing "the hot mess that is USC football under Clay Helton," the one thing a coach has to be able to do in a football game "is make adjustments. Nick Saban did," he said. But it's not just what you do on a chalkboard at halftime, you have to be able to execute them under all sorts of pressure.
USC couldn't. And didn't.
"Despite all that talent," the Texas talk show guy said. He liked USC's talent a lot although there are almost no signs, especially on the O-line, that there's any payoff for talent, experience, size and recruiting stars despite the way they looked in the spring and summer with better conditioning and strength and more work. That was nowhere to be seen Saturday. Now of course, this is Alabama we're talking about. Will any other team be able to whip USC up front the way Alabama did?
It was the one question we couldn't answer going into this game. Now we know. USC could not. But can it get itself together after 52-6, after no touchdowns scored while giving up too many to count that it should not have. The Trojans were still in a state of denial later. They're still a very good team, they say.
Not that that matters. They're not a tough-minded team that can play fast under pressure based on the Alabama game. The Tide players did more game-readying physical and full-speed work work in pre-game than an almost-never-full-speed USC did running its offense once the game started. The slowdown here is puzzling. This Trojan team played faster in spring than it is now. And was far more diverse in the player-run summer workouts.
And now, it's last fall redux. The run game, the cornerstone of this offense, seems almost designed to fail against any team with Alabama's talent. The Tide stuffed it with four players. That left seven to stop JuJu Smith-Schuster and the tight ends. Alabama liked those odds. Not so good for Max & Co.
Clay has time. But not much. He has to come up with answers. And results. He has to win this team back. And the fans.
He has to get it to believe but he has to give it something to believe in. And he must understand that for his "faith, family and football" approach -- "in that order" he says -- to work in the larger USC community and beyond, it only happens if it happens first in football.
For those watching this up close, there has been a ratcheting back of the offense when it came to game plan time. The last two weeks haven't gone that well when they tried to go full-speed with tweaks. There were more miscues than we'd seen in spring and summer. The answer they wanted to believe, it seemed, was that they were looking forward to game time and tired of going against one another. Now we know.
The game plan -- the execution and coaching of it -- seems now a complete exercise in futility. Did they really believe they could block Alabama? They see the film every day. We can barely see the O-line where we are on the practice field. And now when we see them in action against someone but the Scout team, we know. This was last year's offensive line. No real fire. No push. No full-speed. And no chance against Alabama's athletes.
But then there's the opposite story of the defensive front that has been coming on strong. And it played out as it has in practice. They didn't give up the game. They battled. They played full-speed and with plenty of force. Sure there were breakdowns eventually when the game got out of hand through no fault of their own. But that was a winning performance by the front seven and at least some of the back four.
So there is something to build on here. But build USC must. Not just throw stuff together on offense and hope it works. Make it work. One play at a time. No more exposing a running back without a lead blocker anywhere in sight to three unblocked defenders at the point of attack.
No more third-and-longs on series after series after series. First and second downs must become productive again. Stop grab-bagging. No tippy-toeing. Fire out. Look like a college team. You're not pros yet and never will be at this rate. Take some pride in what you -- and USC -- are doing.
And from the top, make the decision. Can an offensive line this laid-back and running backs this light run your run-first offense to set up the passing game? And if it does, do you have the receivers who can get separation and the quarterback who can get it to them? We all thought we knew the answer to those questions. Were we wrong? And if so, what now?
This was way too happy and smiling a bunch after the game Saturday, although maybe that was mostly the defense. And sure Clay said "it's on me," and it was. But now it's on all of them. There's only one way out of this. All together. All in. Doing the right things. And believing in what you're doing.
If you go into a game knowing that if their four-man front manhandles your O-line, you lose. You must absolutely make sure they don't. Whatever it takes. USC -- players and coaches -- did not do that. And when it hit them, they played and coached with zero poise.
That can never happen again -- for as long or as short as these coaches and players have.
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