Are Clay Helton’s 2016 Trojans “Carroll 2001” or “Hackett 2000”? And why the high-flying Sun Devils might not be the worst opponent this week.
The USC Trojans (1-3, 0-2 in the Pac-12) host the Arizona State Sun Devils (4-0, 1-0) on Saturday, Oct. 1, at 5:30 p.m. PDT in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and in front of a national FOX network television audience. It’s the 33rd meeting between the Trojans and Sun Devils, with USC leading the series 20-12. Though the Trojans walloped ASU, 42-14, in Tempe last season, the Devils have won three of the past five meetings, including the 2014 “Jael Mary” game in L.A., decided – 38-34 – on a last-play Jaelen Strong touchdown reception.
Last weekend, Utah quarterback Troy Williams found Tim Patrick for an 18-yard touchdown with 16 seconds to play, lifting the Utes to a 31-27 Friday night victory over USC. Drive-killing mistakes – three first-half fumbles – and yet another intriguing punt-or-not-to-punt decision left USC vulnerable, even though redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold wowed in his first college start. Meanwhile, the Sun Devils rallied from a 24-10 halftime deficit to stun California, 51-41, in Tempe. Though Cal to rolled up 637 yards of offense, the ASU defense forced three turnovers while sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins ran for three TDs and threw for another.
USC Coach Clay Helton (7-7 at USC in parts of three seasons) is still looking for his first win over a Power-5 foe since signing a five-year contract on Nov. 30. Fifth-year Arizona State headman Todd Graham (38-19) has seen his Devils bounce back in 2016 after a six-win 2015 (ASU won 10 games each in 2013 and 2014).
The Devils’ Details
First-year offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey – who had the same title last season at Southern Mississippi – is one of five new assistant coaches. ASU is averaging a conference-leading 48.5 points per game. On defense, ASU is tops in the conference in rush defense – but is that because they’ve played a series of pass-happy opponents, or because they’ve struggled to stop the pass?
Wilkins (84-of-125, 1,085 yards, five TDs, three INTs; 263 rush yards, 4.7 yards-per-carry, four TDs) has been a revelation. His size and physicality as a runner are striking, and he’s helped a young Devil line minimize its sacks-allowed total (eight in four games). Of course, Wilkins is surrounded by a lot of talent, including running backs Demario Richard (team-leading 348 rush yards, 3.9 average) and Kalen Ballage, who is averaging 6.4 yards on 43 carries and scored eight of his nine rushing TDs against Texas Tech, tying an FBS single-game record. Ballage is also a pass-catching threat (13 receptions, one TD). Shifty senior Tim White – his father and uncle both played at USC – leads the team with 21 grabs (10.5 yards per catch). White is also a dangerous weapon on kickoff and punt returns. Freshman N’Keal Harry has lived up to early hype – 16 catches, 11.8, two TDs – while junior Cameron Smith (17 yards-per on 10 catches) and sophomore Jalen Harvey (nine catches, 13.5) also are effective.
Defensively, the Devils have allowed 34.5 points per game (it rises to 48 points per game against Power-5 opponents). ASU is allowing 6.6 yards per play and 404 passing yards per game. While it’s been known for creating havoc plays in recent years – sacks, tackles for loss, and turnovers – the Devil D struggled in those departments before turning it up a notch against Cal. Arizona State leads the Pac-12 in rush defense – 95 yards per game – but Cal rushed for 159 yards last weekend. The defense got a boost when senior linebacker Salamo Fiso returned from a three-game suspension – he notched nine tackles and a key fourth-quarter interception against Cal. Up front, sophomore JoJo Wicker has been solid at one end (17 tackles). Rush linebackers Koron Crump (team-leading three sacks) and DJ Calhoun are being counted on to bring more pressure. And ASU’s secondary has been busy. Sophomores Armand Perry (27 tackles at free safety) and Kareem Orr (26 stops at corner) are the team leaders in tackles. Senior corner De’Chavon “Gump” Hayes leads the Devils with two interceptions.
Arizona State senior placekicker Zane Gonzalez is one of the league’s best, making 11-of-12 field goal attempts and pinning 30 of his 37 kickoffs as touchbacks. Punter Matt Haack is averaging 47.2 yards on 11 punts.
Et Tu, Trojans?
If you haven’t noticed, you’re getting an abridged version of my normal look at the opponent. Why?
The last time the Trojans started a season with three losses in four games was 2001, Pete Carroll’s first season at USC. That team (which actually lost its fifth game, 27-24, to Washington on a final-play field goal in Seattle) was suffering from a massive hangover due to its three-year bender under Paul Hackett.
I’ve seen a number of comparisons from various college football experts between that 2001 team and this team. Given the 2016 Trojans’ incredibly tough opening schedule, it’s the simplest and easiest way to give Helton and staff the benefit of the doubt: “Hey, Pete Carroll started 1-4. And what happened then!?” I get it – I really do. With USC’s coaching carousel spinning at top speed since 2013, there are many who cannot fathom the Trojans making another coaching change and, therefore, preach patience.
Those of you who have been around a while remember the horrors of the Hackett days. However, those of you who are a bit younger – or, let’s be honest – a bit newer to your Trojan fandom (“I’ve loved USC since cough, 2003, cough.”) might not recall. It’s likely that you don’t understand how last week’s loss at Utah, while reminiscent of a 2014 defeat in the same stadium, had much more in common with a number of befuddling and infuriating USC losses during the Hackett Era. In fact, if you include the mishaps and questionable decisions in USC’s loss at Stanford two weeks ago, the comparisons become even more troubling.
How about some shock therapy?
October 10: California 32, USC 31: At the Coliseum, USC led 31-10 midway through the third quarter. After the Trojans gave up a safety and a touchdown to cut their lead to 13, an unnecessary roughness penalty on receiver (I’m) Larry Parker (20 yards behind the play) nullified what would have been a game-sealing 58-yard Petros Papadakis touchdown run (the P had already rambled to a 65-yard score earlier in the game). Shortly thereafter, the Bears returned a USC fumble 40 yards, leading to another score on the way to victory. Overall, USC fumbled twice, committed nine penalties, allowed five sacks – and kicked a field goal with the ball on the Cal one-yard line on the final play of the first half while holding a 21-10 lead.
October 24: Oregon 17, USC 13: In Eugene, USC led 10-3 at the half and but two quick strikes by the Ducks – a 55-yard third-quarter TD catch by Tony Hartley and a 62-yard fourth-quarter TD run by quarterback Akili Smith – were all Oregon needed. That’s because USC kicker Adam Abrams missed three-of-five field goal opportunities and the Trojans committed 10 penalties, none more costly than a delay of game inside the Ducks’ 10 on their final drive. USC opted to kick a field goal with 4:14 to play and never saw the ball again.
December 31: TCU 28, USC 19: While turnovers weren’t a problem for USC in the Sun Bowl, showing up was. The Trojans trailed 21-0 and 28-3 before scrambling for a few cosmetic scores in what – at the time – was a major upset: TCU had not won a bowl game in 41 years. But USC committed seven penalties, rushed for -23 yards, and allowed TCU to rush for 314 in what – on the whole – was a more embarrassing on-field performance than the Trojans’ 2012 Sun Bowl dud.
September 25, Oregon 33, USC 30 (3OT): Read on if you must. After trailing 20-10 late in the third quarter, and without starting QB Carson Palmer (who suffered a broken collarbone during the game), the Trojans took a 23-20 lead on a Chad Morton touchdown run with 3:08 left. However, USC was assessed an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty celebrating the score, and the snap on the then-35-yard PAT attempt flew over the head of the holder, leaving the Ducks able to tie with a field goal and send the game into OT. That penalty was one of 21 (TWENTY-ONE) USC fouls assessed during the contest. USC also committed a pair of crucial turnovers, while kicker David Newbury missed field goals in both the first and third overtimes – after missing a 30-yard attempt with 2:20 to play in regulation that would have put USC up by six. Yes, all of this actually happened.
October 16, Notre Dame 25, USC 24: Three weeks later, USC scored the game’s first 21 points and led 24-3 midway through the third quarter before a driving rainstorm engulfed South Bend. The story from there: three USC turnovers; two crucial (and questionable) penalty calls on the Trojan defense that kept Irish drives for a TD and field goal, respectively, alive; and, finally, Notre Dame’s Jabari Holloway recovering Irish QB Jarious Jackson’s fumble in a massive pileup in the USC end zone for the game-winning TD with 2:40 to play.
October 23, Stanford 35, USC 31: The very next week, USC took a 21-0 lead on the Cardinal at the Coliseum. Then, the deluge: four turnovers granted to, statistically, the Pac-10’s worst defense entering the game. Of three interceptions tossed by QB Mike Van Raaphorst, one was a pick-six early in the third quarter that put a bow on a 28-3 Stanford scoring run, and another came at the Stanford seven-yard line as time expired. Eight Trojan penalties also factored into the collapse.
October 21, Stanford 32, USC 30: You could say my sister and I know this as the “Manhattan Game.” Stanford reserve QB Chris Lewis found Jamien McCullum for a 20-yard TD as time expired on the Farm. Sounds bad, right? Get this: after trailing 14-0 early, USC rolled up 420 yards of offense and stormed to a 30-20 lead with eight minutes to play. However, after cutting the lead to 30-26, Stanford got the ball back with 3:42 left. The final drive included: Cardinal starting QB Randy Fasani leaving with an injury; USC forcing three incompletions by Lewis after Stanford earned a first-and-goal at the Trojan 10; and the Cardinal committing delay of game and false start penalties, leaving them with fourth-and-goal from the 20 with four seconds to play. Why the “Manhattan Game”? When we returned to San Francisco late that afternoon, the bar at the Hyatt Regency Embarcadero had a Happy Hour special: $5 Manhattans. Let’s just say that any memories of the happenings after 7:30 p.m. that evening are … sketchy.
October 28, California 28, USC 16: Sure, the Trojans committed 11 penalties and three turnovers, gave up seven sacks, and didn’t score after halftime at the Coliseum. Of course, USC also gave up Jemeel Powell’s 83-yard punt return TD in the fourth quarter. But if you were there, you’ll never forget this: Cal’s coaches owned the USC coaching staff on a fourth-down play in the second half. The Bears first lined up to go for it and then quickly ran the punt team out. Hackett and Co. were so unprepared and slow to respond that there were somewhere between 16 and 20 Trojans on the field when the ball was snapped. Yes, this really happened, too.
November 11, Washington State 33, USC 27: This one was obviously ugly: 13 more penalties; three more turnovers; six more sacks allowed; defensive and special teams touchdowns by the Cougars in a game USC was never close to leading. But the memory here is more about the feeling in the Coliseum that day. The announced crowd of 40,565 was probably overestimated by 7,000-10,000 fans. The anger of that crowd? Harder to overestimate. About 10 rows behind me (with no one sitting in between) some older alums – probably in their mid to late 60s at the time – were openly sharing a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black and loudly heckling the coaching staff and athletic department for much of the second half. That, folks, is what’s called a low point.
Trust me, those aren’t games that I savor looking back upon. But from the moment that Utah scored in the third quarter last Friday by recovering its own fumble in the USC end zone, I can’t get thoughts of those games out of my head. As a matter of fact, you can read what I tweeted in the moments after that touchdown:
So, as pundits across the college football landscape try to ease concerns about Helton and his staff with their comparisons to 2001, let me say this: unless there is a vast turnaround by this group of coaches, USC is much closer to returning to the days of Hackett than the early days of Carroll. The Trojans had talent in 1998, 1999, and 2000. They have talent in 2016. Then – with a decent coaching staff – they should have competed for Pac-10 championships. Now – with a decent coaching staff – they should be competing for (at least) a Pac-12 South championship. Young talent needs leadership that it trusts and believes in, but – already – it seems that trust and belief is being chipped away.
The symptoms are the same: questionable preparation, patchwork game plans, underprepared players who make mistakes resulting in penalties or turnovers at the worst times, and – finally – consistently poor choices by the coaches at crucial moments. Quite simply, USC is falling back into a position that I described time and again while writing for this site during the 2000 season: if a coaching staff’s most basic responsibility is to put its players in the best position to win – from the macro of weekly preparation to the micro of making the best in-game adjustments and decisions – this staff is failing.
Can they turn it around and start getting it right? With a fan base that seems to have hit the wall and a brand new athletic director with little to no investment in this group of coaches, time is of the essence.
Though I have no idea who will win Saturday’s game, I will not deprive you of a pick. The Sun Devil offense has been on fire – especially in the second half. In fact, Arizona State is averaging 21.7 fourth-quarter points against FBS foes this year (USC, on the other hand, is averaging just 22 points per game). However, ASU brings in the worst defense the Trojans have faced this season, and if Darnold looks as solid as he did last Saturday, USC should score plenty – pending those costly turnovers and penalties.
While you’d be hard pressed to find a Trojan fan who thinks USC will win this one, Vegas sure isn’t buying the Devils. USC is a 10-point favorite in what gamblers see as a more defensive battle than what ASU’s been accustomed to – the over/under currently sits at 64 (the Devils and Texas Tech put up 71 points combined in the first half on Sept. 10).
Since it’s anyone’s guess which versions of the 2016 USC and ASU teams will show up Saturday, here’s a note for the pro-2001-comparison crowd: it is rather coincidental that the Sun Devils come-a-calling. After Carroll’s Trojans dropped that heartbreaker in Seattle to bottom out at 1-4, USC returned home on Oct. 13, 2001, with seemingly little hope for the remainder of the campaign. The challenge: a 3-1 Arizona State team coming off back-to-back 50-plus point performances. The result: Trojans 48, Sun Devils 17.
A harbinger? Not likely. However, even Hackett beat the Devils in two of three meetings, including a ridiculous 44-38 double-overtime win at Sun Devil Stadium in 2000 that – even as a win – could have easily made the list of horror shows above.
For at least one week, Helton hopes he can hold off the angry villagers and their torches. At the least, if he can’t remind us of 2001, maybe his 2016 squad can give us a taste of Tempe 2000.
USC 44, Arizona State 38
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 16 years. The editor of a monthly trade magazine in the marketing industry, he graduated from USC in 1994. He’s traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10/12 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/thrants (@THrants)