USC (3-4, 2-3 Pac-12) is struggling mightily this season, having already fired head coach Clay Helton more than a month ago. Yet the Trojans tend to always have Arizona’s number, winning eight consecutive matchups and five in a row at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
To better understand what the 2021 USC team is like, we reached out to Matt Zemek of TrojansWire.com. Here are his loquacious answers to our terse questions:
AZ Desert Swarm: The Clay Helton era came to an abrupt end earlier this season, putting USC in another in-season coaching search. Without getting too deep in the weeds, what went wrong?
Matt Zemek: “Explaining what has gone wrong at USC is not that complicated: Bad athletic directors hired mediocre head coaches. Yes, Lane Kiffin is a good coach today, but he wasn’t ready to coach USC several years ago. Steve Sarkisian might soon become a quality head coach at a Power Five program, but he isn’t there yet. Clay Helton never earned the right to be permanent head coach at USC. He beat UCLA at the end of the 2015 season but should have been required to beat Stanford (with Christian McCaffrey) in the Pac-12 Championship Game in order to earn the permanent job. Then-athletic director Pat Haden made Helton the permanent head coach BEFORE the Pac-12 Championship Game, not after it. Stanford crushed Helton and USC by 19, but Haden had already made his choice.
“Lynn Swann wouldn’t fire Helton after the 5-7 season in 2018. Mike Bohn inherited the mess Swann left behind and wasn’t in a position to fire Helton in 2019, due to a lot of administrative churn and turmoil at USC.
“Helton himself was terrible at developing players, hiring excellent coordinators, coaching toughness. Other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?”
Even though it’s been the case for a while now, it’s still so weird to see USC so unbalanced on offense and so ineffective in the run game. Has this changed at all since the coaching change, as how legit is Keaontay Ingram?
“Graham Harrell—who will probably be at Washington State or Texas Tech next year, either as head coach or offensive coordinator (maybe QB coach if it’s Texas Tech)—simply hasn’t made a commitment to the ground game at USC. The Trojans often throw the ball on 3rd and 2. This is a product of the Air Raid, but it’s also a product of not having an Air Raid offensive line coach teach blocking within the system.
“Tim Drevno was last year’s O-line coach. He was not an Air Raid offensive line coach. Clay McGuire, this year’s offensive line coach, is an Air Raid guy, having worked under Mike Leach at Washington State. The problem is that McGuire is inheriting a mess. It was a big ask to expect him to turn everything around in one year under Helton and Harrell. Staffing, teaching, and a cohesive approach have all been lacking.
“It’s a shame, because Keaontay Ingram is a terrific player. USC needs to get him the ball more, but Harrell wants to throw more than he should. The offensive line can’t sustain this approach. Ingram, much like Drake London, simply doesn’t have enough help from teammates.”
Is it fair to say that QB Kedon Slovis has regressed since 2019? If not, what’s the issue?
“He absolutely has regressed. He was hurt for some if not all of the 2020 season. His throws were wobbly, and he lacked zip. This year, he is physically better, but it’s clear that Harrell has not given him good coaching. The reads are slow. Slovis locks onto receivers. London is so good that Slovis can lock onto him and still complete the pass, just because London will physically dominate the opposing cornerback or safety, but Slovis is in trouble if London is covered. What has also emerged is just how limited Slovis makes the USC offense by not being able to run.
“If you saw Jaxson Dart against Washington State in Week 3 in September, you saw a quarterback who was more willing and able to run, and who could make plays outside the pocket. Slovis doesn’t do that. Having a dual-threat QB—Cam Rising at Utah, Jayden Daniels at Arizona State, Dorian Thompson-Robinson at UCLA, Chance Nolan at Oregon State—provides so much more upside for an offense. Slovis doesn’t have that, and if he’s not reading defenses well (which he isn’t), his pocket passing doesn’t offer nearly enough value to compensate for his lack of running ability.”
Drake London seems unfair, like really unfair. Does he have any weaknesses?
“Nope. The incredible dimension of London’s season is not the numerical totals themselves. That’s extremely impressive, but it’s only half the story. The remarkable part of London’s 2021 season is not that he’s making 12-catch, 150-yard games seem like a walk in the park. It’s that he’s doing all this without a high-level No. 2 receiver or a quality QB or offensive line! That’s CRAZY.
“The only other high-level offensive player on this roster is Keaontay Ingram. London ought to be handcuffed by opposing defenses given how little help he has, but NO. He still keeps collecting double-digit catches for 140, 150, 160 yards each week. He has played himself into a top-10 NFL draft pick, and I noticed that some draft analysts now have him in the top five. I don’t have an argument with that if a team picking at No. 4 or 5 needs a receiver (kinda like the Falcons did with Kyle Pitts).”
Who should Arizona fans pay the most attention to on USC’s defense?
“Drake Jackson and Tuli Tuipulotu, on the defensive line, are the two Trojans the Wildcats need to be especially mindful of. We know how limited the UA’s passing game is. If Will Plummer is running for his life due to Jackson and Tuipulotu busting through the Arizona offensive line, the Wildcats won’t be able to do anything at all. Neither player has had a tremendous year, but those are clearly the two Trojans with the most raw talent on defense.”
Prediction time: how badly does USC beat Arizona in what will be its 20th straight loss?
“USC is not a good team, but USC does beat bad teams soundly: 45-14 over Washington State, 30-7 over San Jose State, 37-14 over Colorado. USC should win by more than 20 points, something like 38-10. Yet, as poorly as USC has played for much of the season, would anyone be THAT surprised if USC wins an ugly duckling by a score of, say, 23-9? Arizona made Washington sweat last week. The Wildcats could make this interesting if their defensive line smokes USC’s shaky offensive line. I do think USC wins by 28, but if USC wins by 10 to 13 I will not be stunned, not with a Trojan team which has put Los Angeles to sleep this year with the most boring set of games anywhere in college football.
“Here’s a fact which summarizes how boring USC has been in 2021: We’re coming up on Halloween, and USC still hasn’t played one game this year in which either the Trojans or their opponent has had the ball in the fourth quarter, trailing by one score with a chance to tie or take the lead. USC led San Jose State 13-7 at the start of the fourth quarter in Week 1, but the Trojans had the ball and kicked a field goal to lead 16-7. San Jose State was not down by one score when it got the ball early in the fourth quarter.
“USC trailed Notre Dame last week, 24-16, in the fourth quarter, after scoring a touchdown. Notre Dame scored on its next possession, so when USC got the ball back (down 31-16), it did not trail by only one score. This season has been amazing on a national level, with all the upsets and the volatility across the country. For USC fans and (to an extent) Arizona fans, it hasn’t been that exciting. Hopefully that will change for both schools in 2022.”