This was not Arizona State, or Arizona, or UCLA that USC was playing on Friday night. This was a battle-tested program that USC faced in the Pac-12 championship game, an Oregon team that certainly heard all that talk about not belonging here and resolved to shove it in their critics’ faces.
So this was not another of those miracle comebacks that Clay Helton’s team kept pulling off in 2020, because this was too good an opponent to fall behind by two touchdowns and hope to rally – especially with a Ducks’ defensive front that kept Kedon Slovis under duress all night and by the end had sent him to the X-ray room to have his shoulder examined.
Oregon is a hurdle that much of the Pac-12, not just USC, finds difficult to surmount in December. The Ducks have played in four of the conference’s 10 championship games and won all four, with Friday night’s 31-24 victory in the Coliseum their second in a row. And they seem to be a team that has handled the uncertainty and adversity of Pandemic Football well.
They won’t rank among Oregon’s best teams, not after back-to-back losses to Oregon State and Cal as well as barely escaping at home against a UCLA club that was better than anticipated. But they were the best team the Trojans had faced this season, by far, and have now beaten USC in four of their past five meetings.
This wasn’t nearly of the same magnitude as Oregon’s 56-24 wipeout last November at the Coliseum (which, among other things, helped convince Chargers general manager Tom Telesco that quarterback Justin Herbert was the real deal.) But there remains a good degree of separation between the Oregon and USC programs, even beyond the fact that Ducks head coach Mario Cristobal just received a six-year contract extension. A vocal segment of USC fans, of course, would prefer a buyout of Helton’s contract, which runs through 2023.
USC was fun to watch during this truncated season, no doubt. The Trojans (5-1) showed grit, determination, and a willingness to believe right down to the end every week. It was impressive that Slovis had the ball in his hands on Friday with a chance to pull off yet another miracle on the final play after USC had fallen behind 14-0 less than eight minutes into the game and trailed 31-17 with 10 minutes left.
Especially since he spent all night trying to escape Oregon’s pass rush. The Ducks (4-2) sacked him three times, and two of them were from players who got away – Kayvon Thibodeaux, the 6-foot-5, 250-pound sophomore from Oaks Christian, had one sack and two other tackles for loss, and sophomore linebacker Andrew Faoliu from Mater Dei also got him once. Beyond that, Slovis spent most of the night throwing on the run and was intercepted three times.
“That’s a talented front and we know what Kayvon can do, and I thought he got tremendous jump off the ball,” Helton said. “They flushed Kedon out of the pocket, got him off his spot a bunch. I did think Kedon did a nice job of keeping his eyes up and downfield and creating a lot after being flushed. But credit to them.”
But really, as entertaining as they were all season, the Trojans were far from great. The cavalcade of errors and self-inflicted wounds that helped beat them Friday night – turnovers, penalties, poor blocking and too many missed tackles – are just as much a part of the résumé as that grit and determination. Wasting a great defensive play with an unnecessary personal foul, as Isaiah Pola-Mao did early in the third quarter, or the roughing-the-punter penalty by Talanoa Hufanga that kept an eventual Oregon scoring drive alive … these are the sorts of undisciplined things that Helton’s critics point to when they complain that the Trojans aren’t coached well enough.
As we’ve said before, this season amounted to a free pass for Helton from a job security standpoint. Had this been a full season, with fans filling the Coliseum and no worries about COVID-19 tests or canceled games or anything beyond the usual demands of the USC fan base, he might be on the clock as we speak.
Not even those inspiring comebacks quieted the critics. You can still find them on social media regularly, and they make occasional appearances in the columnist’s inbox.
The coach knows the drill, certainly.
“You know, we’re judged on championships here,” he said. “That’s the beauty of this place. That’s the expectation. That’s the standard. That’s what we fight for. That’s why our hearts are broken in that locker room, because that’s the only thing we will accept as a team, is a championship.
“And the fact of the matter is, we’re really close, but obviously we didn’t get it done tonight and that’s the next step.”
Like it or not, Trojans fans, this season earned Helton another year, and another chance.
USC managed to avoid any coronavirus-related issues for the first three weeks of its pandemic-shortened Pac-12 season. But the Trojans’ good fortune ended this week and their showdown against Colorado on Saturday at the Coliseum was canceled Thursday.
“After consultation with USC, the Pac-12 Conference announced the game involving Colorado at USC … will not be played,” the conference said in a statement. “This decision was made under the Pac-12’s football policy due to USC not having the minimum number of scholarship players available for the game at a specific position group as a result of a number of positive football student-athlete COVID-19 cases and resulting isolation of additional football student-athletes under contact tracing protocols. The game will be declared a no contest.”
The position group is the offensive line, according to ESPN.
USC (3-0) announced earlier in the day that, in addition to two players who tested positive earlier in the week, a third was being tested because he had come down with possible COVID-19 symptoms. Practice was canceled and a virtual meeting was to be held instead.
Coach Clay Helton said Tuesday an unidentified player had tested positive and was symptomatic and quarantined. The player traveled with the Trojans for last Saturday’s game against Utah and contact tracing began in conjunction with medical authorities following his positive test.
Practice was canceled Tuesday.
Further testing revealed a second positive case, and that unnamed player and five others who had been identified through contact tracing were quarantined. The Trojans were cleared to resume practice Wednesday by medical officials, but then were forced from the practice field again Thursday.
“We are disappointed for our players and fans and those from Colorado that Saturday’s game will not be played, but the health and safety of everyone in both programs is of the utmost priority,” Helton said in a statement. “Our players have worked hard since the summer not only to prepare for this season, but to do so in a safe manner by following all health protocols. I applaud their discipline and sacrifice in doing so. We will continue to test and monitor our players, coaches and staff and take guidance from health officials as we prepare for our remaining games.”
USC has scheduled games against Washington State and UCLA remaining on its six-game schedule.
The Trojans-Buffaloes game was the third Pac-12 contest to be canceled this week because of the coronavirus concerns, following the Washington-Washington State and Utah-Arizona State games. Overall, nine Pac-12 games have been canceled in only four weeks of play.
The positive tests of USC players also puts the Trojans’ game Dec. 4 against Washington State at the Coliseum in jeopardy since Los Angeles County Health Department guidelines call for people who have tested positive for COVID-19 to be quarantined for at least 14 days.
Additionally, this is Colorado’s second game in as many weeks that has been canceled, after their contest last Saturday against ASU was canceled. Instead of sitting idle for a second consecutive Saturday, the Buffaloes (2-0) reportedly will play host to San Diego State in a nonconference game.
San Diego State (3-2) had its scheduled Mountain West game Friday against Fresno State canceled because of coronavirus concerns at Fresno, one of at least 97 games called off or rescheduled this season, according to a list compiled by CBSsports.com.
Here are some highlights from the press conferences following USC’s 33-17 win over Utah:
Head coach Clay Helton
“What a great win for our football team. To come to Salt Lake, which is a really tough place to play, to go against a Kyle Whittingham team that is in my opinion one of the best coaches in the country and to come out of here with a win — which was a big win for us and for our season, really proud of our kids. I thought the storyline tonight, one, was our defense. I thought they played amazing the entire game, really only giving up 10 points themself — we gave up 7 points offensively — but we had a goal in the second half coming out of the locker room that we didn’t want to allow another point. And unbelievable, I thought the defense in the second half rallied and rallied and rallied, turnover after turnover, fourth-down stops, just did an amazing job. Kana’i [Mauga] coming in making the most of his opportunity, the play-makers in the back end with the interceptions that they got, multiple sacks by the defensive front, I thought we got the quarterback off his spot all night.
“The other thing that I thought needs to be said and noticed was the kicking game. I thought the two specialists did an amazing job tonight — both Parker Lewis in kick coverage and also with field goals that he made, and then Ben [Griffiths] just not allowing them the opportunity to get a return started. Our defense and our special teams, I thought was stellar. Not on all cylinders offensively tonight. We did enough to get it done and put enough points on the board to get the win.”
On the difference he saw Saturday compared to the first two weeks:
“I thought execution defensively was phenomenal. I thought they played with a swagger tonight and played with tremendous emotion. I think that we are growing as a football team. Coming to Salt Lake where I know with Kyle, they had not lost a home opener in the last 11 years, and I think it’s 18 total, and to come in here with the mindset this team had that we’re going to do whatever it took to come out here with the win and get 1-0 on the week, 3-0 on the season, I thought their mindset was an improvement from the last two weeks.”
On the defensive game plan:
“I thought the defensive front was stellar. We talked about that we had to stop the run. We knew they were going to come in, they had always been a 60-percent-run-plus team against us, and so that was the initial — at all costs stop the run even if that means loaded boxes. They put a little pressure on the secondary, but they held their own and that allowed us to get to third down and then our pass rushers did an amazing job. They forced throws that caused interceptions, sacks, fumbles in the backfield. It just felt like we were playing in the backfield all night, and credit to [Todd Orlando], credit to Vic [So’oto], Donte [Williams] and Craig [Naivar], they put an amazing game plan together, but more importantly the kids executed it.”
Why RBs Markese Stepp and Stephen Carr either sat out or were limited:
“Markese had a pectoral strain that we were hoping would get better throughout the week. He practiced through the week, but just wasn’t himself there. Stephen was the same way. He didn’t practice a lot during the week, and then got a little bit of a knee to the back and we went ahead and pulled him. We kind of knew it was going to be Vavae [Malepeai]’s game and Kenan [Christon]’s game, and I thought they did a nice job. Kenan came in and gave us an explosive run, and Vavae was that every-down back that we needed. I thought he did a good job running the ball, also in pass protection tonight. I was hoping both would get back to the game — Stephen was really close, but ‘Kese we just decided not to dress out tonight.”
His impression of the offense:
“Coming out of the first half thinking, not to say frustration, but lost opportunities. I really thought that should’ve been a 31-10 ballgame at halftime. We gave up 7 points offensively, and we also took seven points off the board in the red zone. I thought coming out in that first drive was really important. We drove it down and got some points on the board. I thought Graham [Harrell] did a nice job of putting the plan together, and the kids went down and executed it. Would love to have touchdowns over field goals, but we kept adding the points up. As good as the defense was playing, we just said, OK, just keep adding the points, securing the ball, and I thought we got in a little better rhythm in the second half. Obviously, the penalty that brought back the touchdown, followed by a turnover, and then the turnover for a touchdown in the first half is just what sticks out to me.”
On QB Kedon Slovis’ performance:
“What I love about Kedon is that he’s a winner, and winners find ways to win. He’s done that each and every week. The statsheet won’t be as pretty as the last couple weeks, percentage-wise, but at the end of the day, winners win, and that’s what he is. He did the things we needed him to do to walk out of Salt Lake City with a huge win, and all of our kids did. We’re such perfectionists as coaches and as players and we know what this offense could be, and we’re going to look up and it’s going to turn from a 30-point offense into hopefully a 40- or 50-point offense. We all want more. We all want to do a little bit better, and we’ll continue to work at it, but the one thing Kedon does is he finds the way to put the team on his back and win ballgames. He’s done it again for us. He’s 1-0 on the week, and 3-0 on the season.”
How USC can create separation from opponents:
“Yeah, 16 points is nice. We’d love to have even more but I saw a lot of people today saying it wouldn’t be 16, and I saw a lot of people say that Utah would win. So to be able to come into a tough place and win a ball game against a Kyle Whittingham team that we have a lot of respect for and a Utah team that we have a lot of respect for and to walk out of here with a 16-point win, we’ll take it. Obviously, like I said earlier, to be able to eliminate the turnover that caused points and the turnover that took points off the board for us is something that would create even more separation, to be honest with you. Really, I thought it should have been a 31-10 ball game at halftime. We let them stay in it into the second half and then we started to separate ourselves, which I’m proud of the kids for doing. But we will hit on all cylinders and I’m looking forward to that here soon. And we’re close. Defensively I thought we took a major, major step ahead. Offensively, we’re doing the things to win but we haven’t reached our full potential yet and I look forward to that day.”
If this was what he expected out of Todd Orlando’s defenses:
“The one thing I really enjoy about TO is his aggressiveness. He’s what I believe and what I love on offense, is be attacking, be aggressive, and he’s that way defensively. He has no fear in his calls and the kids believe in him, in the system and tonight it was evident. The confidence was just radiating off of them. I mean we were literally saying, there was one point down in the first half I said go get the ball back and bring it to me. And literally two plays later they go and get the turnover and they immediately run it over to me. It was so much fun to watch them play tonight and I thought they played for each other. The other thing TO has done a nice job of, you saw us play a lot of kids tonight. A lot of kids tonight defensively. And I thought that helped us. TO has really trained these kids within the system. It’s a system that is easy to pick up and now they’re kind of thriving in it. Now, let’s go be consistent. We got to the point where this is the level that we want to play at. Now let’s be consistent in it and take this to next week.”
The message to the team midway through the regular season:
“The approach that we’ve taken and we’re not gonna change is we just want to be 1-0 on the week. And everything that’s gone on in college football and all the unknowns, you’re just hoping to make it to the next game. Every one of these games are a gift in my opinion. It was a gift to come to Salt Lake and have the opportunity to play. I was so happy for Kyle’s kids. Can you imagine all the work that they put in and this is their first game? We’ve been around since July working at this and they got their first game tonight. I mean, that’s a gift. So the approach for us is what we’ve done the last three weeks, 1-0 on the week. We’ll go home, we’ll celebrate this one, we’ll put it to bed and then we got a good Colorado team coming in that is also undefeated right now and they’re looking for their opportunity. So as long as we stay in the moment and stay focused on our job, it’ll all add up in the end and hopefully we’re in a spot to go win a championship. So we’ll stay on that mindset. That’s what I’ve trained the kids to do, and that’s what I’ve trained our coaches to do so I’m not even looking ahead other than next week.”
QB Kedon Slovis
On his performance:
“I didn’t think I had any issues throwing the ball. Coach was helping me figure out the game balls and getting that fixed. But I don’t think I played very well as a whole. I have to execute better. We left a lot of points on the board, and that’s mostly because of my play and not being disciplined. So I think if you see my play increase, we’ll put up a lot more points and have a lot more success offensively.”
What he saw on his interception throw, and if he is frustrated by talk about the health of his arm:
“On the interception, to begin with, just a four-verts play we run all the time, we execute at a high level. I think I was just kinda on a different page as Erik [Krommenhoek], where he was running, I thought he was gonna take a different angle but still that’s on, that’s my fault, the interception. When they give us that look, I just got to check it down or just be smart with the football and it was a careless throw. And with all the chatter, if anything it motivates me to be on my best game. I thought this would be a really great week of practice offensively. I just want to see it carry over into the game.”
LB Kana’i Mauga
On how things felt for the defense:
“It felt amazing. There was a lot of talk with the whole defense that we were going to be in a bar fight, and that’s basically what we did all game. We took the fight to them. Hit more blows than we took, and we came out on top.”
The defensive emphasis:
“Basically stopping the run. That was our main goal. Utah had tow running backs that are really powerful, and we just wanted to focus on stopping the run, making them air out the ball so our DBs can work.”
Where the defense has improved the most:
“The amount of viciousness, I guess you could say. We’re really getting up to the ball, and we’re making sure the defense is zeroed in once the game starts.”
USC’s 2021 recruiting class picked up a big addition Saturday night.
Running back Brandon Campbell committed to the Trojans, making him the fifth member of USC’s upcoming recruiting class. A four-star prospect according to 247Sports.com, the Lamar Consolidated (Tex.) back made the announcement via his Twitter account.
Campbell picked USC over Penn State, LSU, Texas and Oklahoma, among others. He fills a big need for the Trojans, who did not receive a running back commit in their small 2020 class.
He is the fourth four-star recruit to commit to USC for the 2021 cycle. The Trojans only added two such prospects for 2020.
USC’s 2021 class is currently ranked 13th nationally and second in the Pac-12, according to 247Sports.com.
Oregon running back CJ Verdell holds the MVP trophy after Oregon defeated Utah 37-15 in an NCAA college football game for the Pac-12 Conference championship in Santa Clara, Calif., Friday, Dec. 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
Oregon coach Mario Cristobal, right, celebrates with offensive lineman Shane Lemieux (68) after Oregon defeated Utah 37-15 in and NCAA college football game for the Pac-12 Conference championship in Santa Clara, Calif., Friday, Dec. 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
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Utah coach Kyle Whittingham walks the sideline during a timeout in the first half of the team’s Pac-12 Conference championship NCAA college football game against Oregon in Santa Clara, Calif., Friday, Dec. 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley (1) is sacked by Oregon defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux (5) during the second half of an NCAA college football game for the Pac-12 Conference championship in Santa Clara, Calif., Friday, Dec. 6, 2018. Oregon won 37-15. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
Oregon players douse coach Mario Cristobal near the end of the team’s 37-15 win over Utah in an NCAA college football game for the Pac-12 Conference championship in Santa Clara, Calif., Friday, Dec. 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert (10) hands off to running back CJ Verdell (7) during the second half against Utah in an NCAA college football game for the Pac-12 Conference championship in Santa Clara, Calif., Friday, Dec. 6, 2018. Oregon won 37-15. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
Oregon players celebrate after defeating Utah 37-15 in the Pac-12 Conference championship NCAA college football game in Santa Clara, Calif., Friday, Dec. 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
Oregon running back CJ Verdell (7) and teammates celebrate after Oregon defeated Utah 37-15 in an NCAA college football game for the Pac-12 Conference championship in Santa Clara, Calif., Friday, Dec. 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert (10) and teammate La’Mar Winston Jr. (32) celebrate after Oregon defeated Utah 37-15 in an NCAA college football game for the Pac-12 Conference championship in Santa Clara, Calif., Friday, Dec. 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
Oregon coach Mario Cristobal holds up the trophy after Oregon defeated Utah 37-15 in an NCAA college football game for the Pac-12 Conference championship in Santa Clara, Calif., Friday, Dec. 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
Oregon cornerback Haki Woods Jr. (14) kisses the trophy after Oregon defeated Utah 37-15 in an NCAA college football game for the Pac-12 Conference championship in Santa Clara, Calif., Friday, Dec. 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert throws a pass against Utah during the second half of the Pac-12 Conference championship NCAA college football game in Santa Clara, Calif., Friday, Dec. 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
Oregon running back CJ Verdell (7) rushes for a touchdown past Utah defensive back Javelin Guidry (28) during the second half of an NCAA college football game for the Pac-12 Conference championship in Santa Clara, Calif., Friday, Dec. 6, 2018. Oregon won 37-15. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert walks off the field after Oregon defeated Utah 37-15 in an NCAA college football game for the Pac-12 Conference championship, in Santa Clara, Calif., Friday, Dec. 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
Oregon safety Brady Breeze, right, intercepts a pass intended for Utah wide receiver Demari Simpkins (3) as Oregon cornerback Mykael Wright (2) defends during the first half of the Pac-12 Conference championship NCAA college football game in Santa Clara, Calif., Friday, Dec. 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
Utah running back Zack Moss (2) breaks a tackle for a touchdown run against Oregon during the second half of the Pac-12 Conference championship NCAA college football game in Santa Clara, Calif., Friday, Dec. 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
Oregon safety Jevon Holland (8) breaks up a pass for Utah wide receiver Jaylen Dixon (25) during the first half of the Pac-12 Conference championship NCAA college football game in Santa Clara, Calif., Friday, Dec. 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
Oregon wide receiver Jaylon Redd (30) is pushed out of bounds by Utah defensive back Josh Nurse (14) short of the goal line during the first half of the Pac-12 Conference championship NCAA college football game in Santa Clara, Calif., Friday, Dec. 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
Clemson players hold the trophy following the second half of the Atlantic Coast Conference championship NCAA college football game against Virginia in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019. Clemson won 62-17. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn)
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney, left, celebrates following the Atlantic Coast Conference championship NCAA college football game against Virginia in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019. Clemson won 62-17. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn)
LSU head coach Ed Orgeron leaves the field after the Southeastern Conference championship NCAA college football game against Georgia, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, in Atlanta. LSU won 37-10. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert (10) and teammate La’Mar Winston Jr. (32) celebrate after Oregon defeated Utah 37-15 in an NCAA college football game for the Pac-12 Conference championship in Santa Clara, Calif., Friday, Dec. 6, 2019. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
Clemson cornerback A.J. Terrell (8) and defensive end Justin Foster (35) tackle Virginia running back Billy Kemp IV (80) during the first half of the Atlantic Coast Conference championship NCAA college football game in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn)
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney, center, celebrates following the Atlantic Coast Conference championship NCAA college football game in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019. Clemson won 62-17. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn)
Clemson running back Travis Etienne (9) escapes the tackle attempt by Virginia cornerback Heskin Smith (23) and Virginia linebacker Jordan Mack (4) during the first half of the Atlantic Coast Conference championship NCAA college football game in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019. Etienne scored a touchdown on the play. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn)
Baylor wide receiver Tyquan Thornton (81) makes a catch as Oklahoma cornerback Jaden Davis (4) and safety Delarrin Turner-Yell (32) defend during an NCAA college football game for the Big 12 Conference championship, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, in Arlington, Texas. (Ian Maule/Tulsa World via AP)
Oklahoma wide receiver Nick Basquine (83) celebrates a touchdown reception over Baylor safety JT Woods (22) during the second half of an NCAA college football game for the Big 12 Conference championship, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, in Arlington, Texas. Oklahoma won 30-23 in overtime. (AP Photo/Jeffrey McWhorter)
Oklahoma defensive lineman Neville Gallimore (90) plants a University of Oklahoma flag after the Sooners 30-23 overtime win over Baylor in an NCAA college football game for the Big 12 Conference championship, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, in Arlington, Texas. (Ian Maule/Tulsa World via AP)
Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts (1) smiles after putting on his conference championship hat after Oklahoma’s 30-23 overtime victory over Baylor in an NCAA college football game for the Big 12 Conference championship, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Jeffrey McWhorter)
Baylor wide receiver Tyquan Thornton (81) celebrates with offensive linemen Sam Tecklenburg, left, and Xavier Newman, lifting Thornton, during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Oklahoma for the Big 12 Conference championship, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Jeffrey McWhorter)
Oklahoma wide receiver CeeDee Lamb (2) runs upfield with a reception during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Baylor for the Big 12 Conference championship, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Jeffrey McWhorter)
Oklahoma running back Kennedy Brooks (26) celebrates with offensive lineman Creed Humphrey (56) after rushing for a touchdown against Baylor during the first half of an NCAA college football game for the Big 12 Conference championship, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Jeffrey McWhorter)
Ohio State wide receiver K.J. Hill holds the trophy following the team’s 34-21 win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship NCAA college football game, early Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Ohio State wide receiver K.J. Hill kisses the trophy following the Big Ten championship NCAA college football game against Wisconsin, early Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019, in Indianapolis. Ohio State won 34-21. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)
Ohio State coach Ryan Day, right, celebrates with defensive tackle wide receiver Binjimen Victor (9) following the team’s 34-21 win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship NCAA college football game, early Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019, in Indianapolis. AP Photo/AJ Mast)
Ohio State head coach Ryan Day holds the trophy following the Big Ten championship NCAA college football game against Wisconsin, early Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019, in Indianapolis. Ohio State won 34-21. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)
Ohio State players celebrate the team’s 34-21 win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship NCAA college football game, early Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)
LSU coach Ed Orgeron celebrates on stage after the team’s win over Georgia in an NCAA college football game for the Southeastern Conference championship on Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, in Atlanta. (C.B. Schmelter/Chattanooga Times Free Press via AP)
Oklahoma celebrates an overtime touchdown during the Big 12 Championship game against Baylor Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, in Arlington, Texas. Oklahoma won 30-23 in overtime. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)
Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, right, looks for a receiver during the second half of the team’s Big Ten championship NCAA college football game against Wisconsin, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)
Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor (23) runs during the second half of the Big Ten championship NCAA college football game as Ohio State’s Cameron Brown (26) watches Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Ohio State wide receiver Chris Olave (17) is tackled by Wisconsin safety Reggie Pearson (2) as linebacker Zack Baun (56) watches during the second half of the Big Ten championship NCAA college football game Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
LSU head coach Ed Orgeron leaves the field after the Southeastern Conference championship NCAA college football game against Georgia, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, in Atlanta. LSU won 37-10. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
LSU players hold the SEC Championship trophy after the Southeastern Conference championship NCAA college football game against Georgia, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, in Atlanta. LSU won 37-10. (AP Photo/John Amis)
LSU head coach Ed Orgeron celebrates after the Southeastern Conference championship NCAA college football game against Georgia, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, in Atlanta. LSU won 37-10. (AP Photo/John Amis)
LSU players celebrate after the Southeastern Conference championship NCAA college football game against Georgia, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, in Atlanta. LSU won 37-10. (AP Photo/John Amis)
LSU coach Ed Orgeron hands a ball to quarterback Joe Burrow after LSU defeated Georgia in an NCAA college football game for Southeastern Conference championship Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, in Atlanta. (C.B. Schmelter/Chattanooga Times Free Press via AP)
LSU players celebrate after the Southeastern Conference championship NCAA college football game against Georgia, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, in Atlanta. LSU won 37-10. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
LSU players hold the SEC Championship trophy after the Southeastern Conference championship NCAA college football game against Georgia, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, in Atlanta. LSU won 37-10. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
LSU defensive lineman Breiden Fehoko (91) ties up Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm (11) during the second half of the Southeastern Conference championship NCAA college football game, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
LSU cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. (24) intercepts the ball from Georgia wide receiver George Pickens (1) during the second half of the Southeastern Conference championship NCAA college football game, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
LSU cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. (24) celebrates with teammates his interception against Georgia during the second half of the Southeastern Conference championship NCAA college football game, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Until the College Football Playoff Committee makes an official announce Sunday morning, who will play in what bowl remains speculation.
Oregon’s victory over Utah, knocked the Utes out of the mix for a playoff bid and put the Ducks in position to play in the 2020 Rose Bowl in Pasadena on New Year’s Day.
Penn State and Wisconsin, who lost to Ohio State Saturday night, are potential opponents for the Ducks. Oregon’s last appearance in the Rose Bowl Game was 2014 in a semifinal victory over Florida State. The No. 2-ranked Ducks lost in the National Championship Game against No. 4 Ohio State 42-20.
Conference championships have been decided and coaches have already started moving around to take over different programs. Below is the list of bowl games including College Football Playoffs:
The New Year’s Six Bowl Games (Games announced Sunday at 9 p.m. PST):
College Football Playoff National Championship Game
Coaches on the move:
While bowl eligible teams wait to hear about their future Sunday morning, other college programs have taken the first step in potentially rebuilding for their future.
Former USC and Oakland Raiders coach Lane Kiffin has left FAU to become the head coach at Ole Miss. Kiffin finished his third year with the Owls, leading the program to a 49-6 victory over UAB in the Conference USA Championship game.
Florida State is expected to announce Memphis coach Mike Norvell as its next coach. Norvell led the No. 17 Tigers to a 29-24 win over No. 20 Cincinnati in the American Athletic Conference title game.
Here are some highlights from USC’s post-game press conferences following its 41-17 win over Cal:
Head coach Clay Helton
“Good win for our football team. Another good road, Pac-12 win. And I’m really proud of the kids. I thought they had a tremendous week of preparation. I thought they brought the right energy and the right attitude today. I thought they really made a statement for their team and what they’re trying to attempt to do down the stretch here. There were some big playmakers all over the place. We had the game ball in there, I really couldn’t give it to one guy. This was really a team a win and there were big plays made by a lot of people. Defensively, I was nervous coming into the game. I thought Cal had done a wonderful job against Washington State the week before. And I thought defensively they really set the tone, especially that third quarter coming out and doing what they did. Offensively, couldn’t be more proud of how we operated as an offense. Four touchdown passes, I think that defense had only given up nine total for the entire year. That’s a really, really good defense and I’m proud of our kids for how they operated.”
On Kedon Slovis’ third 400-yard performance in four games:
“My favorite number is that zero; zero interceptions. That’s a really good defense and I think Justin Wilcox is one of the better defensive coaches in the country. I’ll never forget being here and Sam Darnold having one of his hardest days because of how they mixed up coverages, pressures and things like that. One, credit the offensive line. They did come after us and they held up. And credit the wideouts. They did an unbelievable job when they got their one-on-one situations making big plays for the kid. And he protected the football. When you have four touchdowns and zero interceptions, that’s a hell of a day.”
On the difference in the game:
“I thought the separation was the drive right before half. We talked about that, how important ending the half and beginning the half was going to be. It was the last thing we talked about in our team meeting because we lost that last year, if you remember. We had a turnover that happened right before halftime and then we came out flat in the third quarter. That cost us a loss against this team last year. We discussed it as a team and man, the kids took it to heart. To go down, get that two-minute drive for a touchdown, then come right out in the second half and double up with another touchdown, that was the separation we needed.”
On electing to defer after winning the coin toss:
“I challenged our kickoff coverage as well as our defense, that I wanted them to be able to set the tone tonight. We said it in our team meeting, that if we had the opportunity to win the toss, we were gonna defer and put that strike force out right off the bat and get back on the horse, go cover it and get it down. And the defense, I wanted them to set the tone. I was really proud after that first drive. There was no panic or anything amongst anybody that was there. We got two penalties on that drive that allowed them to get to the plus side of the field. Everybody took a deep breath and said, ‘Okay, this is what’s happened. Let’s go to the next drive.’ From that point on, I thought defensively they had a heck of a night.”
If he second-guessed that decision after Cal scored on the opening drive of the game:
“No. Sometimes you have to be able to show confidence in the guys that are around you and let them know that, ‘Hey, I’m confident in you.’ And it may not have paid off for the first drive, but it paid off for the game. When a coach has confidence in the men that are around him, they’ll feed off of it. And that was what I wanted to happen. I believe in these kids. They keep on showing up each and every week and putting their best foot forward. They got a chance to win five out of the last six games next week and really put an exclamation point on the season.”
QB Kedon Slovis
On the game:
“I thought the team played really well. Obviously a few drives wish we had of scored but overall I thought we had a pretty good night.”
When he felt like he was on his game:
“I don’t know I really thought like that, but in the second half after the second touchdown, we kinda had it rolling offensively, I thought.”
If Cal’s defense was as good as expected:
“That’s one of the things, the beauty of this offense, is no matter who we play, we’re an execution-based offense. So if we execute, if we do our job, we’re gonna score. And that’s what happened tonight.”
If his confidence grows playing with the receivers he plays with:
“Yeah, definitely. I remember in high school I wouldn’t be able to make some of the throws because I knew my guys couldn’t make it. It wasn’t their fault; they’re not Michael Pittman or some of these guys. It’s definitely getting used to what they can do and their skillset.”
On what he’s learned and gotten better at lately:
“Going through the reads and being more consistent. And that comes with reps. Obviously, the last week, made a few ugly mistakes and this week made a few mistakes too that obviously didn’t cost us, luckily.”
On Drake London:
“He’s been awesome. I think confidence-wise you see him getting more excited. He tried to hurdle someone so definitely more confident than he was a few weeks ago.”
On three 400-yard games in last four weeks:
“I think it just shows what our offense is capable of. Obviously I think I can play better even after a game like this and especially after the other three games. I think it’s just a testament to what this offense can be in the future.”
Where he wants to grow before season is over:
“Just eliminating those bad decisions, really. There’s one throw, the one to [Tyler Vaughns] that probably should have been picked off, I can’t make that throw. That’s a bad decision. So just eliminating those. We obviously got better at it throughout the year but just making that a staple.”
WR Michael Pittman Jr.
If anything surprises him about Slovis anymore:
“No, he’s showed up and he’s been the same guy week in and week out and I think that he’s getting better and he’s showing us that he’s an elite college quarterback.”
On breaking through 1,000 yards:
“That’s a big deal, I guess, so I’m just thankful that I had that opportunity.”
On how Drake London has played of late:
“I thought Drake has been big time. I actually talked to him after that Washington game when he didn’t make that tough catch and I kinda just challenged him. And he has came out and played great, especially for being so young. He still has a lot of time left here and I’m just looking for him to do great things.”
On his thoughts heading into his last game at the Coliseum next week:
“I haven’t really thought about it. It’s just happened so fast and I’m just so blessed to be part of this team and part of this brotherhood that I can’t see it ending. So I don’t really want to think about it yet.”
S Talanoa Hufanga
If the defense made any adjustments after Cal scored to start the game:
“We just had to focus on the run game, make sure we stop the run game, force them to throw. We just had to adjust. That’s the whole motto of it. We just got to relock in and that’s what we did when it came to the second series.”
WR Amon-Ra St. Brown
On Slovis’ performance:
“Kedon’s a beast. He’s been balling all year. He’s a great quarterback. I think just each game he feels more comfortable and he’s getting the hang of it.”
If the team went in expecting to throw the deep ball or if it became a point of emphasis as the game progressed:
“I think it’s just something that developed as the game progressed. We didn’t know what we were going to see, what kind of coverage we were going to see. As the game went on, the coaches upstairs saw what they were doing and just started dialing up some shots.”
On why the deep ball was so effective:
“I think we have great guys on offense on our side of the ball. Really good receivers, a great quarterback, a line that gave protection and we just went and made plays.”
Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast
On the impact of the targeting call against Christian Rector:
“It was huge. We had some things within the game plan that we were going to utilize him on third down from a rush standpoint that was kinda dialed up for him. So it was disappointing to lose him that early. But we made some adjustments for who were going to put in there and the guys stepped up and played ball.”
On the pressure the defense put on Cal’s QBs:
“Yeah, it was good. We mixed it up. We called some coverage. We called some blitzes. The guys executed it well, certainly in timely situations. The guys were disruptive.”
On Caleb Tremblay:
“He’s a guy that really benefited from redshirting last year. He’s helped us more in pass rush situations than he has in the running game. He got tied up on a couple blocks in the running game and the ball got out on the perimeter. But he’s a guy that’s still learning.”
Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell
“I thought he played pretty well. It helps to have some big monsters out there who can go get the ball. But I thought it was one of our more complete performances as an offense, at least for a full game. So I was happy with that. … When he plays well, he should always throw for 400 with those guys. You can’t replace experience. The more games you’re playing in any offense, the better you’re going to get. Obviously with the receivers we have and the offense we run, it’ll enable you to have the opportunity to put up a lot of points and the opportunity to put up big numbers.”
If it was part of the game plan to throw the ball deep:
“They were playing a coverage that I felt allowed us the opportunity to take some shots and the opportunity to hit some big ones. And turns out we did.”
WR Drake London
On his confidence:
“The game has slowed down tremendously.”
If he got frustrated early in the season:
“To be honest, I didn’t feel like I was in a lull at all. I was a true freshman, I was playing, I was going out there and blocking for my teammates. So that’s all I could ask for.”
Southern California’s Kana’i Mauga (26) tackles California’s Christopher Brown Jr. during the first quarter of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019, in Berkeley, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
Southern California’s Chase McGrath (40) is congratulated by Ben Griffiths, left, after kicking a field goal against California in the first quarter of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019, in Berkeley, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
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Southern California’s Amon-Ra St. Brown (8) celebrates after scoring a touchdown against California during the first quarter of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019, in Berkeley, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
Southern California’s Jalen McKenzie (70) rushes against California in the first quarter of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019, in Berkeley, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
California’s DeShawn Collins (26) celebrates after scoring a touchdown against Southern California during the first quarter of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019, in Berkeley, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
California quarterback Chase Garbers, left, rushes against Southern California in the first quarter of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019, in Berkeley, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
Southern California quarterback Kedon Slovis looks to pass against California in the first quarter of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019, in Berkeley, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
California quarterback Chase Garbers, right, passes against Southern California in the first quarter of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019, in Berkeley, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
Southern California’s Amon-Ra St. Brown (8) celebrates with Stephen Carr, right, after scoring a touchdown against California during the first quarter of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019, in Berkeley, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
Southern California’s Michael Pittman Jr. (6) can’t make the catch as California’s Camryn Bynum (24) defends during the first quarter of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019, in Berkeley, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
BERKELEY — Sometimes it’s good to have balance on offense. Other times, you just got to go with what’s working.
That was the case for USC against California, as freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis threw for 406 yards and four touchdowns in a 41-17 win.
Even USC’s attempts to run out the clock in the fourth quarter of the blowout didn’t do much to disguise just how lopsided the Trojan offense was. Through three quarters, the passing game accounted for 94.3 percent of the Trojans’ total yards.
USC finished with 406 passing yards and 56 on the ground, against a defense that was ranked fourth in the Pac-12 in stopping the passing game entering the weekend.
Slovis shook off three sacks to put together one of his cleanest performances of the season with no interceptions. He was able to throw the long ball to perfection, completing seven passes for 20 or more yards, and made plays on the move when the Cal pressure necessitate it.
He spread the love, too, making sure his three leading receivers — Michael Pittman Jr., Amon-Ra St. Brown and Drake London — all had over 80 yards receiving and a touchdown for USC (7-4, 6-2 in Pac-12 play).
Slovis’ final touchdown pass before being pulled in the fourth quarter went to Josh Falo, the first USC tight end to grab a TD pass this season. It was Slovis third game with 400-plus passing yards this season, all coming in the past four games.
Both teams scored on their opening drives. Cal (5-5, 2-5) did so on a five-yard run after USC defensive end Christian Rector was ejected for targeting. Slovis found St. Brown wide open in the end zone for an 18-yard touchdown, with the two executing the scramble drill to perfection.
The second quarter was marred by an injury that left both teams shaken.
On the kickoff after Cal tied the game at 10, Cal linebacker Evan Tattersall was laid flat on his back by a block from USC’s Julian Falaniko. Falaniko waved for the USC trainers to tend to Tattersall even as the play was ongoing, sensing a serious injury to the Bear.
Tattersall was down on the field for several minutes, showing little movement in his extremities. Cal head coach Justin Wilcox and USC head coach Clay Helton stayed by Tattersall’s side until he was taken off the field by a cart, giving a brief thumbs up to the crowd as he was lifted up.
Later, Cal reported that Tattersall was alert and had movement in his extremities, though he was taken to an area hospital as a precaution.
Neither team could move the ball after the injury, both offenses going three-and-out. So to get the offense moving again, USC went with the most surefire move in its arsenal: Pass to Pittman.
The senior receiver caught four passes for 61 yards on USC’s final drive of the second half, including a 33-yard touchdown pass in the end zone. It gave USC a 17-10 lead heading into the locker room.
Pittman’s 180 receiving yards on the evening put him over 1,000 yards on the season for the first time in his career.
All year, when USC has won the coin toss, it has elected to receive. Heck, even when the opponents have won, they have deferred to the second half.
So when USC won the toss and deferred on Saturday, it raised some eyebrows, especially after Cal’s opening TD. But the move paid off.
After USC took the lead on the Pittman touchdown with 43 seconds left in the first half, the Trojans marched down the field thanks in large part to a 50-yard completion from Slovis to St. Brown, all through the air as the sophomore receiver leaped to make the grab between two defenders.
It set up an eight-yard touchdown pass to London, Slovis rolling right to find the freshman receiver, who had the first 100-yard game of his career. London’s third score in as many weeks gave USC a 24-10 lead.
USC would go on to complete a 31-0 run before Cal would finally score again. But there was no way the Bears could keep up with the arm of Kedon Slovis on Saturday night.
Here are the highlights from the post-game press conferences following USC’s 56-24 loss to Oregon:
Head coach Clay Helton
“Credit to Oregon, good football team. We made enough mistakes tonight against a top-10 team that you can’t win a ball game. You can’t turn it over four times and to have the penalties that we had and expect to be that team. Not our night. As I told the group in there, we’ll come back and work on Monday and get ready for Arizona State.”
If there was a turning point in the game:
“Really in the first half, we get up 10-0 and got the opportunity to really jump ahead. And we end up getting a red-zone turnover. In that second quarter, there were some things that went against us. Pick-six happens, and you can’t do those things against that football team. They’re a quality football team, very well coached, and tonight we just didn’t execute like we know we can.”
If there was any talk about squibbing the kickoff with 20 seconds left in the first half (the resulting kickoff was returned for a touchdown):
“Alex [Stadthaus] has been known to kick it out of the end zone. [Special teams coordinator John Baxter] and I talked and we trust Alex. He kicked a good ball. Plenty of height, the ball was deep enough. We just didn’t get the ball down. That was another mistake in that second quarter that we’re four points down and now you go into halftime down 11.”
Why he’s the right coach to lead USC:
“I’ve been here 10 years and I believe in being a servant to this university and to the young men that are here. Each and every day I wake up and represent them and our school. I will continue to do that each and every day. I’ll fight like hell with the people I believe in and the people that I love until they ask me not to do it anymore, alright? I’m gonna show up on Monday and work my butt off for the next one. That’s what coaches do. That’s what ball coaches are, and I’ll continue doing the only thing I know, which is to fight.”
If he felt he had to win against Oregon to keep his job:
“The guys that I think about are the guys that are beside me, and in that locker room. That’s what I feel is I’m trying to help them win a championship. Our staff is trying to help them win a championship. And I love them. Everyone in that locker room I’ve signed, I’ve been a part of, I’ve been in their living room. I love them like sons. I’m not worried about me. I’ve coached and played enough ball for 10 lifetimes. I’m worried about helping them win a Pac-12 South championship and try to get to a Pac-12 championship. Whatever is written is already written. God already has that plan. Until then, I’m going to dang fight and try to help them win the Pac-12 South. We’re in a hole right now. We’ve got to do our job and win the next three games and hope for a little help.”
On not controlling the divisional race anymore:
“You go to the next game, just like we’ve done. We’ve got to play an Arizona State team that’s had a week off and preparation for us, so we’ve got to get back to work tomorrow immediately. They’re at home with a talented offense. We got to go back and clean up the things that we did today and be ready to win the next one. That’s all we can, and hope for a little luck. We’re sitting here with two losses right now in the Pac-12 South. Utah’s got one, and we’ll need a little help. But all we can focus on is us and doing our job, and our job is in Arizona next week.”
How he evaluates QB Kedon Slovis’ performance:
“What I told him on the sidelines, he’s a special player. We have special quarterbacks here. Part of playing quarterback is getting to learn from each rep, and each experience. Some are good and some are bad, but you get to learn from it. This guy’s gonna be playing football for a long time, a long time. He’s very talented. Tonight was just another learning lesson that quarterbacks learn from. And what I liked is how he executed on that last drive, and that’s what I thanked him for, and thanked those kids that went out there. Those kids never quit fighting. They never quit fighting. It was nice to see Kyle Ford get his first touchdown catch and it was nice to see No. 9 go back out there and continue to try to execute and get better with every snap. And he’s going to. Mark my words, he’s going to be a really special player.”
On how he helps the team through the mental aspect of a loss like this:
“I just told them in the locker room, it’s one of those things that if nothing else comes from this, it’s a great life lesson. I know every one of us in here feel bad right, but the world doesn’t care about our feelings or us feeling sorry for ourselves. The world cares about you getting back up an doing your job. For 18-21-year-olds, that’s hard, because they pour so much into it. The amount of time they spend to get to Saturday, it’s hard when this happens. But that’s life. Sometimes life isn’t fair. And the way we react as coaches being the example hopefully rubs off on them. In real life, it’s not what happens to you, it’s how you react to things.”
On why it’s been hard for USC to execute with consistency this season:
“A little bit of youth, a little bit of injury and we played some good ball clubs. Give them credit, too. That’s a good team out there and we made enough mistakes tonight to let it snowball. So it’s my job as their coach to clean it up and go on and move on to the next game.”
On why the momentum flipped after the first quarter:
“Really our red zone efficiency. We take the first drive down and it’s 7-0 and we get a nice turnover that we hope turns into 14-0 but we end up kicking a field goal out of it. And then we’ve got another opportunity to get down there and we fumbled. I thought the opportunities to put 11 more points on the board in that first half was critical and we just didn’t get it done.”
If losing like this at home makes it harder to bounce back:
“No. The men in that room are special. I’ve said it all along. We’ll come back to work on Monday and put our best foot forward against Arizona State. Like I said, they’re a special group of kids and they’ve been trained for highs and lows and dealing with it when things don’t go their way. You’ll watch them next week and I’m looking forward to them getting right back on the horse and ready to play.”
QB Kedon Slovis
On his four turnovers:
“I don’t think it necessarily affected my decision-making process throughout the game. You can’t commit turnovers like that, but sometimes it happens and you just got to move on to the next play.”
How he’s feeling physically after the game:
“Nothing more than a football game.”
If he feels like he’s playing for Helton’s job:
“We don’t listen to outside noise. We worry about the next game and the next play, really. That’s our mentality and we’ll continue to do that.”
C Brett Neilon
On where everything went wrong:
“We made a critical mistake down in the red zone. We could have had seven and that ends up being seven for them. That’s a 14-point swing when you add it up. Then you get the kickoff return touchdown and it just adds up. Before you know it, you have a few more turnovers. Give the ball back to a great Oregon offense and they’re gonna make you pay. We just didn’t hit on the keys to our game, which is protecting the football.”
On looking up and seeing the team was down by 39:
“The points piled up quickly. After the first quarter, we go down and score and the defense makes a great play, we should have converted but we get three more points. We were in it. Like, ‘Let’s do this. We can play with them and we can beat ’em.’ Then it takes some really quick turnovers and things go real south quick. The red zone turnover really hurt and then for them to score on that, and then get a kickoff return touchdown after that, and then a pick-six. I forgot about the pick-six. It just adds up real quick. It was like a blitzkrieg, honestly. We made critical mistakes and it killed us.”
On the thoughts about moving forward after the game:
“We still have a lot to play for. We still got to keep fighting and finish out the season and get to a bowl game and whatnot. We just got to come together and keep fighting and play.”
LB John Houston Jr.
If he feels like he’s playing for Helton’s job:
“For me, I’m playing for my teammates, everybody in the locker room just fo ourselves, trying to get us better. Not worrying about the outside factors or any of that outside stuff. Just worry about how we can do better as a whole unit and be better each and every game.”
On why the defense couldn’t keep up its first-quarter execution:
“I would say more the penalties. We had more penalties after that and just continuing drives and just being able to keep on the field. So penalties killed us.”
WR Amon-Ra St. Brown
If there was a key to the game:
“I think we failed to convert a few times in the red zone. Two fumbles, interception, pick-six didn’t help. I think the targeting call on Isaiah [Pola-Mao] really changed things. We were down already on defense a few guys. But it is what it is.”
If what was surreal to see how imbalanced the score was:
“It was not something I’m used to. I’ve never lost this bad in my life. So definitely shock. But like I said, it is what it is.”
WR Tyler Vaughns
On what happened to the offense:
“Just us. We got to stay on-tune on what we were doing and just execute better. We got to finish drives and everything like that.”
On the mindset of the locker room after the loss:
“We’re just trying to battle back right now. We not what kind of team we are and it’s frustrating that we can’t show it and really ball out like we should be. But we’re gonna do it. We’re gonna come back next week and win and do our thing.”
If it was surreal to see the team down by so much:
“It was a shocker to us. I would have never guessed that. Not at all.”
DE Christian Rector
On the state of the locker room:
“It definitely hurts losing. I don’t think they’re 32-points better than us. I think we kind of shot ourselves in the foot tonight. We can’t turn the ball over like and not create turnovers and expect to beat the No. 7 team in the country.”
If the team feels the weight of playing for Helton’s job:
“No, we want to win, too.”
On Helton’s message after the game:
“It was the mistakes that we made and the stuff that hurt us. And it was to learn from this and to move on.”
LB Hunter Echols
How he’d describe the feelings after the game:
“We let the game kind of get away from us today. I felt we played great in the first half and we did a lot of things well. We lost a couple players to some calls and that affected us a little bit but we can’t harp on the loss too much. I know it was a bad performance toward the end of the game but we just got to keep fighting. We still got faith and we’ll still keep working hard each and every day.”
What was the most frustrating part of the loss:
“Really just the penalties. Penalties kept us out for some drives and a couple miscues with some stuff but not really too bad of a performance by the defense today. Even the offense. We played well as a team but just a couple calls, a couple penalties hurt us and it took some players away from us in some areas.”
On how losing Pola-Mao affected the team:
“Just momentum wise. We got the guys, we got the depth here so talent wasn’t going to decrease. But just as far as momentum, Isaiah, he brought a lot of juice out there when he got his interception and just a lot of stuff that was going when Isaiah was out there. Losing Zay, a big, fast safety like that, it’s always going to affect the defense a little bit. But we try not to worry about that because we got guys who can take his place and step in for him.”
If he felt the team was playing for Helton and his job security:
“We always play for our coach, regardless, all of our coaches, our defensive coordinator, our position coaches. That’s who we do it for. They put int he work for us throughout the week all week making sure we’re prepared for the game. We play for them no matter what the score is, no matter win or lose. That’s who we’re playing for, that’s who I’m playing for.”
If he’s concerned for Helton’s job after this game:
“I’m not even worried about nothing as far as that. We all love Coach Helton and we know what he can do. He’s done some great things here at USC. He won a Rose Bowl, a Pac-12 championship, took us to the Cotton Bowl. So I feel like we’ll be alright. I support my coaches, 100 percent.”
Here are the highlights from USC’s press conferences following Saturday’s 41-14 win over Arizona:
Head coach Clay Helton
“Good night for our kids. In this second half of the season, we talk about winning one at a time and being 1-0 tonight. Playing a team that was at the top of the Pac-12 South along with us, a team that controlled it’s own destiny like we did. We know that if we plan on playing championship football then we got to treat every game like a championship game. Obviously a good night, but a night where we had some injuries and some guys had to step up and be the next guy up. These two guys that are up here right now [Kenan Christon and Kana’i Mauga] we those guys. Kana’i not only makes a great overall play, makes a huge turnover for us in the red zone that allowed us to put a stamp on the game. Then, I credit our coaches of just doing a great job of preparing everybody all the way from the bottom up. You never know when your time is gonna come and Kenan, he goes out there and has not only his first 100-yard rushing game but two touchdowns. I’m so proud of him, proud of our boys. We’re 1-0, 1-0 in this second half and now we’ve got a really short week on the road at Colorado so we’re right back to work first thing tomorrow.”
On balancing the excitement from the win with the half dozen injuries USC suffered:
“I feel terrible for those kids. We had six injuries, significant ones, tonight that we’ll have to see where they’re at. It’s bittersweet because the kids are playing extremely hard. You saw what they did to Notre Dame, which is a physical game on both sides. Came out tonight with a chip on their shoulder and really something to prove and played extremely hard. I’m sad for those six kids.”
On what he knows as of Saturday night about the injuries:
“Talanoa [Hufanga] suffered a shoulder injury. I’ll have to give you more information on Monday when we practice. Stephen Carr suffered a hamstring injury. I’ll give you more information on that on Monday. Malik McClain suffered a shoulder injury. Drake Jackson, ankle injury. Markese Stepp, an ankle injury and Munir McClain, a knee injury.”
On what impressed him about the defense’s performance without six starters for much of the game:
“We talked about getting to the quarterback, and to have seven sacks on the night I was really, really happy with the pressure. But most importantly, just containing the quarterback. We had issues in the first half of the season. I credit [defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast] along with the defensive staff, Johnny Nansen. They went out and studied NFL teams, teams that have played Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes, some athletic quarterbacks, Baltimore Ravens and really see what others are doing to defend it and input in some of those things. I thought the kids thrived off of it and I was looking forward to watching it. They did a really nice job against I think one of the better athletes [Khalil Tate] in the country.”
On what exactly the defense did to be effective against Tate:
“I don’t want to give game plan away, but one of the things that you did see was you had the opportunity for a lot of up-field twist games. You saw that a different package came in on third down on passing situations, and different personnel. Malik was a part of that, which is sad. He really did a nice job of creating pressure, along with Hunter Echols. Drake was inside, which he’s normally not inside. He was at the three, Caleb [Tremblay] who’s usually outside became a three. You really had an extremely fast group that was not only penetrating but also with the twist games really controlling the line of scrimmage. It was a nice package that was put in this week and very effective.”
On Christon’s game:
“With Vavae [Malepeai] down this week, that’s part of training camp, that’s part of always carrying guys, keep building them up and getting them to the point. Some guys are ready Game 1 and some guys are really building themselves and being ready. This guy over the six weeks prepared himself. It was fun tonight. Because when he hit the first one, Mike Jinks as soon as he hit the line of scrimmage said touchdown. When you’re a 100-, 300-meter kid and you got that type of speed, it was neat to watch. Credit to Kenan and Coach Jinks, they prepared a kid to be ready for his time and he got his time tonight.”
On the role that Christon could play in the offense in the coming weeks:
“We’re gonna see where we’re at. Losing Vavae this week and then losing two more backs this week, obviously I would imagine Kenan’s gonna have a pretty big role going into Colorado, as well as Quincy Jontti. Hopefully we get one guy back.”
On Mauga’s big night:
“He reminds me a lot of what [Michael Pittman] did when he was a young person. This is kind of our special teams captain and a guy that’s sitting right behind [Palie Gaoteote IV] in getting those reps each and every day. Just a guy that we can count on day in and day out. I remember that with Pitt. He was just waiting for his time. And then meanwhile he was so special on our special teams. That’s what Kana’i has been. Just a true and doing whatever is called upon to help the team win. He’s called upon to be the starter tonight and then low and behold interception, forced fumble, tackles everywhere. It was like unleashing somebody that was just waiting for his chance. I can’t tell you how happy I am for him.”
On USC’s young players stepping up after injuries:
“We have a talented young bunch. There’s a bunch of freshmen and sophomores on this team and I’ve said it multiple times, I think this is gonna be a team that’s gonna be a really good team for a long time. They’re gonna grow together. It’s only eight seniors on this team and if you look at the freshmen and sophomores playing on this team right now, they’re very talented. We don’t lose many people and there’s a lot of people that are going to be here in 3-4 years.”
On the offense’s performance:
“I didn’t feel like we had a great rhythm, to be honest with you. I thought we found that rhythm once the running game started going and we found a little bit more advantage coverages because of it. I thought [offensive coordinator Graham Harrell] did a nice job in the second half of being able to take some deep ball shots to kind of open them up. It’s been every game, we kinda had to diagnose what the defense is doing, and what we scouted is kinda not what we got in the first quarter. There’s just a little bit of time to take place, go okay, this is what we’re getting an these are our adjustments. And he as a coach and an offensive staff have done a great job of being able to say, ‘Okay, this is what it’s going to be today. Let’s get to the plays we need to get to.’ “
Running back Kenan Christon
On if it’s been tough to stay ready before his debut:
“I would say it’s not tough at all. I’m here to help the team. I’m willing to do whatever I can, wherever they need me I’ll go and I’ll play. I just been preparing the right way and staying focused.”
On his first touchdown:
“I was just being patient, followed my blockers and they opened up a huge hole for me and just finished the run.”
Linebacker Kana’i Mauga
On the defense’s mindset entering the game without four starters, and then losing two more:
“Our mindset through the game was to contain the quarterback as much as we could. Our DBs did a very good job of plastering to their man and our d-line did a fantastic job staying in their lanes.”
If his forced fumble provided any momentum for the defense:
“Most definitely. I believe that our defense is all together. So when one makes a play then everyone makes a play. So it was hyped on the sideline and it was a great atmosphere.”
Quarterback Kedon Slovis
On the offense’s performance:
“Whenever you score 40 points you should be happy, but I think we left a lot of points out there. Could have done a lot more to get first-half scoring.”
On what the team needs to do to get the offense going earlier:
“A lot of that’s on me. I didn’t do my job and wasn’t very disciplined and missed a lot of opportunities.”
On Christon’s performance:
“That was awesome. You see him in practice do it time and time again, but to see him do it against live defenders was great.”
On the mindset after the win:
“We’re 1-0 for the rest of the second half of the season. We got to keep this up and improve from where we can.”
Center Brett Neilon
On Christon’s perfomance:
“You can see that he’s definitely a track champion. He was patient and then he took off. He’s a tremendous talent. I didn’t even see him hit the hole and then I look up and he’s already by the end zone. We knew he was fast. He’s got some wheels. We knew he’s got that speed. I was just thinking, ‘Dang, this kid has got some wheels.’ He’s got the little wing tattoos on his legs. He deserves to have those, for sure.”
Cornerback Dorian Hewett
On his nerves before his first start:
“Nerves weren’t that bad. Coming from Texas, I was coming from a big state that loves football. The crowd and the community was good and they helped me calm down those guys.”
On the team’s mindset after so many injuries:
“Coach Clancy and all them do a great job of making sure everybody gets reps just in case so that if something goes down and you have to step up. In my case, I’ve been working as the No. 2 and I been the backup corner for this whole season and when I had my chance to step up I had to show that I could come in and contribute to the team and hold down my position.”
On his own performance:
“I did good. I didn’t have any catches, I had two tackles and I didn’t mess up really in any plays. I feel great about our secondary. The way we came out tonight and we contributed to the run and the short passes and everything and we stopped them and we showed everybody we’re not a secondary to be played with.”
If it’s a confidence boost to have this performance against a top-10 total offense:
“[They knew Arizona] would try to come out and tempo us. We had to play and keep our own tempo, keep moving with our own tempo. I feel like that was a big confidence boost for us to be able to hold down a top-10 team to only 14 points and for us to really show how our defense would play.”
Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast
On the injuries suffered by the defense:
“It was unfortunate. We’re kinda beat up. I know the guys that are down will be in there tomorrow, getting rehabbed and get them back as quickly as possible.”
On Mauga’s performance:
“I was really happy with the way he played. He’s been practicing well all season and doing well on special teams. So I knew when he got his opportunity he was gonna make the most of it. And tonight he did.”
On the toughness the defense displayed:
“Tribute to the guys, to their studying of the opponent, really diving into the game plan and the whole staff getting all of their positions ready.”
On how the defense slowed down Tate:
“We wanted to keep him bottled up. I think that we’ve seen a lot of him over the years and we know what kind of player he is and the guys just really zeroed in and focused on what we needed to do tonight.”
Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell
On Slovis’ performance:
“I thought this was probably the most hesitant he’s been all year. He’s young. I think he played more like a freshman than he normally plays like tonight.”
Cornerback Isaac Taylor-Stuart
On what the defense showed overall:
“Personally, I think we showed we’re great. Keeping the quarterback contained, not letting him scramble for a bunch of yards. We did a great job in the passing games and all the shots from the d-line, they were just getting that pressure which is great for us defensive backs. We forced them to make bad plays and that’s how tackled.”
On how he felt coming back from an ankle injury:
“I felt great. I came out there to help the team. As long as I help the team doing what we do, I feel great, personally.”
If he knew he’d be able to play as much as he did:
“No, not really. I didn’t fold to challenge. I stepped up to it. If they need me in, I’m gonna give my all I got because I love this game.”
On the in-game injuries:
“It does hurt us a lot because those are guys who fought and who gave everything they have.”
Cornerback Max Williams
On the defense’s performance:
“We prepared hard all week and watched a lot of film so we came out here and did our job.”
On watching the injuries mount:
“We just have a next-man-up mentality. Everybody prepares in practice, go hard, be ready when your number’s called.”
On his third-down tackle in the first quarter:
“I just seen two big guards coming out to me so I used my size to my advantage, got little and made the tackle.”
On Mauga’s performance:
“He did really good. He does that in practice, though, so that’s what’s expected from him.”
Cornerback Chris Steele
On three true freshmen starting at corner:
“It felt real good just be out there with the dudes in my class that I came in with and stuff. I think everybody performed real well. I think everybody took advantage of the opportunity so I’m real happy for everybody.”
Here are five takeaways from USC’s 41-14 win over Arizona on Saturday:
1. Short-week problems. The slew of injuries USC suffered on Saturday doesn’t bode well for a short week in which the Trojans travel to play Colorado on Friday. Defensive end Drake Jackson was in a walking boot after suffering an ankle injury, while safety Talanoa Hufanga was in a sling after injuring his shoulder. Receiver Munir McClain (knee), defensive end Malik McClain (shoulder) and running backs Markese Stepp (ankle) and Stephen Carr (hamstring) all needed carts to get them out to the team bus. Even those who avoid lengthy recovery times will be hard-pressed to be ready to play in six days.
2. Turnover battle. USC won the turnover battle on Saturday, and in resounding 3-1 fashion. The Trojans picked up two fumbles, one an unforced punt return error by Arizona and the other forced by Kana’i Mauga. Mauga also intercepted an Arizona pass in the third quarter to complete USC’s trifecta. The Trojans’ lone turnover was a fumble by former walk-on running back Quincy Jontti after Stepp and Carr went down with injuries. It continued an encouraging trend for USC a week after playing a turnover-less game against the Irish.
3. Defense stands tall. The Trojans faced a tough challenge in the Arizona offense, which was among the best in the country at moving the ball down the field. But USC was so effective at stopping the Wildcats, despite being down six starters, that Arizona benched quarterback Khalil Tate midway through the third quarter. Clay Helton said that defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast and his staff studied NFL defenses that had success against running quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson to develop a game plan for Tate. It involved using a more athletic package on third down to create pressure, moving ends like Jackson in to tackle to cause issues for Tate, who finished 6 for 10 for 47 yards and six sacks.
4. Christon’s for real. Freshman Kenan Christon made an immediate impact in first career action, rushing eight times for 103 yards and two touchdowns of over 30 yards each. With Stepp and Carr injured, and starter Vavae Malepeai out indefinitely following knee surgery on Tuesday, Christon’s emergence was vital. But even if Stepp and Carr recover in time for Colorado, Christon might have proven that he deserves to be a legitimate third option until Malepeai returns.
5. Pac-12 South outlook. USC is now 3-1 in Pac-12 play, tied atop the South Division standings with Utah. The Trojans hold the tiebreaker over the Utes, and therefor control their fate for a division title and trip to the conference championship game. USC has five remaining games: At Colorado, vs. Oregon, at Arizona State, at California and vs. UCLA. Four of the five are games USC should win, with Oregon being the lone exception. Utah has a similar slate, with only Washington looming as a likely stumbling block. If USC wins the games it should, a division title is very much within reach.