LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 21: Michael Pittman Jr. #6 of the USC Trojans is called for being out of bounds during a catch in the endzone in front of Skyler Thomas #25 of the Washington State Cougars late in the second quarter at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on September 21, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images) /
USC football’s Arizona Tuesday practice put the focus on the Pac-12 South race as the Trojans look to control their own destiny in the division.
USC football head coach Clay Helton wasted no time highlighting the importance of this week’s match up against Arizona. The first words out of his mouth after the Trojans’ Tuesday practice turned attention towards the Pac-12 South race.
“It’s so important that you make your Pac-12 South wins,” Helton said.
The Trojans are 1-1 in conference so far in 2018. After losing to Stanford, it was critical for USC to avoid a second conference loss to Washington State, but getting off to a positive start in the South is even more essential.
There have been more than a few 2016 comparisons already 2018, after a 1-2 start, but the Trojans will look to avoid at least one major parallel. When the 2016 Trojans lost their opening Pac-12 South matchup to Utah, they were ultimately held out of the Pac-12 title game despite winning out.
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“The last two times we went to the Pac-12 Championship we had to run the table in the South,” Helton said. “Any time you compete against a Pac-12 South opponent you know that you control your own destiny by getting those wins.”
Notes and Tibits
Chemistry, finally… The thing that made Helton most happy about USC’s performance against Washington State was the way JT Daniels and his wide receivers finally seemed to find their connection. “You felt that chemistry on the practice field last week,” said Helton. “I was hoping it would show up on Friday night and it did.”
Trust throws… A major part of the chemistry developed between the quarterback and pass catchers was down to trust. Daniels’ has confidence in his arm and the ability to make every throw, but what really stands out to Helton is the trust he puts in his receivers. He made “trust throws” on Friday and the likes of Tyler Vaughns and Michael Pittman rewarded him by coming down with big catches. Daniels himself credited the receivers with making it so easy to pull the trigger on long throws. He doesn’t fear throwing interceptions because he trusts his receivers to get the job done. “They’ll make sure that either they’ll catch it or the ball hits the ground,” Daniels said.
No conscience… Daniels’ willingness to go long doesn’t trouble Helton. “The good ones I have been around have no conscience,” Helton said of his QB. “They just let it fly and he’s one of those guys.”
Helluva catch… It’s pretty clear what Helton thought of the referees’ decision not to award Pittman a touchdown for his toe-tapping efforts in the endzone against Washington State. “That was a helluva catch by Mike and a helluva getting a foot down too,” the head coach said with a smirk.
All about assignments…
What does USC need to do to run the ball more effectively on the road this time? The offensive line took a step forward against Washington State, according to the head coach, but they’ll need stay focused when they get to Tucson. “They’re big enough, they’re strong enough, they have physicality, they showed that last game,” Helton said. “The biggest thing for them is just assignment-wise.”
Goal line runner… Vavae Malepeai has done enough in four games to prove himself as a real option for the Trojans, particularly when they need someone to get the toughest carries. “I think Vae has done a tremendous job of being a short yardage goal line runner,” Helton said, also praising the redshirt sophomore for running through linebackers and safeties as the Trojans ran out the clock. “He’s a load in between the tackles.”
Arizona progressing?… Arizona opened the season with two disappointing losses to BYU and Houston, but have bounced back with victories over Southern Utah and Oregon State. Helton took the opportunity to praise head coach Kevin Sumlin for “progressing his team” from Week 1 to Week 4. It certainly helps to go from playing teams ranked in the Top 60 of S&P+ rankings to ones in FCS and the Bottom 25 of college football.
Beyond Khalil Tate… With Khalil Tate hampered in the running game by an ankle injury, Helton credited Arizona for leaning on running back JJ Taylor and using the RPO game to take shots deep. The Wildcats are averaging more than seven yards per play this season thanks to their explosive abilities.
Three-man tandem… Helton also took the time to highlight Arizona’s receivers, Shun Brown, Tony Ellison and Shawn Poindexter as dangerous playmakers. “That three-man tandem makes you cover every inch of the field,” Helton described the trio.
Defensive changes… Arizona started the season with a three-man front, but after falling to 0-2, the Wildcats changed their approach, deploying a four-man front in the last two games. That’s created a unique challenge for the Trojans as they prepare for the matchup. “We’ll practice for both situations, but you can tell that change has kind of fit their personnel,” Helton said.
Tackle for loss machine… Helton pointed out defensive standouts Tony Fields and Collin Schooler, the latter for very good reason. Schooler has 10 tackles for loss through four games, leading the country in that department.