Dan Weber article


Talk about all the plays, the 82-yard punt return for USC or the 92-yarder for Arizona State.

Or the N'Keal Harry 44-yard TD pass from Manny Wilkins for ASU against Tyler Vaughns' 48-yarder with 35 seconds left to close it to the final 38-35 score for USC.

Or maybe you would rather talk about Eno Benjamin's 49-yard TD run or Wilkins 45-yard keep for the Sun Devils against the 36-yard double pass from Vaughns to Michael Pittman despite double coverage in the end zone.

Lots of highlight reel stuff here. Redshirt freshman quarterback Jack Sears (20 of 28 for 235 yards and two TD) was more than adequate once he got up to speed for a concussed JT Daniels and that doesn't count the perfect 45-yard bomb that Vaughns couldn't come down with in the end zone at the end of the third quarter forcing a USC punt.  "A warrior," Clay Helton called him, thanking Sears for how he's handled losing out on the quarterback competition. 

The there was Talanoa Hufanga, whose game-high 11 tackles give the freshman from Corvallis, Ore., 23 the last two games -- and true "warrior" status. That he broke his collarbone on ASU's final touchdown and will not get the chance to go home and play in a game USC badly needs makes his loss even more problematic. Of five players USC considered starters at safety at the end of August, by the end of this game, all of them were gone. 

That includes senior safety Marvell Tell, a surprise no-go Saturday after a week of not working much at all with a series of stingers from the Utah game. Told he could go with a collar to protect his neck, he decided Friday that he'd rather not take that chance. And so he was among the gone-for-the-game guys. 

Also gone was USC's second-longest-in-the-nation 19-game home winning streak, maybe the last thing this team and coaching staff could hang their hats on. But it wasn't the flea-flicker and punt returns USC will remember for this loss, it was the failure to gain a single yard at the Sun Devil 20 with just over 10 minutes left and USC driving to go ahead once again, down 31-28. 

Had it been fourth and 2, USC would have kicked the tying field goal. When it turned out to be fourth and 1, after a timeout with the crowd booing the decision to go for the tie and kick a field goal, Helton inserted USC's heavy Thor package with 290-pound center Brett Neilon as the blocking back, and called on its leading ball-carrier, senior Aca'Cedric Ware  (64 yards on 13 carries, a 4.9 average) to get that all-important one yard. 

Only he didn't. As USC proved once again this season, when the Trojans need tough yards, short yards, forget it. That's not what the Trojans do. Not how they practice. Not what they believe in. Not who they are.

"Ultra-aggressive," Clay Helton said he'd promised his players the offensive plan would be. "I thought we had a good play called and we got penetration in the A-gap on a power play that worked for us earlier."

That ASU penetration cut off the pulling guard into that left guard gap and there was no gain. Probably a bad spot too, as Toa Lobendahn said. But of course, it's the Pac-12. And the man coming through the gap was freshman ASU linebacker Merlin Robertson, the 6-foot-3, 256-pound Serra kid doing wonders in Tempe who USC chose not to recruit -- not a fit here for whatever reason.

But he fit there on that run when USC could not. And when you think of it, how could USC fit this right? That is not what or how they practice. Power runs in short-yardage situations just don't fit in much even on the one day a week USC goes in full pads.

And this is the problem, say some of the people who were in the room when Clay pitched the kind of program he planned to have at USC. A program USC people would be proud of. A physical program. A no-nonsense, power-running football team that would make you think of USC football at its best. A disciplined, mistake-free team that kind of program demands. A team that would put the fear of the Lord into opponents.

The kind of a program that a son of the South not to mention the son of a long-time and well-respected college and NFL line coach, Kim Helton, would be expected to bring back to USC. It would start up front with the road-graders. The guys who would pave the way for a running attack that would allow USC football to maintain control of any game it played in.

Only that's not how it's turned out. And those folks who put their trust in Clay feel like they were sold a bill of goods. This isn't the team and the program Clay promised. Sam Darnold, Ronald Jones and Deontay Burnett are gone. They could get yards and points in bunches. Not as much discipline needed avoiding penalties when you do it that way.

So now a team that goes out of its way to protect players in practices some call "powder puff" and will soon become "no-pads" once November gets here just can't seem to get to -- or through -- games. There were a full 14 scholarship players out for this game and several more who limped out of here, led by Talanoa.

"A talented group of skill players," first-year ASU coach Herm Edwards said of USC before making his way up the tunnel to shake Sears' hand. Same story every week.

When was the last time you heard anyone talk about USC's guys up front. Or how "tough" they were instead of talented? You haven't. No one has. And the way things are going, no one will.

And while USC may have had enough overall talent to stand ASU off with a third-team quarterback in his first college game, the Trojans didn't have enough to match the three best players on the field.

The 6-4, 221-pound Harry was, as advertised, one of the nation's best and maybe a top 10 NFL Draft pick. And tailback Benjamin, who pounded and pounded USC for 185 yards on 29 carries, was likewise, too much, when combined with option quarterback Wilkins who gained 89 yards on nine carries and didn't lose a single yard while completing 14 of 22 for 166 yards and a TD, for USC to handle.

Even if the Trojans' second half closed the total offensive edge for ASU to 449 yards to 420, coming close at home against ASU is not good enough. But give the Sun Devils this. Arizona State believes in its run game. And it sets up the pass game. And they have a quarterback who knows how to run the option, at least the part where he keeps it. And USC does not.

And that's the problem. For teams whose talent is close to USC's, the Trojans have to do more than show up. They can't give up 92-yard punt return TDs. And they can't, on the first true outside option they run, ask their new quarterback to read it and pitch it down deep in USC territory when he doesn't know how. An insane call. Unbelievable.

"They gave us a look we hadn't seen," Sears said of the way ASU defended the option pitch that had Jack and Ced bunched up together and the ball bouncing off Ced's helmet and all the way 19 yards back to the USC 6 where the Sun Devils fell on it and USC was called for unsportsmanlike conduct allowing the Sun Devils a go-ahead score from the 3.

One play. The USC season in a nutshell, just like the failed fourth-and-one in the final quarter.

But who does that? A second-and-3 play at the USC 25 and they go full option to the short side of the field on a play that no one had seen executed in practice. Especially in Tuesday's full-pads practice where the final 11-on-11 period was eliminated and practice shortened.

And now, here USC finds itself, 4-4 (3-3 in the Pac-12), having to win two more games to get bowl eligible and heads this halloween week to Corvallis for a night game where the black and orange colors and the weird weather have combined over the years to give USC all sorts of fits.

And there will be waiting an Oregon State team that rallied from 31-3 down at Colorado to win in overtime Saturday. Think they won't be waiting to take a piece out of a "talented" but not at all tough USC Trojans team? 

A must-win for USC? You bet. Hard to have imagined such a scenario. But there it is. Unless you want to have to beat UCLA at the Rose Bowl to become bowl-eligible. 

Notice there's no more talk of the Pac-12 South. Anyone who watched Utah take UCLA apart Friday -- and USC a week ago -- knows the Utes are playing in a completely different league from USC.

Every USC player asked about whether they were worried about head coach Helton the way things are goind said they were not. And maybe they shouldn't be. It's not up to them now. Might not be up to anyone on this team that's so far from what was promised -- from what USC expects and expected.

From a roster that going into the season was either No. 4 in the nation based on recruiting rankings. And now this team will be lucky to finish fourth in the Pac-12 South.

And playing in front of a crowd of 47,406 Saturday, USC's smallest home crowd in 17 years with a renovated-to-the-tune-of-$300 million Coliseum coming on line next season in a town that loves its stars where the Rams, Dodgers, Lakers and even the Chargers are much more a story than the Trojans.

For USC, getting bowl eligible, getting it together in a week to be able to handle Oregon State on the road, is not a USC fan's idea of a good time -- or team.

Neither of which these Trojans were -- or seem like they will be.

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