USC Football: 5 Things We Learned vs Utah and What They Mean For ASU

Sep 3, 2016; Arlington, TX, USA; USC Trojans head coach Clay Helton reacts during the game against the Alabama Crimson Tide at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Despite a newly sparked offense, USC football fell for the third time in 2016. Here’s the five things we learned in the loss and what they mean going forward.

In an eerie repeat of the 2014 contest between USC and Utah, the Trojans were bested in the final seconds at Rice-Eccles stadium.

It was a game which featured an early turnover by USC, an Adoree’ Jackson kick return touchdown and an impressive last minute drive by the Utes — all features of Utah’s win over USC two years ago.

Back then, the Trojans rallied to finish a respectable 9-4, winning three of their final four games. Now, the quest for another respectable finish on the back of a loss to Utah is on.

Here’s what we learned vs Utah and what it’ll mean when USC takes on ASU…

Punting Isn’t Winning

In Week 3, Clay Helton made the decision to punt on the Stanford side of the field, down three possessions early in the fourth quarter.

It was a perplexing decision, though one which wasn’t likely to impact the final result — the Trojans had a tall mountain to climb erasing the Stanford lead.

On Saturday, Helton was faced with a similar decision. Facing fourth-and-short on the Utah 37, the head coach opted to punt again, hoping to pin the opposition and preserve his three-point lead. That decision did have an effect on the final result, as the Utes marched 93 yards down to field to score the game-winning touchdown with seconds remaining.

Certainly it was a judgment call, one which had an explanation behind it. The fact remains, however, that Helton’s conservative decision-making in the last two games has not helped the Trojans to victory.

What does that mean for ASU?

Next up for USC is Arizona State, a team which has found a way to win in three consecutive close games.

The Sun Devils outlasted Texas Tech, scoring 17 points in the fourth quarter to fend off the Red Raiders. Then they ripped off 20 unanswered points in the second half to put away an upstart UTSA team. On Saturday, it was another tight one against Cal, as ASU came back from another deficit in the second half. The Sun Devils scored 31 points in that final period to win 51-41.

USC should provide the biggest test of the season for ASU, but they’re well-versed in finding ways to win this season. The Trojans are not.

Mar 8, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast during spring practice at Howard Jones Field. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Pendergast Has A Problem

USC learned back in 2013 that Clancy Pendergast is not a fan of subsitutions. He has the players he trust and he uses them almost exclusively.

That hasn’t changed in 2016, but its ill-effects on the Trojan defense seem to have become more pronounced.

Against Utah the Trojan defensive front, whether affected by the altitude, the peristence of the Ute ground attack or depth concerns, couldn’t hold its own.

Eventually Pendergast used the likes of Josh Fatu and Jacob Daniel to spell Rasheem Green, Stevie Tu’ikolovatu and Malik Dorton, but those substitutions couldn’t prevent the Trojans giving up 186 yards rushing nor did it help USC’s non-existent pressure throughout.

What does that mean for ASU?

USC has faced two physical offenses looking to pound the opposition defense into dust, and Pendergast had few answers to stop either of them.

ASU’s offensive attack represents a completely different style, but the same concerns persist as the Sun Devils will look to gas the Trojan front with finesse rather than power.

They’ve scored 16 rushing touchdowns already this season — the third highest total in the country — and are averaging 4.8 yards per carry.

The bigger worry? The last time a Pendergast-coach Trojan defense faced the Sun Devils they exploded with 612 yards of offense and 62 points.

Sep 23, 2016; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; USC Trojans quarterback Sam Darnold (14) passes against the Utah Utes during the first half at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Sam Darnold Is The Future

The Sam Darnold era began on Friday night in Utah and while the end result was less than bright, the young QB’s performance certainly was.

Running an offense more suited to his style than it was for Max Browne, Darnold did indeed provide the spark Helton and the coaching staff hoped he would when they decided to make the quarterback switch after three games.

Darnold threw for 253 yards and ran for another 41 on nine carries, including a touchdown run from eight yards out.

With crisp throws zipped into tight spaces and an accurate long ball, Darnold’s debut as the starter was one to excite fans for the future.

What does that mean for ASU?

Arizona State leads the Pac-12 in scoring this season, averaging 48.8 points per game. On the flip side, the Sun Devils are second worst in the conference so far, allowing 34.3 points per game.

For all the progress USC’s offense made on Friday, they still only managed to score two touchdowns thanks to three fumbles and other mental mistakes. That won’t be good enough with such a potent offense on the opposing sideline.

USC will need Darnold and company to finish off drives, but they should have plenty of opportunities to score against a vulnerable ASU defense.

Sep 23, 2016; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; USC Trojans running back Justin Davis (22) dives for yardage against the Utah Utes during the first half at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Running Back Rotation Is Broken

In 2015, the question asked all too often was “Where is Ronald Jones?’ as the Trojans got in the habit of handing their most effective running back the fewest carries.

That infuriating strategy was on display against Utah, but with the shoe on the other foot. Instead of wondering why Justin Davis was receiving carries instead of the more effective Jones, on Friday it was Jones who saw the ball to the detriment of Davis.

The senior running back deserved more touches as he ran for 102 yards on six carries in the opening half, including a 50-yard scamper and a touchdown to cap off the drive in the second quarter.

Mindbogglingly, Davis only had four touches in the second half — none in the fourth quarter — with Jones and Aca’Cedric Ware taking the bulk of the carries.

While Ware went a respectable 22 yards on five carries, Jones finished with 18 yards on eight carries.

What does that mean for ASU?

The Sun Devils are dead last in total defense in the Pac-12, yet first in rushing defense in 2016. The majority of damage done by opposing offenses has been through the air, but that’s a reflection of ASU’s schedule, facing the air raid offense of Texas Tech and the bear raid of Cal.

On the ground, Arizona State has given up just 3.09 yards per carry.

USC’s rushing attack should test the Sun Devils more thoroughly than their first four opponents, but the effectiveness of the Trojan backs won’t matter if they aren’t used properly.

The sooner the Trojans learn to ride the hot hand, the better.

Sep 23, 2016; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Utah Utes defensive back Casey Hughes (25) and wide receiver Andrew Santiago (85) celebrate with their team at Rice-Eccles Stadium. The Utah Utes defeated the USC Trojans 31-27. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Help Needed In The Pac-12 South

In 2015, USC managed to win the Pac-12 South despite three conference losses. They dropped games to Stanford, Oregon and Washington in the North, but were perfect against teams in their own division.

The win over Utah was the tie breaker between the equal 6-3 record of the Trojans and the Utes.

This year, Utah owns that tie breaker.

What does that mean for ASU?

USC’s two losses in conference have them dead last in the conference heading into October. Still, losses by UCLA and Arizona, as well as more chaos expected in the South, has left the door open for a comeback run.

All of that depends on handing ASU their first conference loss of the year and gaining a tie-breaker over at least one of the Trojans’ division rivals. From there, USC could run through the rest of the division with the toughest challenge coming against UCLA.

They’ll need Utah to lose three times and Colorado and ASU to lose once more, but it’s possible.

On the other hand, a second loss in the division and third Pac-12 loss overall would sink USC’s hopes of repeating as South champs.

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