Michael Pittman Jr. has emerged as the Trojans' top offensive weapon
In what's already been a bumpy ride, the USC Trojans are 3-3 as they reach the halfway point of the 2019 college football season. Their last game was a 30-27 loss at Notre Dame in a hard-fought contest where the Trojans’ efforts finally seemed to click.
USC played largely penalty-free football and averaged 7.3 yards per passing attempt. The Trojans had 171 rushing yards, zero turnovers, and finished with almost 100 more passing yards than Notre Dame. But Clay Helton's team failed where it mattered most — converting only 5-of-12 third downs, surrendered too many sacks, and couldn't come up with the big stop on defense.
Looking at the bigger picture, however, it should be pointed out that USC is currently part of a four-way tie for first place in the Pac-12 South division with a 2-1 conference record. So while the first half has had its ups and downs, the Trojans are very much still in the hunt for a trip to the Pac-12 Championship Game.
And after playing four ranked teams (Notre Dame, Utah, Washington and Stanford, who was ranked at the time) in the first six games, USC currently has just two Top 25 opponents (Oregon, Arizona State) left on the docket. That doesn't mean that dates with Arizona, Colorado, California, and of course, crosstown rival UCLA, won't be challenging. But there's a path for Helton to at least make a strong case for why he should keep his job.
Before we focus on what lies ahead for USC let's take a quick look at what has transpired thus far by handing out some awards.
Offensive MVP: WR Michael Pittman Jr.
Both Pittman and running back Vavae Malepai have four touchdowns on the season, but the former has managed to do this on only 39 receptions while Malepai has touched the ball 98 times already (87 carries, 11 receptions). Add in the fact that Pittman has had to catch passes from three different quarterbacks and you have a truly outstanding wide receiver.
Pittman has been one of the few Trojans who has thrived in offensive coordinator Graham Harrell’s system. He’s a tall (6-4) receiver capable of winning 50-50 balls and doing the spectacular. He’s on pace for more than 1,000 yards and could finish with double-digit touchdowns. He's performed like the type of player that suits up on Sundays.
Defensive MVP: DL Marlon Tuipulotu
Tuipulotu has been a force up front with 30 tackles (16 solo), a sack, two passes defended, and a forced fumble. He was a monster against Fresno State, recording five tackles and a forced fumble. He’s provided a solid boost to the defensive line and has formed a great 1-2 punch with true freshman Drake Jackson.
If Tuipulotu has any competition, it's from cornerback Greg Johnson. Johnson has been the anchor in the secondary with 22 total tackles, an interception, three passes defended, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. Tuipulotu gets the nod due to his consistency.
Best Moment of First Half: Backup Quarterback Matt Fink's Star Turn in Upset of Utah
After pulling his name out of the transfer portal, Fink had the game of a lifetime, throwing for 351 yards and three touchdowns in the 30-23 upset at home over then-No. 10 Utah. Fink also added a touchdown on the ground. This is the type of game Fink will tell his grandchildren about as he gets older. An assist goes to Michael Pittman Jr., who exploded for 232 yards and a TD on 10 catches.
Best Newcomer: QB Kedon Slovis
This isn’t even particularly close. Slovis has handled the quarterback job with aplomb ever since he replaced an injured JT Daniels in the rout of Stanford. Even in losses to BYU and Notre Dame, the true freshman has put up decent numbers, throwing for two touchdowns in both games (although he had three costly interceptions against the Cougars). For the season, he's completing 75 percent of his passes and averaging a healthy 8.8 yards per attempt. A key for USC in the second half is making sure Slovis doesn't take any more hard hits like the one that knocked him out of the Utah game.
Biggest Surprise: DL Drake Jackson
The push up front that Jackson has been providing is something to behold. A true freshman who graduated from high school a semester early, the 6-foot-4, 275-pound Jackson has been a Hulk along the defensive line. He's been credited with 27 tackles, three sacks, and three passes defended. In the win over Utah, Jackson had eight stops and a sack. He's helped fellow lineman Marlon Tuipulotu emerge as a playmaker.
Three Things to Watch in the Second Half
1. Does Clay Helton remain the head coach?
Helton is standing on some very thin ice at this point. The Trojans have yet to show any sign of consistent improvement under him. They are currently tied for first in the Pac-12 South but at this point, anything short of making it to the conference title game may not be enough to save his job. If USC can put up the fight it showed last Saturday against Notre Dame that would definitely help Helton's case. But if the Trojans suffer any more losses like what happened at BYU then the justification well for keeping Helton will dry up like the Sahara.
2. Will the Trojans try and run the ball more?
USC's three main tailbacks — Vavae Malepeai, Markese Stepp, and Stephen Carr — have combined for 880 rushing yards and eight touchdowns. They have done this in 162 carries or 27 per game. It's up to offensive coordinator Graham Harrell to integrate more running plays into his game plan more, or else Solvis will have to do his best in the pocket against teams that are content to drop eight into coverage. The Trojans are in the middle of the pack (tied for seventh) in the Pac-12 in rushing offense but part of the reason for that is they are tied for the second-fewest attempts. It certainly can't hurt to try and give more work to a trio of ball carriers that are averaging a collective 5.4 yards per carry.
3. Does Clancy Pendergast remain the defensive coordinator?
This is not a very good defensive unit despite the talent on the roster. The Trojans have had trouble getting to the quarterback (14 sacks) as well as creating turnovers. USC has fewer takeaways (five) than games played so far. This lack of big plays has contributed to a unit that is far too often getting gashed on the ground (102nd in FBS in rushing defense) or can't get off of the field (80th in third-down conversions). This isn’t a defense built to get a stop when it matters and that falls on Pendergast.
Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule
1. Nov. 9 at Arizona State
Oregon may be ranked higher in the polls, but the Trojans get the Ducks at home and have to travel to Tempe to play the 17th-ranked Sun Devils. Herm Edwards has a hell of a team this year and true freshman Jayden Daniels is the type of dual-threat quarterback that can give the Trojans fits all night long.
2. Nov. 2 vs. Oregon
The No. 12 Ducks are one of the most complete teams remaining on the Trojans’ schedule and a real threat to make the College Football Playoff with their only loss coming to Auburn (5-1, No. 11 in both polls this week). Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert could be the first player taken in next year's NFL draft and he's supported by 14 teammates who are averaging more than 10 yards per catch. The Ducks' defense also is currently No. 1 in the Pac-12.
3. Nov. 16 at Cal
Cal is having its own quarterback injury problems but the Bears have a hell of a defense to fall back on. Current starter Devon Modster (who started his college career at UCLA) has to make better decisions from the pocket, but he has serious talent at his disposal. Cal already has wins over Washington and Ole Miss, but the Bears get the Trojans after playing Washington State and may be looking ahead to the Big Game with Stanford. Perhaps that will buy USC the possibility of being overlooked.
4. Oct. 19 vs. Arizona
The Wildcats are enjoying more success than they did last year under head coach Kevin Sumlin, but are still looking for consistency on offense. Arizona is part of the four-way logjam in the Pac-12 South although Saturday's game in Los Angeles will clear some of that up.
5. Nov. 23 vs UCLA
UCLA would be dead last here, but let's not forget the Bruins were 2-8 entering last year's meeting with USC and won. These Bruins simply don't seem to be taking to head coach Chip Kelly’s system and leading wide receiver Theo Howard announced last week that he was entering the transfer portal. Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson has yet to take that next step under Kelly, but the Trojans will have to contend with running back Joshua Kelley.
6. Oct. 25 at. Colorado
Colorado has already surprised a few teams in head coach Mel Tucker's first season, but the Buffaloes have never beaten USC. This could be the year with a talented offense led by quarterback Steven Montez, running back Alex Fontenot, and the wide receiver trio of Laviska Shenault Jr. (when healthy), Tony Brown, and K.D. Nixon. But CU's sustained lack of success against the Trojans is enough to put the Buffs last for this exercise.
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist. (Special thanks to Ralph Amsden (@ralphamsden) of ArizonaVarsity.com for his assistance.)