The venerable lyricist Brett Gurewitz once penned that the “hills of Los Angeles are burning” and while that Bad Religion song may have been about the media’s tendency to sensationalize, the metaphor and reality could apply to the USC Trojans’ 2015 season thus far. In fact, it’s really been that way around Los Angeles since about 2010.
Whether it has been on the field or off the field, sensational stories seem to be the order of the day for the Trojans. The last five years have featured incidents like “Salute to Troy,” deflated balls, jersey switches, airport firings, indefinite leaves, interim coaches, interim-interim coaches, balcony stories, claims of racism against the coach, and those are just the highlights that — to paraphrase Gurewitz once more — you can catch on prime time, story at nine, because the whole fan base is going insane.
Prior to the season, the Trojans were tabbed as potential College Football Playoff contenders and quarterback Cody Kessler was being tossed around as a true Heisman candidate. Six games into the season, head coach Steve Sarkisian was suspended indefinitely before being fired, the Trojans are 3-3, Kessler’s NFL Draft stock plummets by the game, and a bad performance by an interim coach against a major rival has the players defending the interim coach on Twitter. If any of this sounds familiar, it should. It’s basically 2012-13 all over again and the back half of USC’s schedule is easier than the front half.
With the Trojans still to face Utah, Cal, Arizona, Colorado, Oregon and UCLA, there is every possibility this team could finish with seven or more losses. The Trojans have the talent to win every one of those games, but this team has yet to put together the consistency required to believe they will win those games. As it stands, interim coach Clay Helton is getting a baptism by fire after taking over for Sarkisian a week ago. A three-game stretch of Notre Dame, Utah and Cal is about the worst possible draw for an interim coach trying to prove himself on a truncated timetable. With the future of USC still very much in the air, now is the perfect time to review the first half of the season and take a peek at what the rest of the way holds for these embattled Trojans.
Offensive MVP: WR JuJu Smith-Schuster
This is a pretty easy call. Smith has 758 yards receiving and seven TDs on the season, averaging 19.4 yards per catch. The only player with more points on the team than Smith-Schuster (44) is the kicker Alex Wood (42). Smith-Schuster is also averaging 126.3 receiving yards per game. If he can stay healthy, Smith-Schuster should be well over 1,000 yards by the time the season is over.
Defensive MVP: SOLB Su’a Cravens
Freshman linebacker Cameron Smith could have taken this honor, but he’s being slotted over to Best Newcomer to make way for Cravens and what he brings not just on the field, but also as a team leader. Cravens leads the team in tackles for a loss, has the longest interception return on the season, and has more sack yards than anyone on the team all while being the team’s second-leading tackler. He is unquestionably the heart of the Trojan defense.
Best Moment of the First Half: Adoree’ Jackson’s run vs. Idaho
Jackson has been compared to Reggie Bush since he was in high school, but his run against Idaho proved that the comparisons to Bush might be more than just hype. Taking a pop pass from Kessler on a fly sweep, Jackson took the play out to the far right of the field before the pursuit caught up with him and he decided to improvise. Realizing he had run out of room, Jackson cut back across the entire length of the field, down the left sideline, and then added a sudden stop and broke in toward the middle of the field for a 30-yard gain and a lifetime of comparisons to the man he came to USC to surpass.
Best Newcomer: MLB Cameron Smith
No surprises here. Smith could have easily been the team defensive MVP up until this point, but Best Newcomer is probably a better fit with the versatility and leadership brought by Cravens. As a true freshman starting at middle linebacker for USC, all Smith has done is lead the team in tackles. More importantly, Smith leads the team in unassisted and assisted tackles, which tells you that he is always around the ball and always helping his teammates complete the play. Smith’s fumble recovery against Notre Dame sparked the temporary turnaround by the Trojans and a few people were comparing that moment to Jawanza Starling’s recovered fumbled back against the Irish that kicked off an 11-2 campaign by the previously-discounted Trojans. Smith is going to a key player for USC in the years to come.
Biggest Surprise: Sarkisian’s firing
The actual termination of Sarkisian following his indefinite suspension by athletic director Pat Haden wasn’t that hard to see coming, but the way this season unfolded for USC was bizarre to say the least. USC hired Sarkisian in the hopes that he would be everything Lane Kiffin wasn’t, but things didn’t turn out as they would have liked. Sarkisian’s hiring was questionable when it happened, but looked downright baffling following his termination. Where the Trojans go from here with the head coaching vacancy is something sure to dominate the headlines.
Three Things to Watch in the Second Half
1. USC’s coaching search
The Trojans need to get this one right. After five years and three different coaches somehow tied to the Pete Carroll tree, it’s long past time for the Trojans to move on and embrace a different coaching philosophy. Pat Haden has come under fire for some of his hiring decisions and all eyes will be on the AD during this search. Unless the Trojans opt to stick with interim coach Clay Helton and that doesn’t seem likely, USC’s next coach will be making their debut in Cowboy Stadium against the Alabama Crimson Tide. No pressure.
2. Self-inflicted mistakes in tight ball games
This is something that has been an issue for the Trojans in nearly every game they’ve played and it cost them once again Saturday against Notre Dame. The Trojans accumulated 105 yards on 10 penalties against the Irish. On several occasions, USC had big plays wiped out by mental mistakes on the offensive line, but those weren’t the only gaffes. The crown jewel of USC’s errors against Notre Dame was easily its decision to allow seven unblocked Irish defenders to challenge three blockers during a punt attempt from inside the Trojans’ own 10. The results were as expected – the Irish blocked the punt and returned it for a touchdown.
3. Clay Helton’s ability to prepare this team
That punt and USC’s defensive performance late in the game against the Irish have many already claiming Helton is in over his head and doesn’t deserve the job on a permanent basis. While a win over Utah would help quiet some of the criticism, Helton is working with limited time and opportunity. Notre Dame presented the first of Helton’s golden opportunities to prove himself worthy of the job and the results were unfortunate. An emotional win over Stanford wasn’t enough to get then-interim Ed Orgeron (following Lane Kiffin’s firing) the job in the face of losses to Notre Dame and UCLA, a win over Utah isn’t likely to make Helton’s future any more stable. USC’s team performances will win or lose Helton this job, it’s that simple.
Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule
1. Oct. 24 vs Utah
Depending on who you ask, Utah might be the No. 1 team in the nation and the Utes are coming to Los Angeles to prove a point. Add in the fact that Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham is a favorite to land the USC job and it’s impossible to imagine the Trojans getting anything less than the Utes’ finest performance on Saturday.
2. Oct. 31 at Cal
Notre Dame’s receivers spent the vast majority of the game running right by USC’s young and inexperienced cornerbacks. Cal thrives on its speedy receivers blowing by DBs en route to catching a perfectly thrown deep ball from Jared Goff. Throw in Halloween, a trip to the Bay Area, Cal’s impressive start, and you have all of the ingredients needed for Cal’s first win against the Trojans since 2003, back when Aaron Rodgers was at the helm.
3. Nov. 28 vs UCLA
The Bruins always represent a tough out for the Trojans and they have become an even greater challenge under head coach Jim Mora. Decimated by injuries, the ‘15 version of UCLA is weakened, but still extremely dangerous. With both schools making the final cut for several high-value recruiting targets, the winner of this game could be in the driver’s seat come February.
4. Nov. 21 at Oregon
Much like the Bruins, the Ducks have been a thorn in the Trojans’ side during the new era of college football and have been riddled with injuries, setbacks and losses in 2015. Autzen Stadium is a tough place to win, but the Trojans are going to have to win a game or two on the road if they are to have any hope of putting together a successful season.
5. Nov. 7 vs Arizona
Copy and paste could come in handy for this portion of the article. Like the Ducks and Bruins before them, the Wildcats have been hit by unfortunate injuries in 2015 and haven’t quite performed up to expectations as a result. This game can be no less taken for granted than any other matchup, but it’s sure to be just as entertaining. it almost always is when these two teams have met in the Rich Rodriguez era with the Wildcats.
6. Nov. 13 at Colorado
Though Colorado is an improved team and exactly the type one could see upsetting the Trojans during a down year like ‘15, the Buffaloes will be coming off back-to-back games with the Bruins and Cardinal prior to USC. The body-blow theory of playing Stanford should be in full effect for a team like Colorado and this is definitely the most winnable of USC’s remaining games.
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Webb is a recruiting analyst for BarkBoard, Scout’s Fresno State affiliate. A contributor to USCFootball.com, Scout’s USC affiliate. He is also a regular guest and contributor for Reign Of Troy, USC’s FanSided affiliate. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.