The USC Trojans will make history on Friday night. For the first time in the program's existence, they will play a game on Friday the 13th. It will be just the fifth time USC has played a Friday game since 1990, but the Trojans have won all of them and they have never lost to Colorado in nine meetings. For added measure, USC has put up at least 40 points in each of their last five matchups against the Buffaloes. Colorado, historically and recently, has gone down fairly easily to the Men of Troy, all the more reason to take this game seriously.
USC interim head coach Clay Helton continues to do what his predecessors could not. Aside from the in-game adjustments, Helton shows a willingness to stick with what is working — albeit only after going away from it for an inexplicable period of time. While this may sound like a slight at Helton, it is anything but. Previous head coaches got away from what was working and never circled back. It's unreasonable to fault Helton for falling back on some of his preferable philosophies without acknowledging his malleable approach to those tendencies when the game is on the line.
Helton's refusal to be stubborn inspired USC to its first come-from-behind victory since 2012 and first after trailing entering the fourth quarter since the Pete Carroll era. The following will seem like a journalistic reach for those who've not followed USC for the last five years, but anyone plugged into Los Angeles during that same stretch wouldn't blink an eye: It's crazy that it took USC nearly five years to find a head coach willing to try something different when their original strategy wasn't working or to go back to trying something that was working with tremendous efficiency.
Quarterback Cody Kessler had another great game against Arizona and will be looking to continue the momentum against Colorado. Kessler was 22-of-36 for 243 yards and a pair of touchdowns, including a 72-yard strike to JuJu Smith-Schuster to put the Trojans back in the game in the second quarter. Kessler continues to be efficient, but struggles with hanging on to the ball too long and getting sacked as a result. USC has surrendered a total of 23 sacks on the season.
Probably more interesting than the fact that USC has give up 23 sacks is how the Trojans have done so under the different coaching regimes. Under former head coach Steve Sarkisian, Kessler was sacked 13 times in a span of five games. Under Helton, Kessler has been sacked 10 times in four games. The real oddity is in the fact that Helton's team has only surrendered more than two sacks one time while Sarkisian's squad gave up four or more on three different occasions. It suggests that the overall offensive line play is a concern, but that Helton has improved the game-to-game results.
If you look at Kessler's play as a result of the more consistent protection, it's not hard to tell when Helton took over. While the senior signal-caller has always been an efficient passer, Helton's ability to use Kessler's strengths to the team's advantage instead of forcing a square peg into a round hole has paid dividends. The Trojans look more competent on offense and running back Ronald Jones II has emerged as a revelation not just for the Trojans, but for the entire nation. Now the Trojans look to keep the efficiency train on track against Colorado, a team that has never beaten USC.
College Football Podcast: Week 11 Preview
USC at Colorado
Kickoff: 9 p.m. ET (Friday)
Spread: USC -16.5
Three Things to Watch
1. USC's Rushing Attack
At this point in the season, who to watch is just as important as what to watch. More crazy things happen in November than any other month of the season. Those things may not be that much more spectacular in terms of the visual, but their significance takes on a whole new meaning. Robert Griffin III likely cemented his Heisman campaign with a thrilling November defeat of Oklahoma. Auburn stunned an entire nation with the kick-six, and now Ronald Jones II has the chance to etch his name not just in Trojan greatness, but possible national greatness as well.
At present, Jones only needs 148 yards to break the freshman rushing record at USC. Should Jones accomplish this feat within the next three games, he would join some elite company at USC. The current owner of that record is Charles White, a future Heisman winner for USC. Given that Jones ran for 177 yards against Arizona, he should be able to find yards against a rushing defense ranked No. 110 in the nation (208.9 ypg).
It's also worth mentioning that this is a November road game against Colorado. Running the ball in cold weather has been a staple in football. Though USC has managed to torch Colorado through the air in previous meetings, there really is no need to approach this game with anything other than a rushing mindset. Establishing the run and limiting the passing game has made the Trojans an efficient and deadly machine on offense, sticking with what has been working should also led Helton to the conclusion that running the ball is the best idea.
Colorado's total defensive ranking is almost as woeful as its standing just against the run. The Buffaloes check in at No. 91 in the nation and are giving up 428.2 yards per game, most of that coming on the ground. Their pass defense isn't amazing, but it's substantially better than their rushing defense. In fact, at No. 61 in the nation, the Buffaloes are in the middle of the pack. That's not to say that USC should stay away from throwing the ball against an average passing defense, just that riding Jones seems like an easier and more evident path to victory.
2. Expect the Flags to Fly Freely
The Trojans are checking into this game averaging 69 penalty yards per game (No. 106) and they're 93rd in the nation in penalties per game (7.1). Add in the goodness that is Colorado's 59.3 penalty yards per game (No. 84), top it with a very savory 6.5 flags per game, and you have a recipe for a penalty-filled game with tons of bad calls mixed in. These two teams are not exactly known for their discipline and the shorter week isn't likely to improve matters on that front. As the Trojans prepare for Colorado, perhaps a new approach is in order since the other stuff doesn't seem to be working.
Since the Trojans seem incapable of eliminating penalties altogether, perhaps a more effective approach would be to focus on eliminating the more costly penalties. These are usually the flags that occur on big plays or take manageable downs and turn them into an adventure. Flags like offensive holding after a huge pass play or false starts on 3rd-and-two have become too common. USC must eliminate these before its final two games of the season and Colorado presents the last real chance to do that before Oregon and UCLA put the Trojans in their crosshairs.
3. Statistics Tell an Interesting Story About Helton
Something crazy happens if you go in-depth with USC splits and game logs. It's not that anything has dramatically changed in the overall scheme, it's that they have leveled out and become more consistent. Sacks were already mentioned earlier, but turnovers are also an illustration of Helton's stability in progress. Steve Sarkisian had stressed turnovers prior to the season and USC did gain half its turnovers under Sarkisian. Sarkisian and Helton both have only won the turnover battle twice, but Helton has forced a turnover in every game while Sarkisian came up empty against Stanford and Idaho.
Pace of play also has picked up under Helton's leadership. It's curious that Helton has yet to call a single game with less than 73 plays, but Sarkisian only had one game of more than 69. Even though Helton was supposedly calling plays the entire time, there has been a significant increase in the number of plays USC is able to get in over the course of a game. Whether that's due to efficiency, execution, or a combination of both is yet to be determined. Things appear to be running more efficiently under Helton and the famous football "eye test" would reinforce that even if the numbers say they're similar or worse.
USC isn't averaging nearly as many yards per play as it was under Sarkisian, but production is there and more importantly, the team is winning more games than it's losing. What you do is not always as important as how you go about it and USC has found a more measured sense of self with Helton at the reigns. It's pointless to forecast what this means for the future, but it sure is helpful to USC in the present. With the ups and downs of the Pac-12 season, Helton's steady approach may be just what USC needs to get its rematch with Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
Maintaining a steady course might be the battle, but overall improvement is the war for USC interim head coach Clay Helton. The Trojans are settling into an identity and the fans aren't the only ones excited about these prospects. The coaching staff seems to be gaining an understanding of what they have in Ronald Jones II and a working Trojan running game is about the last thing the Pac-12 wants to see down the stretch. Expect USC to affirm this identity moving forward and to hit Colorado with everything it has. It's not because the Trojans are trying to make a statement against the Buffaloes, but rather because USC needs one for its own benefit. This is a team and a staff craving knowledge about their operational capabilities. It's a lot of fun to watch what a machine can do once it has been built.
Helton has preached a philosophy of iron sharpening iron and USC knows it needs to be at its sharpest for the final stretch of November. If USC is to have any hope of winning out and competing for a Pac-12 title, then the truth of the matter is that Colorado must become a formality. There really is no alternative for the Trojans. Get right or get beat, it's that simple. Helton has had USC going in the right direction since he took over, now he plans to see this thing out.
To paraphrase Cardale Jones, Helton didn't come to USC to play school. He came to USC to win and be the next head coach. Colorado is just another obstacle keeping Helton from his dreams and he will act accordingly.
Prediction: USC 48, Colorado 19
— 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.