Fresno State Football: First Look At The USC Trojans
The defending Mountain West champions will open 2019 in the Coliseum against the mighty men of Troy.
A familiar foe fell on hard times last year, but how much will that matter?
Location: Los Angeles, CA
Mascot: Tommy Trojan
2018 Record: 5-7 (4-5 Pac-12)
Head Coach: Clay Helton (34-17 overall). Expectations always run high at USC, so finishing last fall with a losing record for the first time since 2000 brought with it plenty of angst among fans. It was only two years ago that Helton’s Trojans won the Rose Bowl and the cupboard is as stocked with talent as it has ever been, but few coaches across the country enter 2019 on a hotter seat.
WR Michael Pittman
The son of a former Fresno State great, Pittman solidified his big play bonafides despite the offense’s uneven performances in 2018. He led the Trojans with 758 yards on just 41 catches, a healthy 18.5 yards per catch, and as the biggest physical presence among USC’s primary pass-catchers (he’s listed at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds), Pittman could have a field day in new coordinator Graham Harrell’s offense.
DE Christian Rector
A retooled Bulldogs offensive line will get a stiff test right away from the 6-foot-4, 275-pound Rector. He earned second-team all-conference honors last fall after collecting 4.5 sacks and nine tackles for loss and, per Pro Football Focus, returns to the trenches as the Pac-12’s second-best edge rusher.
SS Talanoa Hufanga
JT Daniels wasn’t the only true freshman to crack the starting lineup last fall. Hufanga showed plenty of promise in five starts, and eight games overall, while racking up 51 tackles and four passes defended. He was still on the mend from a broken collarbone in the spring but seems almost certain to hang onto to his previous role.
DT Jay Tufele
Another young Trojan who made a big impact last fall, Tufele is the lone USC player to return after receiving all-conference honors in 2018. As a redshirt freshman, Tufele appeared in all twelve games while making five starts, finishing the season with 23 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and three sacks.
QB JT Daniels
Daniels’ true freshman campaign was certainly an eventful one, though the faithful were by and large left wanting. He completed 59.5% of his passes for 2,672 yards and 14 touchdowns, but he also threw ten interceptions and averaged only a modest 7.4 yards per attempt. He’ll have to work in the fall to hold off Matt Fink and Jack Sears for the starting role, but the ceiling remains tantalizingly high.
The USC offense wasn’t particularly good at any one thing or another last year. Taken in tandem that there were a few things that they weren’t so good at — namely, running the ball — it made for an often frustrating season.
New coordinator Graham Harrell, the architect of North Texas’s recent successes, arrived in the off-season with an Air Raid offense that seems well-suited for this particular crop of athletes. Pittman, Amon-Ra St. Brown, and Tyler Vaughns are an enviable receiver trio, while running backs Stephen Carr and Vavae Malepeai (885 combined yards rushing) should be able to take pressure off of whoever ends up under center.
How will the offensive line coalesce, though? Left tackle Austin Jackson is a solid, if unspectacular anchor, but sophomores like Brett Neilon, Alijah Vera-Tucker and Jalen McKenzie will be counted upon to improve a unit that ranked 73rd in Opportunity Rate, 86th in Stuff Rate, and 112th in Power Success Rate.
This unit often carried the day when the offense scuffled, finishing 34th nationally by S&P+. It also seems, though, like plenty of sophomores will be stepping into key roles, which could make for some growing pains. Tufele and Marlon Tuipulotu (5.5 TFLs, four sacks) will anchor the defensive line’s interior, while Hufanga could be joined by Olaijah Griffin, Isaiah Pola-Mao, and Greg Johnson in rotational roles through the defensive backfield.
One thing they could certainly improve upon, if the Bulldogs aren’t careful, is forcing turnovers. The Trojans had just four interceptions as a team in 2018 (only Oregon State had fewer) despite breaking up 63 passes, a figure which ranked 11th nationally, so some regression to the mean seems extremely likely in the long run. They also finished -10 in turnover margin, their worst such finish in at least a decade.
The Bulldogs and the Trojans are both reloading heading into the fall, but the obvious talent advantage and the friendly confines of the Coliseum will make winning a very tough assignment. This may not be the most dominant USC team we’ve ever seen, but that was also the case back in 2014 when the Trojans dismantled the first post-Derek Carr ‘Dogs.
Granted, Jeff Tedford has earned the benefit of the doubt and I’d be comfortable betting on the Bulldogs to cover the current double-digit line, but a path to victory will require last year’s steady offense and, with so many lingering questions about who will step up to be addressed, that doesn’t seem likely for a full 60 minutes. USC 27, Fresno State 20