ARLINGTON, Texas – There are two takeaways from every game, one for the winner and one for the loser. When the game is the season opener, takeaways tend to be extreme. Here are two from the Joke in JerryWorld Saturday night:
Alabama clearly is capable of defending its national title and extending its modern dynasty and perhaps never losing again.
And USC humiliated itself to a staggering degree, in one of the worst nights in program history.
The latter really isn’t that extreme.
This 52-6 curb stomping was the worst Trojans loss in 50 years, since a 51-0 defeat against national champion Notre Dame in 1966. Maybe this opponent will go on to win the championship, too. But at least at that point in time, USC fans could have full faith in their coach, John McKay, the best in school history.
No such assurance can be felt regarding the current coach, Clay Helton.
Helton’s record dropped to 0-3 since being elevated to the full-time job by the Herbert Hoover of athletic directors, Pat Haden. They were so smitten at the University of Self Congratulation by beating rival UCLA last November that Haden rushed to make interim coach Helton the guy two days later. Since then Helton has followed that up with a 19-point loss to Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game; a two-point loss as a three-point favorite to Wisconsin in the Holiday Bowl; and this utter emasculation.
USC coaches have been fired on the airport tarmac in the wee hours of the morning for less.
That would be Lane Kiffin, who was dialing up touchdowns for the Crimson Tide on Saturday night. He was also the guy who emerged from the victorious locker room Saturday with a game ball tucked in his arm.
Which only made the night more inglorious for USC. The guy many fans still blame for the program’s ongoing malaise just beat the tar out of the Trojans.
Haden famously fired Kiffin after an ugly loss to Arizona State in September 2013, and he resurfaced the next season as Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator. Kiffin has done quality work at Alabama with a rotating cast of new starting quarterbacks, while Haden replaced him with Steve Sarkisian and then had to fire him after 30 games for alcohol issues.
That led to Helton, who thus far has done a fine job of piloting the Exxon Valdez toward the rocks in Prince William Sound.
“Obviously one game does not make a season,” Helton said afterward. “We knew coming in, win or lose, that our goal at the end of the year was to be Pac-12 champions. We played a very good team today, and they played up to their potential. And just the cold, hard truth is we did not play up to ours.”
Here’s some more cold, hard truth, straight from the mouth of Saban: “If you want to know the truth of it, I wasn’t pleased with how we played.”
Part of that is Saban being Saban. The perfectionist, the motivator, the guy who lives in resolute fear of complacency, the driven soul who shrinks from pats on the back. He went on and on, as he often does after big wins, about all the errors he saw from his team.
But there is an element of truth to what Saban said, too. Mixing and matching inexperienced quarterbacks, the Tide sputtered to 12 yards total offense in the first quarter. Its intermediate passing attack never really clicked. And not a lot of runs got to the second level of the USC defense.
So it’s not like Alabama truly played to its potential. And yet it still destroyed Troy.
That’s a major warning sign for a program desperately wanting to believe it is back as a national power.
The NCAA’s crippling scholarship reductions of 2010 remain the No. 1 excuse for USC fans, and they were a valid reason in years past. But now? Not so much.
The program is up to 82 scholarship players according to the Los Angeles Daily News, out of a possible 85. USC returned 10 offensive starters from last year, all of them juniors and seniors, including the entire offensive line.
And that line was utterly manhandled by Alabama. Nobody has studs up front like the Tide, but this was a far bigger mismatch than anticipated. USC mustered just 2.1 yards per carry.
‘Bama so totally controlled the line of scrimmage with its front seven that it kept two safeties deep to play umbrella coverage over the top of USC star receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, limiting him to one catch for nine yards.
“We were able to do that really to my surprise,” Saban said. “I thought we’d have to play more eight-man fronts and more men in the box.”
No need. USC couldn’t force them into it. A program historically accustomed to being the physical equal – at least – of all the heavyweights simply could not compete in the trenches. The school that gave us Student Body Left and Student Body Right was bodied right out of JerryWorld.
Beyond that, the Trojans showed little poise when the going got tough. Defensive end Jabari Ruffin was ejected for stomping on the groin of Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick on a special-teams play. A complete coverage bust on a zone blitz allowed the Tide a gimme touchdown of 71 yards. And punter Chris Tilbey flat dropped a snap and had to fall on it in the backfield.
“That’s on me, to be honest with you,” Helton said. “When you have mistakes and you have missed assignments and you have a costly penalty like we had, at the end of the day, you have to take accountability as a coach. And like I told them in there, I got no time to feel sorry for myself, neither do they in that room.
“We’ve got a big game next week versus Utah State. … This game does not define us. But we are far from a finished product, and we have a long way to go, and we’ve got to make the corrections extremely fast.”
The good news for Helton is this: Haden has retired as athletic director, replaced in the Old Boy Network by Lynn Swann. He’s not likely to be waiting for him on the tarmac Sunday morning with a pink slip.
But after a debacle of historic proportion, the winless head coach needs a victory soon.