Through just three weeks of the college football season, the USC Trojans have had considerably more drama both on and off the field than most programs face in an entire season.
Away from competition, a few players (including former Brighton High star Osa Masina) are facing legal troubles, while there have been reports of fights occurring during practice.
On the field, the Trojans have only scored 16 total points in their two losses and will be breaking in their second new starting quarterback of the season Friday after head coach Clay Helton demoted Max Browne in favor of redshirt freshman Sam Darnold.
The Deseret News caught up with Zach Helfand, who covers USC athletics for The Los Angeles Times, to discuss the variety of problems USC is facing, and whether or not the team has entered gut-check time.
What's the vibe around the team right now after all that has happened already this season, and particularly after the 27-10 loss to Stanford last Saturday?
ZH: There's a general sense of frustration. To a certain extent, two losses are to be expected against Alabama and Stanford. But the way USC lost both games — getting blown out by Alabama and looking toothless on offense against Stanford — has begun to result in some splinters among the team. After the game, two players, including Sam Darnold, who is now the starting quarterback, said that it looked as though some members of the team had given up at halftime of the Stanford game, because USC was trailing by 14 points. That's a concern.
How has the Osa Masina-Don Hill situation affected the team both off and on the field?
ZH: On the field, the absence of Osa Masina and Don Hill hasn't made a huge impact. Masina was pushing for the starting role, but it appeared Michael Hutchings had won that job before Masina's suspension. Hill would only provide depth and special teams help. And defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast sticks with a tight cycle of players and does not substitute very often. Off the field is another matter. For all of the problems at USC since Pete Carroll left, the allegations against Masina and Hill are probably the most serious. USC players have had to answer questions about their teammates, and Masina was served a search warrant on campus at USC. He's now been arrested, and he and Hill are suspects in an LAPD investigation that is still ongoing.
Are there any overarching reasons why the offense only put up a combined 16 points against Alabama and Stanford? What is head coach Clay Helton hoping Sam Darnold will bring at quarterback that Max Browne didn't?
ZH: The reasons for the offense's struggles are many. I'll list a few: inconsistent offensive line play, the failure to find a suitable receiving option other than JuJu Smith-Schuster, an offensive coordinator still figuring out play-calling, penalties. Against Alabama, the problem was mainly the offensive line being overwhelmed with Alabama's really good front seven. Against Stanford, it was six false starts, all along the offensive line, which led to a poor third-down conversion rate, despite USC's ability to actually move the ball well on the ground. Was any of that quarterback Max Browne's fault? Not really. So why did Helton make the switch? He's hoping Darnold can provide some sort of spark, because that has been missing in three games so far. Darnold has played well in limited minutes. He has a big arm, a command of the offense, anticipation skills and mobility. He's not super fast, but he has enough speed to get by, plus he's big and durable. It will allow USC to use run-pass options and read-options, elements that Browne did not run. No one expects Darnold to be the panacea for all of the offense's woes, but Helton determined that he needed to try something.
What's the latest on how Helton might use Adoree' Jackson?
ZH: Helton announced on Sunday that he'd give consideration this week to using Jackson on offense, as another attempt to provide a spark or a big-play opportunity. Jackson still practices almost exclusively on defense. He also returns punts and kicks. It sounds likely that Jackson will see more offensive snaps this week, but Jackson said any offensive work will be limited to a handful of plays.
Are coaches and players thinking they've entered gut-check time given they'll be 1-3 if they lose to Utah?
ZH: I think so. No one is going to publicly say that they're worried about the season sliding downhill, or about their jobs, but the reality is that Clay Helton is 1-4 as USC's full-time coach. Another loss certainly doesn't help — USC hasn't started 1-3 since 2000, Carroll's first season. Is the season salvageable after a 1-3 start? Sure. But that would mean USC would have to improve mightily and win a bunch of games it won't be favored to win. So I think they'd really like to win on Friday.
Ryan McDonald is a sports reporter at DeseretNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @ryanwmcdonald.