Editor’s note: The following is a Q&A between Josh Yuen, football beat writer for The Daily Californian, and Nathan Ackerman, sports editor for the Daily Trojan. The interview has been edited for clarity and length. All statements were made on Tuesday, Nov. 12.
Josh Yuen: Word on the street is that USC’s had to overcome a lot this season, specifically on the injury front. What’s been your biggest takeaway in terms of injuries and how the team has dealt with that throughout the year?
Nathan Ackerman: I think one of the biggest things that injuries might do for this team is it saves head coach Clay Helton a little bit of (job) safety because all season, there have been fans calling for his job. The team really doesn’t make sense this year. They’ll go out and play well against Utah — they’ll go and beat Stanford and then the next week they’ll lose to BYU, and lose some pretty bad games. I think people have been calling for his job all season and it seems like part of their reason now for not firing him yet is that they’ve had guys banged up. They finally have some guys getting back to pretty healthy these past few weeks. JT Daniels getting injured during the first game of the season was obviously a big blow to the team, but Kedon Slovis has played really well out of the backup spot, so I don’t know if you can attribute any of their shortcomings to that.
JY: What’s the latest regarding injuries heading into this weekend, specifically in the backfield?
NA: (Running back) Stephen Carr, before the Oregon game last week, was saying that he felt about 90% and that if he didn’t play that game, he would play this (week). I think he’ll still be more of a game-time decision, but I would anticipate Carr playing. I think Vavae (Malepeai) too is likely to play, but honestly, there’s not a huge rush to get either of them back. They’ve both been good, but Kenan Christon has played well in their spot; Amon-Ra St. Brown has been used in the backfield, too. So I think it’s likely that one of either Carr or Vavae will play, but if they don’t, I wouldn’t anticipate them being rushed back if they’re not at 100% full strength.
JY: What have been some of quarterback Kedon Slovis’ strengths and weaknesses as a true freshman starter, particularly when you factor in Graham Harrell’s offensive scheme?
NA: As far as strengths go, he’s extremely accurate. He has a really strong arm. He had a 93-yard touchdown pass to Amon-Ra St. Brown that he threw from, like, the goal line. It traveled like 40 yards on a dart, hit St. Brown in between three guys and he was off for the score. So, I think in terms of making those tough passes when he has time in the pocket, that’s not where he falls short. I think where he falls into some trouble this year is in some games, he just hasn’t looked entirely comfortable at all. And he’ll be getting some pressure inside the pocket and then he’ll just try to make plays that aren’t there. He’ll try to force passes when he would be better off just taking the sack or throwing the ball away. I think that’s where he’s kind of struggled the most — he’s always trying to make some plays even when there’s not really a play to be made. Graham Harrell has talked a lot this season about how it’s not the end of the world for him to just take a sack or just spike it, and it’s true. Part of that comes with the inexperience … there are just some times when the receivers aren’t open and he just tries to force passes in there.
JY: What are some big moments that the defensive side of the ball has produced, and why has it struggled at times, too?
NA: I think the key for this team is that they need to pressure the quarterback. Their secondary has been good this year, better than what a lot of people thought coming into this season. But when they don’t get any pressure, the receivers buy all this time and find a way to get open, specifically if you’re playing against the type of receivers that Oregon has. One of the biggest themes this season has been missed tackles. They’ll get some pressure and get some guys behind the line. I think the biggest thing with the defense is just consistency. They’ve struggled a lot against mobile quarterbacks this year, so we’ll see how that plays out in the Cal game. Tackling is probably the biggest thing.
JY: If there’s one thing USC needs to do to defeat Cal on Saturday, what is it and why?
NA: There are a lot of things. One of the biggest things I’d say is along the same lines, which is getting pressure on the quarterback. It seems like the games that they won this year were the games that they got a decent amount of pressure, so I think they’re going to do that to slow down Cal’s passing game. We’ve also seen how Cal’s passing game has taken a hit after (Chase Garbers) went down.
JY: Do you have a score prediction for Saturday?
NA: If this game was in week three or four, I would feel really, really nervous. And I’m not saying it’s going to be a shoo-in, but Cal definitely looked better at the beginning of the season than they do now. Not that USC has looked particularly great at any point this year either, though. I would say USC 30-21 — something like that. But a lot of that could change as far as injuries go.