USC Sports

USC Now Mailbag: Steve Sarkisian, Justin Wilcox and Ed Orgeron

Steve Sarkisian

USC Coach Steve Sarkisian celebrates the Trojans’ win over Colorado on Oct. 18.

(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Wow! My inbox has become a shoulder to cry on.

No shortage of emails and tweets this week, so my apologies to those I did not respond to — though the sampling here is representative of the comments and questions that filled my inbox.

Happy Halloween.

And if you need a last-minute costume idea, just try wearing a happy face.


Comment: I’ve watched a number of USC games including the USC at Utah game. The freshmen are great but I think the most impressive player is their quarterback Cody Kessler. For whatever reason that kid doesn’t generate many accolades but I don’t think there is a better quarterback in the Pac-12. Review the film of that game. On two or three occasions in that game he never lost his concentration down field in spite of knowing he was about to get annihilated.

— John

Reply: Kessler got pummeled multiple times against Utah, including a hit in the first quarter that knocked the wind out of him and sent him to the sideline.

But he returned a play later and continued to pass despite an aggressive rush that kept coming.


Kessler’s confidence throwing downfield appears to have improved since he passed for a school-record seven touchdowns against Colorado on Oct. 18.

He is completing 70% of his passes and is ninth nationally efficiency -- throwing for 20 touchdowns, with two interceptions. He is in USC’s top 10 in career completions, yards passing and total offense.

Outside of his record-breaking performance, there has been little chatter about Kessler being among the elite quarterbacks in the conference.

Perhaps if USC was not a three-loss team, Kessler’s name would be mentioned more.

Comment: USC’s issue is its poor quarterback play and talent. Cody Kessler hurts USC’s defense by too many three and outs.

— Farzad

Reply: Those three and outs are all Kessler’s fault? I don’t think so.

Kessler completed 24 of 32 passes for 264 yards and two touchdowns, with an interception, against Utah.


The interception was only his second this season.

Kessler’s most obvious blunder in the loss — besides the pick — was his third-and-two pass to Jahleel Pinner that fell at Pinner’s feet late in the fourth quarter.

It was an anomaly and it was obvious from replay that he did not have a grip on the ball.

USC’s tailbacks averaged 2.7 yards per carry in 37 carries. Why are three and outs not their fault? Or the offensive line’s fault?

Could it be that the three and outs are a result of play calling?

Comment: Is there any chance that USC can appoint a new offensive play caller for the last four games? Sark is very predictable, and they know the running plays that he wants to call. This tends to give the opposing coaches the upper hand.

— Mel Willis

Reply: Sarkisian calls the plays and he has been asked after previous losses if that’s a role he was going to reconsider.


I don’t think that will change unless Athletic Director Pat Haden mandates a change after the season.

Comment: It is clear and apparent that Sarkisian is in WAY over his head. Ed [Orgeron] and Clay Helton did a much better job last year simply because Ed was smart enough to let Helton call the plays and be the head coach. Not giving up the play calling was one of the issues that led to Lane Kiffin’s demise. Sarkisian is not fit to be the head coach of this team. He is basically Kiffin, stubborn, wants to be the head coach and call plays and lacks inner strength.

I would have no problem telling this all to Sarkisian directly to his face. He is a seemingly nice guy but WAY over his head.

I could go on for days about this and Justin Wilcox but I guess this is enough for now.

— Skip

Reply: You may be in luck, Skip. There’s a chance Sarkisian reads this.

You’re right. Kiffin would not surrender play-calling and seemed to have little to do with the defense. Sarkisian is wading into this category — he calls plays and spends minimal time monitoring defense during practice (but more time than Kiffin did).

USC drastically improved when Kiffin was fired and Orgeron took over as interim head coach. Orgeron put position coaches in charge of their groups while he oversaw the entire operation.

Helton proved a dynamic play caller. That was evident in the Las Vegas Bowl victory over Fresno State. Kessler had his best game of the season and the Trojans dominated.

Perhaps Sarkisian should hand over play-calling duties to Helton, allowing him to narrow his focus to managing the game.

And thanks for holding off on Wilcox, Skip. The mailbag could only handle so much negativity this week.

Comment: I was willing to give Sark the benefit of the doubt when he was hired. He had some USC DNA, after all. But now it looks like he’s just the second coming of another former USC assistant turned head coach – Lane Kiffin. I believe Coach O is still available.

Also, that worthless defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox needs to be fired NOW. All of USC’s losses fall squarely on his shoulders.

— Barry Catlett, USC ’76

Reply: So much for avoiding the Wilcox question.

I think you are being a bit harsh, Barry. The losses fall squarely on the shoulders of the defensive coordinator?

What about an offense that fell short?

One more first down and USC’s defense never would have had to defend a game-winning drive at Utah.

Comment: When you play NOT to lose!!! You lose. Sark has learned nothing.

— Chris Clements

Reply: I feel a bit duped, too, Chris. After USC’s victory at Arizona, I wrote that USC learned from its last-second loss to Arizona State and that’s why the Trojans held on against Arizona.

But let’s be real. The Wildcats defeated themselves by missing a field-goal attempt with a few seconds left on the clock.

Sarkisian said this week he — and the Trojans — need to develop a killer instinct.

So maybe he learned that he still has some learning to do — and that means learning how to finish games.

Comment: And who said history never repeats itself?

Are Sark and [Clay] Helton complete geniuses, or what? And Wilcox has also been a total bust as a defensive coordinator.

Then again what were Sark’s (and Wilcox’s) defenses like at UW?

Pat Haden may have been a Rhodes Scholar, but not retaining Orgeron was a total blunder.

—Monsieur LaDue

Reply: The Orgeron train is really picking up momentum. Full steam ahead - “Hire Ed!”

Never mind that an Orgeron-coached team lost to Notre Dame and UCLA.

I’m not a historian, but somewhere in my high school social studies class, I learned history has a way of repeating itself, especially when people fail to learn from mistakes.

Which prompts the question: Has USC’s culture turned into, “Oh no, here we go again?”

As a fan, you’re thinking it in the final moments of games. As a reporter, I’m thinking it too. And It’s likely the players have the same thought.

Asked this week if a team could get used to losing, Sarkisian said he didn’t want to say yes or no.

“Sometimes, when you get into familiar settings there can be a sense of it being contagious, that it can creep into a young man’s mind of ‘Oh no, here we go again,’” Sarkisian said. “That’s what we have to eliminate.”

And until they eliminate that thought — whether it be in practice or a game — history is likely to repeat itself.

Comment: QUITTERS! Yes, they believe that “WE ARE SC!” That’s all that’s necessary, in THEIR small minds… back in early 90s, USC had UCLA [by a stranglehold] in a huge margin…Bruins [defeated] them, because they had NO GRIT!

Coaches get paid, far too much -- MUST BE a “performance clause"….in this case, Sark gives up ALL PAY and perks for rest of season.

— Robert, USC ’93

Reply: This email is almost as emotional as LenDale White’s tweets.

I believe you meant UCLA had USC in the 90s? That’s when the Bruins won eight straight, including a come-from-behind victory to win in double overtime in ’96 and a victory behind its fourth-string quarterback in ’92

A UCLA win against USC this season would be the Bruins’ third consecutive victory since USC’s 50-0 thrashing of the Bruins in 2011.

And let’s check on that grit factor.

USC’s defense stopped a late drive at Stanford to defeat the Cardinal, 13-10. It held up in the victory at Arizona. USC’s defense collapsed at Boston College and Utah and against Arizona State.

UCLA defeated Virginia and Texas on game-winning drives in the final seconds, defeated Colorado in overtime and lost to Utah on a last-second field goal.

If you’re counting last-second win for last-second win, UCLA is ahead of USC, 3-2. But the Bruins needed overtime to defeat Colorado, a team the Trojans beat by 28 points the previous week.

Nov. 22 can’t come soon enough.

Comment: I have been a Trojan fan since 1965 and I am an alumnus. I have been a psychotherapist for a total of 40 years with a critical eye and ear for details and analysis. In my opinion the shortcomings of the USC Trojan football team in the current year is due to the lack of reinforcements sharply curtailed by scholarship limitations. I thoroughly expect USC’s performance to improve when the Trojans are able to place enough manpower on the field to last an entire 60 minutes without stifling fatigue.

— Gregory Walker

Reply: Not where I thought you were going with this, Gregory.

Don’t psychotherapists look at the mental aspects of situations? I thought you were going to say that mentally this team is not prepared to pull it out in the final moments.

I did not expect you to say that it is a physical issue.

And I don’t entirely agree with your argument.

There is no doubt that the lack of scholarship players affects the team.

Starters take more reps during the practice week, and when one suffers an injury, a backup must be prepared to play. It appears there are fewer live drills.

But the offensive and defensive lines both rotate players during games. So does the secondary.

So is it really fatigue that causes USC to collapse in the final two minutes?

Or is it coaching? Execution?

Comment: Do we know if USC has addressed the 14 illegitimate points scored by UTAH and/or the fumble for a touchdown that was mishandled? (The first Utah touchdown was fumbled into the back of the end zone. The game-ending touchdown should have been called back due to holding).

— Jeremiah Jones

Reply: Each week USC submits plays to the Pac-12 to be reviewed, Sarkisian said. But what good does that do? A review does not change the call or game outcome.

Sarkisian joked that explanations do provide material for chatter around the dinner table.

USC is not the only team that has dealt with Pac-12 officiating and questionable calls. Seven of the 20 most penalized teams in the NCAA are in the Pac-12 conference, so I’m certain other teams have a beef to pick with officials.

Questions or comments about USC? Email me at or tweet @LindseyThiry and I will respond in a weekly USC Now mailbag.

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