"Outside the Pocket” is a column by Sam Arslanian about USC football.

Beating up on a mediocre team is one thing a good football team does. USC did just that against Arizona on Saturday, but to prove their worth, the Trojans need to do more than pound the Wildcats.

USC has very little room for error. The Trojans’ win paired with Arizona State’s loss to Utah gave USC sole control of the Pac-12 South. While taking control of first place is usually a good thing, Utah’s win rings trouble.

Knocking off Arizona State leaves just one viable loss left on Utah’s schedule: Washington. The same Washington that beat USC, lost to Stanford, pounded Arizona and played No. 11 Oregon to a four-point loss.

USC does control its own destiny, even though you hate hearing head coach Clay Helton say it. Winning out is the Trojans’ easiest route to a Pac-12 championship, but that requires USC to beat Oregon and No. 24 Arizona State on the road.

It sounds crazy, but USC realistically has a better shot at topping Oregon than Arizona State. The Trojans have yet to win a road game; meanwhile, they have been unstoppable at home. Not just undefeated, UNSTOPPABLE. With routs over Arizona and Stanford and a tough win over then-No. 10 Utah, USC in the Coliseum is a scary foe.

Regardless of the opponent, Helton and Co. need to be flawless. They have demonstrated the ability to beat anyone on their schedule, and a loss from here on out should be seen as a coaching or performance failure. Helton’s seat is on fire simply from fan outrage, but he has a bucket of water in his hands. He can’t afford to spill a drop of the bucket.

Going forward, there is one glaring issue USC needs to reconcile: its early-game offensive performance Even in the team’s blow out on Saturday, it took the offense a quarter and a half to start producing.

USC was able to beat up Arizona early on, but they scored 10 early points with only 44 total offensive yards. USC went up 10-0 in the first quarter, but those 10 points were scored with only 44 total offensive yards. The Wildcats handed USC the whip to beat them with. If USC wants to win against teams like Oregon or Arizona State, it can’t wait until the second quarter to start producing on offense. Those elite teams will not bail out USC like Arizona did.

Freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis took responsibility for the early miscues.

“A lot of that’s on me,” Slovis said. “I didn’t do my job and wasn’t very disciplined and missed a lot of opportunities.”

Slovis is a great quarterback. He has the technical ability to throw the deep ball and the pin-point ball, and he succeeds mentally. In fact, he might be the mentally toughest player on the team; he never gets too high or low.

Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell and Slovis find ways to adapt to defenses and get the offense going. That is the big difference between this year’s offense and last year’s offense led by Tee “I’ll look at the film” Martin. It may take the offense some time to get going, but it is dominant when it does.

Credit to Harrell and Slovis, but it would be nice to see a game where the offense is running high octane from kickoff to the end of the game. If USC wants to run the table and beat teams like Oregon, that’s what needs to happen.

The other key component for USC going forward is turnovers. Saturday was the first time since the 2018 season opener against UNLV that USC won the turnover battle. Read that again. It had been 17 games since USC won the turnover battle. Winning football games is much easier when you have the ball more than the other team, especially in favorable field position.

This season the offense has been able to significantly cut down on turnovers, while the defense has been deflating a few balls each game with the turnover sword.

Sophomore inside linebacker Kana'i Mauga shows off two deflated footballs on the Trojan sword. (Photo by Ling Luo)
Sophomore inside linebacker Kana'i Mauga shows off two deflated footballs on the Trojan sword. (Photo by Ling Luo)

USC is poised to prove themselves as a team that can be the most elite force in the Pac-12 in the coming three weeks. However, they can further enforce its reputation as a talented football team with no direction.

We are nearing in on crunch time. There is no time for mistakes, and a misstep could cost Helton’s job come season end.

“Outside the Pocket” runs every Monday.