SAN DIEGO — Only a handful of Trojans stood on the sideline at the end of the third quarter. The rest of the team sat on the bench, heads hung as the Iowa Hawkeyes relentlessly beat the Trojans to a pulp. The 24-49 loss in the San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl was a fitting end to a season of great adversity and missed opportunities.
“[Iowa is] a start-fast football team,” USC head coach Clay Helton said following the game. “We put ourselves in some third-and-long situations, which we wanted. They caught us. They beat us in man coverage a couple of times that ended up creating first downs and keeping drives alive. I think they were perfect in the first half.”
Iowa’s offensive gameplan broke through a weak Clancy Pendergast-led defense. After USC athletic director Mike Bohn announced Helton’s return for the 2020 season, fans clamored for the firing of Pendergast with great merit. The Trojans’ lack of defensive discipline resulted in seven of their 11 drives resulting in touchdowns — multiple drives resembling one another with outside runs and long third-down conversions.
Iowa’s offense often made the Trojan defense resemble that of a middle school flag football team. The Hawkeyes put USC’s defensive ends on skates drive after drive. The run game was headlined by multiple reverse plays that yielded big gains, the first being an opening drive 23-yard touchdown.
“At the end of the day, they were just out-executing us,” redshirt sophomore safety Isaiah Pola-Mao said.
While Iowa is not a pass-first offense, USC still struggled to contain the Hawkeyes’ receiving corps. When USC was able to put the Hawkeyes in a third-and-long situation, the defense gave up a 10-yard-plus play to move the chains.
It would be hard to blame the USC defense for the less than admirable performance as they were on the field for 61% of the first half — Iowa led the time of possession 18:12 to 11:48.
“[The defense] pretty much didn't [get off the field] all game,” redshirt senior linebacker John Houston Jr. said. “They kept drives going, kept the ball going. We just had a bad game.”
USC did reconcile part of its possession deficit — finishing the game seven minutes behind the Hawkeyes. USC’s biggest area of failure was on third-down conversions. The USC defense allowed eight of 13 third-down conversions — Iowa usually converts at a rate of five per 13 attempts. The few stops USC did manage to put up came when the game was out of reach.
“We have to be better,” Pola-Mao said. “We gave them every third down.”
The Hawkeyes’ junior wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette was Iowa’s standout player, posting three touchdowns — one receiving, one rushing and a punt return.
On USC’s side of the field, the Trojan offense was initially able to match the Hawkeyes’ intensity. Freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis posted a respectable performance in a 184-yard, two-touchdown showing against the No. 11 defense in the nation.
USC opened the second half with a 55-yard reception to sophomore receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown — the drive would end with a short touchdown run by junior running back Stephen Carr. The special teams unit followed up the offensive spark with an onside kick recovery.
“We felt confident as a team after I caught that ball and we scored the next play,” St. Brown said. “I think we were really confident as a team that we were going to make the run and come back, but it didn’t go that way.”
USC’s offensive spark soon came to an end. Slovis went down in excruciating pain after sustaining a hit to his throwing arm; for the third time this season redshirt junior Matt Fink had to fill the void left at the quarterback position.
USC did not score after Fink entered the game — leading to 21 unanswered second-half points.
“We've been in that situation with him [Fink] before,” Helton said. “He has absolutely excelled. Tonight just wasn't our night.”
USC finished the 2019 season with an 8-5 record, making this the first time since 2001 that USC has had back to back five-plus loss seasons. With the season over, coaching changes are imminent — notably to the defensive coordinator and special teams positions.
“I’ve been tasked with looking at the program as a whole, making any changes if necessary that I feel,” Helton said. “Right now I’m going to go back and evaluate.”