Don’t blame Clay Helton. He’s a man who was offered his dream job, he would have been crazy not to take it. No, blame USC’s administration for even putting him in that position. Helton’s Trojans led 24-10 and 27-17 late on Friday night and wound up blowing the game, losing to Utah 31-27. The loss put USC at 1-3 on the season and already 0-2 in the Pac-12. Helton’s time at USC shouldn’t last much longer.
It’s clear that while he’s a good man, Helton just isn’t capable of leading a glamour program. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. That’s not his fault, he just doesn’t have the experience, the know-how or the connections to put together the kind of support system that leads to wins at a place like USC. The Trojans have plenty of talent, but no direction. We all know it, but more importantly USC fans, boosters, the administration and new athletic director Lynn Swann know it.
Feel bad for USC’s players right now. They didn’t sign up for this. They played their tails off Friday night, but in key situations their coaches let them down.
With the ball, a 27-24 lead and fourth and three on Utah’s 37-yard-line with 5:37 to go, Helton chose to pin Utah deep with a punt rather than attempt to gain a first down. The Utes had just run their way down the field for a score, but Helton wanted to rely on his defense. The man has a group of thoroughbreds on offense and he chose to give the ball back to Utah. It was a bad move.
Then, as Utah methodically went 93 yards in 15 plays for the game-winning score, defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast continued to play a soft defense. Pendergast and Helton often boast of a desire to be fast and aggressive on that side of the ball. Instead they backed off and let Utah devour yards underneath and eventually get in the end zone. It was death by a thousand paper cuts.
Another puzzling decision, was that running back Justin Davis didn’t see the ball in the fourth quarter. The senior tailback had 126 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries but USC tends to mix tailbacks. As a result, he wound up not getting the ball in crunch time. Davis was having one of the best games of his career, averaging a whopping 12.6 yards per carry, and didn’t get touches when it mattered most. How does Helton not notice that and make a change? It’s just another example of a neophyte head coach making a poor decision.
Credit to Utah, it took advantage of every opportunity, but Helton, Pendergast and the rest of USC’s staff handed this game to the Utes.
So what does USC do about it now?
USC football has always been one of the top jobs in college football. It’s one of the 10 or so glamour programs left in the country. It deserves better than a coach learning on the job, or a mediocre tie-in to the Pete Carroll era. Unless Carroll himself is returning to Troy, it’s time for USC’s administration and the Board of Trustees to pony up the cash, go a different direction and bring the football program back to life.
The first call Swann makes should be to Southern California native Tom Herman, who has taken over football in the state of Texas at the University of Houston. Herman was born in Cincinnati, but grew up in Simi Valley and went to college at Cal Lutheran. He’s got a substantial contract with Houston, but if USC really wants to commit to winning, it should call up its legions of donors and have them pony up the cash to buy out Helton and his staff, and outbid anyone else for Herman. Given the slew of wealthy alumni USC has at its disposal, that kind of money could be raised in one brisk afternoon.
Yes, there are other top-tier coaches out there who could take USC back to glory, but Herman looks like the next great college football coach and the Trojans could get him with the right offer.
I like Clay Helton. He is a good man and he is absolutely doing his best and trying his hardest as a head coach right now. The problem is, his best just simply isn’t good enough for a place like USC.
Lynn Swann is not Pat Haden, he’s not going to look for a hire he can control. The NFL Hall of Famer is going to do what’s best for USC football. And right now that means looking to the future and getting the best candidate for the job, regardless of the price.
I don’t expect Helton to be fired immediately as that wouldn’t change much. But on Saturday Swann needs to start working the phones and sending out feelers to the best coaches in the business. It won’t be cheap to change the direction of the program, but that cost is necessary if USC wants to dominate college football again.
It’s long past time for some major changes at USC. Expect them to come soon.