I was wrong about Clay Helton and USC. There, I said it. It’s tough for anyone in the opinion business to be shown they were completely off-base, but in this case, it’s obvious I made an objectively terrible call back in September when I demanded USC fire Helton. I’m happy to admit my mistake.
On Saturday night, Helton and his Trojans marched into Seattle and took down the previously unbeaten Washington Huskies with a dominant performance. The coach and his squad had something to prove and they did just that with a 26-13 win that wasn’t as close as the score would indicate.
All season a segment of USC’s fanbase has been lamenting the fact that the school didn’t hire Chris Petersen back in late 2013. Instead, then-athletic director Pat Haden opted for Steve Sarkisian, allowing Washington to swoop in and secure Petersen’s services. Sarkisian flamed out at USC, Petersen has built the Huskies into a contender, and USC looked shaky earlier this year under Helton’s watch. Saturday night destroyed that narrative once and for all.
On Saturday, Helton’s team out-hustled, out-worked and completely out-played Petersen’s. On top of that, Petersen and his staff were out-schemed and out-coached in every facet of the game. USC’s defense held an explosive Washington attack to just 13 points, 276 total yards, and a woeful 17 yards rushing. The Huskies’ only touchdown came when USC stud cornerback Adoree Jackson slipped and fell at the line of scrimmage, leaving John Ross open for a 70-yard touchdown. Other than that, it was a shutdown performance for coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s unit. They made Heisman contender Jake Browning look average and Washington’s offensive line collapsed consistently against a four-man defensive front.
Offensively USC wasn’t perfect, but Washington’s stout defense had a lot to do with that. Still, the Trojans finished with 400 total yards, were 7-of-13 on third down, held the ball for 32:37 and averaged 8.7 yards per pass.
Helton’s Trojans began the season 1-3, with losses to Alabama and on the road against Stanford and Utah. In each of those losses, the team looked lost and directionless. While a case of fumblitis largely cost USC the win in Salt Lake City, the Trojans had other opportunities to come out victorious. That didn’t happen.
Since that rainy night in Utah, USC has been on a roll. Helton made the call to give redshirt freshman Sam Darnold the starting quarterback job against the Utes, and has stuck with him since. Darnold has rewarded him by becoming one of the nation’s most efficient signal-callers. The kid just doesn’t scare, consistently makes plays out of nothing, has otherworldly field vision and has opened the entire offense up.
The Trojans have now won six in a row, sit at 7-3 and while they still must win out and have Utah and Colorado to lose for a shot at the Pac-12 Championship Game, it doesn’t matter as far as Helton’s future goes. This six-win stretch has seen USC transform itself from a struggling former power into a team no one in the country wants to face.
As I said at the beginning of the season, Helton likely wasn’t the guy USC fans wanted. He’s not flashy, he’s not Hollywood, and he’s not a big name. But the way he and his staff have grown and adjusted this season has been remarkable. The key to the whole thing? Helton never lost the team. At no point did the Trojans give up, even when they were sitting at 1-3 and 0-2 in conference play. They bounced back and kept working.
Coaches often need time to implement their systems on both sides of the ball and work to change the culture. They must be given a chance to do so. From what we’ve seen over the last two months, Helton has done that. He’s grown into the job he was hired for last December.
The season isn’t close to over, and Helton still has a lot of work to do. USC faces crosstown rival UCLA at the Rose Bowl this weekend, then hosts Notre Dame on November 26. If Helton and company win both of those games, they will be 9-3 with an eight-game win streak. Even if they don’t make the Pac-12 title game, the Trojans will look mighty attractive to some big bowl games.
Helton’s work isn’t done. He has to continue this run and finish the season strong. No matter what comes over the next few weeks, I was completely wrong to doubt him, even at his lowest point.