On the night of September 23, Clay Helton and his USC football team walked to the visiting locker room at Rice-Eccles Stadium dejected. The wildly talented Trojans had just blown multiple double-digit leads and finally lost to Utah 31-27 on a last minute, length-of-the-field drive. The team was dejected, torn apart, close to imploding. Helton was at the center of it all, the vultures were circling (including the vulture typing this article) and he was being ripped for his team’s 1-3 start.
Less than four months later, that coach will lead his team out of the tunnel at “The Granddaddy of Them All.”
On Sunday it was announced that USC will be headed back to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 2008. The team and the program is back where it belongs, among college football’s elite. That night in Salt Lake City seems like a distant memory, as Helton, his coaching staff and his team forged an incredible comeback story this season.
The Trojans haven’t lost since that rainy night at Rice-Eccles, and have largely dominated each of their next eight opponents. The team’s only relatively close contests came against College Football Playoff participant Washington in Seattle (a 26-13 win) and a home contest against No. 10 Colorado (a 21-17 win that wasn’t as close as the score would indicate). While the development of redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold has gotten a lot of the credit for the Trojan turnaround, Helton and his staff have been the real heroes.
During USC’s early-season losses to Alabama, Stanford and Utah, Helton was painfully conservative. There’s no doubt he heard the whispers, the gossip, hell, even the shouts that his job was already lost. The way he reacted should be instructive to any coach facing a similar situation. Helton relaxed, opened up the offense, decided to get aggressive and began rotating more players on both sides of the ball. I mean, if you recruit the athletes USC does, you might as well use them, right? The change has been nothing short of remarkable.
By playing more players and being more aggressive, USC’s chemistry developed rapidly. Players started enjoying themselves, the game was fun again. Gone were the pressures of a rigid game plan. With Darnold under-center and often improvising from the pocket, plays were never dead. The talented but under-performing offensive line gelled under the leadership of new, old school coach Neil Callaway and receivers not-named Juju Smith-Schuster got involved.
The improved offense allowed the defense a chance to play aggressive. Instead of just preventing opponents from scoring, Clancy Pendergast turned his unit loose and allowed it to attack.
In his first year as a full-time head coach Helton is obviously still learning. He needed time to figure out his place and get his team running his systems on both sides of the ball. Many have argued that USC is not the place for a coach to learn on the job, and that’s a valid criticism. But any coach given control of a program needs time. Plenty of “experts” wanted Helton gone after the Utah loss (again, including this jerk). How dumb does that opinion look now?
Helton never abandoned his plan or who he was. He changed some things, but stuck to his guns. It took him just one season to turn around a program that desperately needed mature guidance. The Trojans have ripped off eight wins in a row and, other than Alabama, no one is playing better than them right now.
USC is finally back where it belongs and the man in charge deserves all the credit.