- Without Sam Darnold's talent to run the show, USC’s inconsistencies are on full display in back-to-back double-digit losses.
End the façade now.
Without having arguably the most talented quarterback in program history at their disposal anymore, Clay Helton and the USC coaching staff have been exposed for what they truly are: a group that is extremely in over their heads.
Despite No. 22 USC racing out to a 14-3 lead on Saturday night, the Trojans were once again embarrassed on a big stage after a 37–14 defeat at the hands of Texas. The same Longhorns team that lost to Maryland in their season opener and eked out a seven-point win over Tulsa last week.
USC closed as a 3.5-point underdog, the 11th time the team hasn’t been favored in a game under Helton. The 1–10 record in those contests is a damning enough indicator of how his teams get up for elite competition, but it's not just the constant losses—it’s how often the Trojans are getting blown out in them, like they aren’t even worthy of being on the same field.
The average score of those 11 games has been 32.9–16.2. In seven of those contests, USC has lost by a three-score deficit (at least 17 points or more).
For all of the talent that USC has, this simply should not be a consistent result. Its last five recruiting classes, starting from 2014, have been ranked No. 10, No. 2, No. 10, No. 4 and, most recently, No. 4 by 247Sports.
The other three programs to have top-10 recruiting classes in each of the past five years? Alabama, Ohio State and Georgia.
And look at where those programs are compared to the Trojans. In fact, when USC played Alabama to start the 2016 season and Ohio State to end the 2017 campaign at the Cotton Bowl, the Trojans were outscored by a combined total of 76-13.
The talent discrepancy certainly wasn’t the reason why. The coaching discrepancy was.
Especially when Sam Darnold hasn't been at the helm, Helton’s USC teams have regularly been sloppy, looked unprepared and made mind-numbing mistakes. And while the Trojans can get away with that type of play against inferior teams, those mistakes have been magnified in marquee matchups.
Helton also decided to bring back offensive coordinator Tee Martin and special teams coordinator John Baxter despite those units ranging from inconsistent to borderline horrific for most of last season.
In Austin on Saturday night, the offense and special teams put together an abysmal performance. USC ran 16 times for minus-five yards against Texas, the same team that surrendered 332 total rushing yards in its first two games. The offensive line continues to struggle with run blocking and in pass protection, yet has no problem drawing the attention of referees thanks to numerous committed infractions.
Up 14–13, USC faced a fourth-and-goal from the Texas one-yard line in the second quarter. The Trojans ran a toss sweep to Stephen Carr and did not pull a single offensive lineman. With no one blocking for him on the outside, Carr was stuffed shy of the goal line.
The special teams featured three punts that went under 30 yards (13, 22 and 29), a roughing the kicker call that gave Texas a first down on a fourth-and-nine from its own four-yard line and a blocked 50-yard field goal that was returned for a touchdown.
All of these gaffes have been commonplace over the past few seasons, but with Darnold being able to mask a lot of the faults with the rest of the team, the Trojans were able to win a Rose Bowl and a Pac-12 title over Helton’s first two full years. However, as was referenced before, 20 of those 21 victories came when USC was favored (a 26–13 win at Washington in 2016 is the lone exception). Even with Darnold, the Trojans still fell short in most upset opportunities with a chance to elevate the program back to national prominence.
Helton’s 21 wins over his first two seasons are a USC record. Don’t be fooled by that pedigree, though, as his track record post-Darnold is suffering a major hit.
With this 37–14 blowout, USC lost by double-digit points in back-to-back games for the first time since 2000. Week 2’s 17–3 defeat against Stanford was the fewest points USC scored against the Cardinal since 1941.
Helton simply isn’t the right coach to lead USC back to college football’s elite. And if USC continues to let him stick around, he’ll be the coach that leads them into the abyss of mediocrity.