USC didn’t go down quietly—but it did go down at home for the first time in 20 games. When the Trojans failed to recover an onside kick with 35 seconds to go in an eventual 38–35 Arizona State win, it had been since coach Clay Helton’s interim season that they’d allowed a home game to slip away.
In fact, Helton wasn’t even the head coach yet when USC fell to Washington in Los Angeles on Oct. 8, 2015. Four days later, Steve Sarkisian was fired. Helton, the team’s offensive coordinator, got the interim tag, and he went 5–2 to close out the regular season before losing the Pac-12 title game and the Holiday Bowl. That was enough to earn him the head job, and for 19 consecutive home games, the Trojans came out on top.
In 2018, though, it’s been more of a question of when, not if, that run would end. Up to Saturday, USC had a relatively tame home schedule; it trounced UNLV, barely beat Washington State and edged Colorado by 11 points. The slate ahead is somewhat innocuous, too, until Week 13, when current No. 3 Notre Dame comes to town, and with the Trojans looking as pedestrian as they have since Helton took the job, it was and is tough to imagine them pulling off a signature win in November.
Now there’s cause to wonder if Helton will even be on the sidelines at that point.
After Saturday’s game, Herm Edwards’s Sun Devils and the Trojans both sit at 4–4. USC still has a slight lead in the conference with a 3–3 Pac-12 record to Arizona State’s 2–3—but keep in mind, the Trojans were ranked No. 15 to start the year, and the Sun Devils were at best a curiosity.
Without quarterback J.T. Daniels, who hadn’t yet progressed out of concussion protocol, USC turned to Jack Sears under center on Saturday. The freshman did as much as anyone could have asked in spot duty, completing 20 of 28 throws for 238 yards and two touchdowns. Still, his offense was dismal on third down, converting just two of 11 attempts—which, paired with a porous run defense, was ultimately USC’s downfall. On the afternoon, Arizona State’s rushing attack chewed up 283 total yards; the Sun Devils scored three of their four touchdowns on the ground.
Whenever Helton has faced criticism during his three seasons and change in charge of the Trojans, his defenders have (rightfully) touted the work he’s done at home. And though this was just one game, it pokes a hole in that argument, adding to the chorus that it might be time to move on. The chief argument for change centers on Helton’s team’s performance against the cream of the crop, games with far higher stakes than Saturday's. Case in point: Under the coach, the Trojans are 1–11 as underdogs and have beaten just one ranked team in a true road game. That was all the way back in 2016 at Washington.
Saturday’s USC performance shouldn’t have come as a shock. The Trojans have been mediocre on both sides of the ball, and when they lost to Utah a week ago, they greatly diminished their chances in the Pac-12 South. Yes, USC lost Sam Darnold, Uchenna Nwosu, Ronald Jones and Rasheem Green to the NFL, but this was supposed to be a reloaded team. Of course Daniels, a freshman who reclassified from the class of 2019, was going to be a step back—but this reversal of fortune shouldn’t fall on the quarterback’s shoulders. He’s been just fine, if a bit turnover-happy, especially for a kid who several months ago thought he might be in high school this fall.
Chalk 2018 up to a lost season for USC, which is still playing for its division but will have a massive amount of clawing back to do with Saturday’s loss. It’s hard to imagine Helton getting the boot in the next few weeks, as the Trojans still have plenty of time to become bowl eligible or eke out a signature win. But on Saturday, he lost one argument in his defense as his team embarked on a one-game losing streak at home.