“Embarrassing” was the word tweeted out by former USC quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart at one point during the Trojans’ game against rival UCLA on Saturday.
That word could have applied to a multitude of things, from the Trojans’ sloppy play to their tailspin in the final weeks of the season to the direction the program has gone since the celebrated Pete Carroll–led days of national title contention with Leinart and Reggie Bush tormenting defenses every week.
Whatever the reason, USC is now in danger of sitting at home during bowl season after a 34–27 loss to UCLA, the school's first defeat at the hands of their crosstown rivals since 2014 and its first loss to an opponent with eight losses or more since the 1960 season. Now the Trojans must beat playoff hopeful Notre Dame next Saturday in Los Angeles to avoid an early end to the season.
When head coach Clay Helton had the interim tag taken off his title by former Athletic director Pat Haden in November 2015, the move was not exactly celebrated in the Land of Troy. Helton had been promoted to offensive coordinator after Steve Sarkisian took a leave of absence and was later fired.
Helton started this season by giving the starting quarterback job to true freshman JT Daniels, who has played well at times. They were handled by Stanford and blown out at Texas, before righting the ship temporarily by winning three in a row. But the last month has been an indictment of the program’s current state, with the most embarrassing setbacks coming in the past two weeks with a 15–14 loss to Cal at home, which snapped a run of 14 straight USC wins in the rivalry, and Saturday’s loss to the Bruins.
UCLA itself is undergoing a transition under first-year head coach Chip Kelly, coming into Week 12 averaging a league-low 22 points a game. Combine that with a porous defense that gives up almost six yards per carry, and that’s how you end up with two wins in your first 10 games.
UCLA sprinted out to a 14–3 first quarter lead after quarterback Wilton Speight took it in himself from four yards out, but Daniels’s arm helped USC get back in the game and take the lead on two touchdown passes: a 44-yarder to Amon-Ra St. Brown and a 45-yarder to Velus Jones.
After the Trojans took a 27–21 lead, UCLA turned to running back Joshua Kelley, who finished with 40 carries for 289 yards and two touchdowns. His 55-yard scamper through the USC defense gave the Bruins the lead for good.
Daniels had 337 yards with two touchdowns but also threw two interceptions, which led to 10 points. His last pick led to a 48-yard field goal by UCLA in the fourth quarter that forced the Trojans to play for a game-tying touchdown on their final drive. Daniels’s fourth-down throw with 37 seconds left fell incomplete, sending the powder blue sideline into a raucous celebration.
Helton has a Rose Bowl win, a Pac-12 title and a 32–16 record in his time as head coach. That may be good enough for some programs, but not at USC.
Helton signed a contract extension to keep him at the school through 2023 after leading USC its first conference title since 2008 last season. It remains to be seen what current athletic director Lynn Swann does as the calls for Helton’s job get louder.