LOS ANGELES -- It has been said that the hardest part about playing with LeBron James is that you get almost none of the credit when you win and almost all of the blame when you lose. And if you’re not helping deliver a title, your time will be short.
Welcome to Clay Helton’s world, an unforgiving environment in which he represents James’ teams and the rest of the Trojans are James.
As many within a USC fan base begging for his dismissal would tell it, Helton is not responsible for any of his team’s successes and all of its failures over the past four-plus years.
Never mind that USC’s best two seasons in the post-Pete Carroll era came under Helton’s watch. Or that he was Sam Darnold’s primary recruiter and first position coach. That he signed all but five players on this promising team. That he hired super assistants Graham Harrell, Mike Jinks, Greg Burns and Chad Kauha’aha’a in one offseason. That he took a chance on the under-recruited Kedon Slovis.
He's been involved in every decision to this point that has USC primed to make another Rose Bowl run in 2020.
After coaching perhaps his final game for USC, a 52-35 win over rival UCLA at the Coliseum on Saturday, Helton didn’t highlight any of those points. He instead thanked his players, for their fight; his seniors, for their leadership; his coaching staff, for preparing the roster from the bottom up; athletic director Mike Bohn, for his support and providing a shot of energy over the final weeks of the season; and even retiring Trojan Marching Band director Art Bartner, for 50 years of service.
“I’ve had a wonderful 10 years here,” Helton said. “I hope to have a heck of a lot more. But I have a deep fondness for this university and the people that are inside of it.”
He went on to praise the performances of Slovis and Michael Pittman and Talanoa Hufanga and several others, in what was Helton's longest postgame press conference since he took over the reins in October of 2015. Not once he did he assume an ounce of credit, even when it was being given to him, as he was asked if he was proud of the fact that he might have made the administration’s upcoming decision on his future more difficult by finishing strong.
“I want us to all remember it’s about our kids, OK? It’s not about me, it’s not about our coaching staff, it’s about the student-athletes and what they’re able to accomplish,” Helton said “… So let’s make it about them and focus on them.”
OK, well Slovis threw four more touchdowns Saturday and broke the school’s single-game passing record with 515 yards. Naturally, he credited his receiving corps for topping the likes of Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, John David Booty, Mark Sanchez, Matt Barkley and Darnold.
“I don’t think any of those other guys had the opportunity to have four of their receivers do that,” he said.
The feat gives Slovis at least 400 yards and four touchdowns in four of the past five games. For those pointing to the Air Raid, Slovis has already thrown for more yards despite fewer attempts than Darnold did in his magical redshirt freshman season.
The rookie QB is averaging 352 passing yards in the nine games he’s played in full. He also went 62 attempts without throwing consecutive incompletions until Pittman and Amon-Ra St. Brown uncharacteristically dropped back-to-back throws in the third quarter. Slovis has thrown two incomplete passes in a row (and none more) just once in each of the past three games.
As good as Slovis was in his debut start versus Stanford back in September, Pittman said the 18-year-old’s decision-making has improved immensely since then.
“I didn’t see this coming,” Pittman admitted. “I didn’t see him becoming the new superstar quarterback of college football.”
Slovis’ ability to distribute the ball to all of his wide receivers made USC as dangerous as ever Saturday. All four starters -- Pittman (104), St. Brown (128), Tyler Vaughns (106) and Drake London (142) -- topped 100 yards. It’s been done just one other time this century, in 2005 by Texas Tech, where Harrell was a backup QB.
“Knowing how Kedon’s playing, just knowing our offense and how our offensive coordinator calls our plays, we’ve been waiting for a game like this,” Vaughns said. “Just a full game.”
Slovis added from the podium: “Like Coach Harrell said, any of you in here could probably throw for over 100 yards with these receivers. It’s exciting to put up numbers and all that but I really think I have a good team around me.”
It’s one that, like its head coach, wasn’t interested in claiming personal credit for what it had just accomplished.
Harrell said a healthy Vavae Malepeai and Stephen Carr coupled with Slovis checking down quicker and more often helped the offense reach optimum levels -- USC achieved season highs in points and yards (643) -- while opening up an explosive downfield passing game.
Safety Isaiah Pola-Mao was quick to credit the offense for making the defense’s job easier. Clancy Pendergast’s unit sold out to stop UCLA running back Joshua Kelley, who notoriously ran for 289 yards in last year’s meeting. The goal was to hold him to 60 yards or less, which would keep him under 1,000 for the season. Kelley amassed just 45 yards on 15 carries.
The defense attributed that to its preparation, particularly to knowing UCLA’s personnel and formations. The other side of that coin was quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who threw for 367 yards, ran for 64 and was responsible for four touchdowns. It was only the second 300-yard passing game of his career.
USC (8-4) overcame it by continuing to produce in the second half, which has become a character trait for this team. After blowing early leads in several games last season, the Trojans have outscored opponents by 42 points in the second half this season. After closing out last season 1-5, they've won five of their past six. Their current three-game win streak also sealed a three-win improvement over last year's dreadful 5-7 campaign.
For that, the players credited one another for persevering through crippling injuries, defeats both humbling (Washington, Oregon) and heartbreaking (BYU, Notre Dame), and the distraction of playing for a coach under fire all season.
It was fitting to hear senior captain Christian Rector credit his head coach for not only taking him from a three-star prospect into an NFL one, but for fully committing himself to the program. It’s not something you could say with confidence about his two predecessors.
“We’ll see what they decide to do,” Rector said of the USC administration. “He’s a great coach. He’s helped developed me into the player that I am today and he’s done a lot for this school. It’ll be interesting to find out what happens.”
A coaching change still seems inevitable and imminent, with Saturday’s win likely delaying the decision for another week. Bohn, who declined an interview, encouraged Helton to enjoy the victory while offering a warm embrace on the field.
Accordingly, Helton wouldn’t bite when asked afterward if he’s considered what changes he’d make if given a shot at staying another year. The embattled Trojan was living in the moment, already preparing to host a dinner that evening for recruits that he isn't expected to coach.
But if you think his circumstances would make it hard for him to sell USC, you don’t know Helton.
“It doesn’t matter if I’m the coach or you’re the coach, USC is always going to be special, always,” he said. “That’s what this place is. And it won’t change. The foundation is 125 years strong. And the people within it are strong. And these players are strong.
"And if you want to come do something special, you want to jump on the train with some damn good quarterbacks, damn good skill, some young kids and have a lot of fun, come on.”
Next year's Trojans could return as many as 18 starters on offense and defense. They figure to be USC's most talented team in over a decade, and Helton laid the foundation for it, whether you choose to credit him or not. Maybe they'll accomplish more than his best ones.
-- Adam Maya is a USC graduate and has been covering the Trojans since 2003. Follow him on Twitter @AdamJMaya.