USC’s Uneven Bowl-Clinching Win Right Up Its Alley

Adam Maya

TEMPE, Ariz. -- The hometown freshman quarterback had a historic first quarter and the senior captain sealed the win with an acrobatic interception. What should have been poetic was instead frenetic.

USC led by three touchdowns and outgained the opposition 315-1 in the opening frame yet couldn’t close out the game until the 137th and penultimate play. Christian Rector’s pick saved the Trojans from what would have been a humiliating loss, and it likely saved Clay Helton for another two weeks.

The embattled coach intensely embraced every player he could get his hands on as the Trojans walked off the field following a nerve-racking 31-26 win over Arizona State on Saturday.

“The season’s not over,” Helton asserted afterward. “Some people want to write us off. Don’t write us off quite yet. This team is going to keep on winning ballgames and keep on fighting. …

“Not only did they fight on but they fought on to victory. That’s our motto.”

Helton’s proclamation was a nod to Mike Bohn, who accentuated “to victory” repeatedly in his introductory conference Thursday. The Trojans’ new athletic director said he’d be watching this game on TV, like he did last week against Oregon. Bohn has been in Cincinnati for the past six years, but he's all caught up on USC football from the past two seasons, if not the last decade.

The Trojans (6-4) are bowl eligible, which is noteworthy if only because they weren’t last year. Nov. 9 marks the latest USC has qualified since 2001. That’s about the era the program seems to be stuck in.

“We’re bowl eligible but we have higher standards and we have more to play for,” Helton said.

It was good to hear the head coach acknowledge expectations. The problem is they’re much higher than whatever this year’s team will reach. USC, after recently squeaking by Colorado and now Arizona State, is no lock to win its final two games at Cal and versus UCLA. Plus, it also needs Utah to lose again, just to reach the Pac-12 title game at 8-4.

“Next week could be win No. 7,” Helton went on to say. “The following could be win No. 8. Who knows, if a Utah team slips up, can you go get No. 9? Can you go get No. 10 in a bowl game?”

It sounded as outrageous as LeBron James’ “Not one, not two, not three …” speech from when he joined the Miami Heat, only you knew it immediately.

At this point, you could maybe appreciate nine or 10 wins, but it’s not what this team was designed for. Sophomore wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, who came to USC to win championships, put it all in perspective when asked how he felt about clinching a bowl bid.

“It’s cool to be bowl eligible, but six games isn’t a lot to me,” he said. “I don’t celebrate six games, six-game winning, so it’s not much to me.”

Saturday’s win was hard to celebrate, as the Trojans came 32 yards away from coughing up a 21-point lead against a freshman backup QB, who had a potential game-winning pass dropped and whose final throw was tipped and caught by a diving Rector in the final minute. 

USC’s blown double-digit leads before under Helton, including four times last season as well as just last week. But squandering a 28-7 advantage would have been new territory for this tenure. In fact, the Trojans haven’t given up such a margin since 1999, when Notre Dame rallied from a 24-3 deficit in the second half to win, 25-24, against Paul Hackett & Co.

That game turned on a dropped TD pass by R. Jay Soward. This one wasn’t as apparent but eerily recognizable. Quarterback Kedon Slovis, who grew up just a few miles from Sun Devil Stadium, passed for 297 yards and four touchdowns in the first quarter.

That’s the second-most in college football in any quarter in at least 15 years.

“I think it just shows what we can do with this offense when we execute,” Slovis said.

Only, USC couldn’t do so running the ball and ASU adjusted its coverage. The Trojans were then derailed by a plethora of penalties and a pair of turnovers, scoring just three points over the final three quarters.

On defense, USC set out to shut down ASU’s run game and did, but a secondary that has been relatively stingy for much of the season unraveled. Special teams play accounted for ASU’s first TD and was a constant struggle for the Trojans, save for Ben Griffiths’ punting.

The forgettable formula is all too familiar.

Afterward, Helton chalked up a blowout becoming a nail-biter to losing a handful of players and being shorthanded to begin with. Injuries undoubtedly compromised USC’s consistency. Slovis and center Brett Neilon went down on the same play in the third quarter -- Slovis returned about a quarter later after cramping, Neilon did not because of a calf injury that left him in crutches. But they were on the field together for the previous four drives that produced zero points. Helton noted wide receiver Tyler Vaughns being sidelined as well. Never mind that he was hurt in the final minutes of the fourth quarter. 

This team doesn’t stop playing for Helton, it just goes too long without producing.

“We shot ourselves in the foot,” offensive coordinator Graham Harrell said. “It’s frustrating, but it’s not confusing. It comes down to doing your job.”

Why was that so difficult after the first quarter?

“I don’t know,” Harrell said. “We’ll watch the tape and figure it out.”

It’s too late for that. You can maybe forgive Harrell, who wasn’t here last year. But Helton needed to figure it out then, or after the season, or even after BYU. The only thing left to be decided this year is which pre-New Year’s bowl game USC will go to and who will be its head coach next year.

As much as Helton wants his players to go as far as possible, he seems to finally understand he won’t be going with them for much longer.

“At the end of the day, I’ve always believed that this job, when you’re a head coach you’re a servant,” he said. “You’re a servant to your kids and you’re a servant to your university. And you owe it — this university has been great to me for 10 years, and the people of it have been great to me for 10 years. And these kids, each one of them I’ve signed. So they’ll get my absolute best effort as well as our staff. …

“We will keep on coming out and fighting every week until they tell us not to anymore.”

Helton almost sounds like he’s at peace with his fate. He’s gone as far as he can go here.

-- Adam Maya is a USC graduate and has been covering the Trojans since 2003. Follow him on Twitter @AdamJMaya.