COLUMN: Clay Helton, USC only embolden critics further with bowl letdown
SAN DIEGO -- This is going to be a long offseason for the USC football program, a loud offseason for its fans, and it remains to be seen whether it will be an eventful one for all the same reasons.
The Trojans had hoped to put a positive final stamp on their season in this Holiday Bowl matchup vs. Iowa. Clay Helton, looking for a show of strength after being retained as head coach, had repeatedly called this a great opportunity for his program against a top-25 team, knowing that a handful of such matchups await next fall.
Well, the Trojans better hope this is not a harbinger of how those games will go.
Iowa was the better coached team Friday night -- that much was clear.
The Hawkeyes knew how to beat the Trojans and they never relented, attacking the edges for big plays and early touchdowns, finding the ever-present breakdowns in USC's third-down defense, capitalizing on special teams and just piling on and on and on for a 49-24 win at SDCCU Stadium.
Iowa (10-4) hadn't scored more than 27 points in a game since September, but it scored 28 in the first half alone Friday. The Hawkeyes hadn't scored more than 30 against a Power Five team all season, but they piled up those season-high 49 in this one while doing it in every phase -- including a pivotal 98-yard kickoff return touchdown and a final 25-yard pick-6 to punctuate this beatdown.
To put it in further perspective, this was the Trojans' most lopsided bowl loss since the end of the 1947 season.
The point here is that this was so far from what Helton and USC needed -- badly needed -- amidst the acrimony that has beset the fan base and swirled around the program for most of the last two years, but especially since athletic director Mike Bohn surprised most by announcing Helton would remain the coach moving forward.
The Trojans needed something to sell heading into the offseason, something to spur some semblance of optimism and momentum -- instead after such a very thorough defeat, all Helton could do was spin.
"We're 8-5 now. We were ranked 22 coming in. We're in a situation I said earlier, we got to go from good to great," he said afterward. "That's a big step against some teams like this we're going to face next year. … The biggest thing is these type of experiences for our freshmen and sophomore group I think are important for them to dive into and understand that you can't make the critical error. …
"Those lessons will be invaluable as we move forward. Every experience, whether it's a success or failure, will help this young team. I'm banking on them. I think they can be really special. I've been a part here for 10 years and felt some teams that are right on the cusp of being great. I think this is one of them."
USC fans need something more tangible.
A December win over a solid Big Ten team likely wouldn't have provided enough evidence for the dug-in disbelievers, but it would have been far better than this alternative. Now, the loudest critics will only feel more emboldened in their animus and more abandoned by the targets of their ire -- the leadership, from the administration to the head coach.
The decision has already been made to retain Helton. What's left to be seen is whether Helton will make changes to his staff, with defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast and special teams coordinator John Baxter drawing the most scrutiny. That was the case before Friday, of course, and this latest performance only reinforced those sentiments among Trojans supporters.
Helton understandably wouldn't address that question in much depth Friday night.
"Like I said before the other day, our total focus has been on this game, this game only. I've been tasked with looking at the program as a whole, making any changes if necessary that I feel. Right now I'm going to go back and evaluate," he said. "Our players come back on January 13th, and I'm going to evaluate everything, not only personnel, staffing. I've been very thankful to Mike [Bohn] and Dr. Carol Folt that they've given me the resources, the tools, the support that is needed to take this from good to great. That's my job. I'll be looking at it. I'll alert everybody if and when those happen."
This USC team does have intriguing potential next year. The Trojans have a star in the making with freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis, who was on his way to another sublime performance before an elbow injury forced him out early in the third quarter. He had completed 22 of 30 passes for 260 yards, 2 touchdowns and 0 interceptions in a little more than two quarters against an Iowa defense that had allowed only three 300-yard passers all season.
USC could return its top four running backs, all but one of its receivers (Biletnikoff Award finalist Michael Pittman is gone, and Tyler Vaughns has an NFL decision to make), up to four starting offensive linemen (LT Austin Jackson faces an NFL decision as well), and as many as nine defensive starters.
And Helton noted that USC had momentum going Friday before Slovis was forced out of the game with that injury. The Trojans had indeed cut the deficit to 28-24 and just recovered a well-executed onside kick before losing Slovis. "I'll be honest with you, I thought we put ourselves right in that position after the onside kick," Helton said.
But the defense hadn't yet proven it could consistently make the necessary stops, as Iowa converted on 7 of its first 8 third-down and fourth-down situations and didn't punt for the first time until it was up 35-24 later in that third quarter. So it's hard to say even Slovis could have overcome that.
Whatever what-if existed Friday night, the question will remain until proven otherwise with consistency, whether Helton can win the big games -- or enough of them. His Trojans dealt Utah its only regular-season loss, but they got rolled over by Iowa and Oregon and lost competitive games to Notre Dame and Washington (not to mention BYU).
The further questions will be whether he can fix the flaws in his program -- the continued special teams gaffes, the sloppiness that made USC one of the most penalized teams in the country this year (though that was not a factor Friday), the negative turnover margin, the perception that his Trojans don't match up well against physical teams (like, say, Iowa), etc.
"We believe in championships here. The expectations are high and I love them. Our players love it. That's why we all came to USC. We're challenged by them. We will always continue to be challenged by them," Helton said. "Just as a fan base might be frustrated, a coaching staff and players are frustrated because we know what we're about. I'm so appreciative to this senior group because when a lot of injuries happened, it could have gone one way. I really thought they finished extremely strong. … They laid a foundation for what is going to be next year. They've set a culture, they've set an attitude amongst some young players, they've showed them how to be pros. I'm very appreciative of that.
"We're going to be a very good team next year because of these men and their leadership this year. That was the thing that I take away, a foundation was laid by a bunch of good seniors. We'll make sure we have success in the future. Bright days are ahead."
USC fans want nothing more than to believe that -- but at this point they first have to see it.
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