USC was taken down by Brigham Young.
In the aftermath of the 30-27 overtime defeat at LaVell Edwards Stadium, Trojans coach Clay Helton tried to step in the path of the tumbling snowball before it transformed into a full-scale avalanche.
“This is a nonconference game early in the season,” he said, explaining why the loss shouldn’t be considered a disaster.
Helton might as well have tried to stop the wave of BYU students that cascaded down the bleachers on the south side of the stadium and flooded the field in a sea of blue shirts after a third-down interception thrown by freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis sealed the Trojans’ destiny.
The coach has been around enough to know what the coming weeks and months will be like, his future the subject of constant speculation and the noise around his team amplified.
This is nothing new for Helton, an easygoing type who has largely taken such talk in stride. But a remark he made in the postgame news conference indicated his predicament is starting to get to him.
This from someone who refers to his players’ posteriors as “tails” — as in, “They practiced their tails off this week.”
I declared USC’s season over a couple of weeks ago and the loss to an unremarkable BYU team all but made that official.
USC barely won its season opener against Fresno State, which started a quarterback with virtually no experience.
The win over Stanford last week was a mirage, more of a reflection of the Cardinal’s shortcomings than the Trojans’ strengths.
The Trojans are 2-1, but they very well could have a losing record in four weeks.
Next up for USC is No. 11 Utah, which easily downed BYU earlier this season.
The Trojans visit No. 23 Washington on Sept. 28 and No. 7 Notre Dame on Oct. 12.
The upcoming games could decide the fate of Helton, who lost a backer in Swann.
School president Carol Folt’s decision to appoint Dave Roberts the interim athletic director over senior associate athletic director Steve Lopes was a clue the plan is for the athletic department to undergo a significant makeover.
If Helton wants to be part of this future, he will have to do more than win games. He will have to convince the new administration he can lead the Trojans to a national championship.
And that’s what made the defeat on Saturday particularly crushing.
Programs with national championship aspirations can’t lose to teams like BYU.
More important, programs with national championship aspirations can’t lose how USC lost to BYU.
“Any time that you have three turnovers to the other team’s none and you’re on the road, that’s going to put you in a hole,” Helton said.
The Trojans never developed an offensive rhythm. Their offensive line was exposed. They didn’t tackle well on defense.
With a little more than eight minutes remaining in the game, BYU kicked a field goal to narrow its deficit to 24-20.
On the ensuing kickoff, the Trojans were flagged for an unnecessary roughness penalty that pinned them back on their own 13-yard line. Two plays later, there was another penalty against USC, this one for holding.
The Trojans went three and out on the drive and punted. BYU scored a touchdown on its next drive, requiring a late field goal from USC kicker Chase McGrath to force overtime.
Slovis throwing three interceptions in his first collegiate road game almost has to be expected. He’s a true freshman. But penalties in critical times like this are inexcusable. That isn’t how championship programs play football.
“We’ll correct it and we’ll move on to the next one,” Helton said.
It might be too late.
Helton refused to concede that.
“This is going to be a special team, mark my words,” he said.
The Trojans will have to do something drastic and they will have to do it quickly. If not, what will make this team special is that it’s the last Helton coaches at USC.