Antonio Morales (TheAthletic.com) — PASADENA, Calif — In a season of lows, Saturday’s loss to UCLA was the nadir for USC: Will it spell the end for Clay Helton?
The last time Clay Helton coached in this stadium, he walked off the field as a Rose Bowl champion.
That moment — a 52-49 victory against Penn State — came 685 days ago and represents the peak of Helton’s three-year tenure as USC’s head coach.
As he walked off that same field Saturday, one fan chanted “You’re a bum,” and another held a sign over his head as he walked through the tunnel that read “HELTON OUT TIME FOR CHANGE.”
This represented the nadir.
USC (5-6 overall, 4-5 Pac-12) seems to hit a new low every week. In late October, there was the loss to Arizona State, which snapped the Trojans’ 19-game home winning streak, one of the last points of pride the program could still cherish.
Last week brought the first loss to Cal in 15 years. This week brought Helton’s first loss to the Bruins (3-8, 3-5) and the program’s first loss to an eight-loss team since Nov. 26, 1960.
Yes, USC will play undefeated and third-ranked Notre Dame next week with bowl eligibility on the line and an opportunity to extend the careers of a group of seniors who endured the Steve Sarkisian saga and won a Rose Bowl and a Pac-12 title.
But the most important matter surrounding the final week of the season will be the “will he or won’t he?” nature of Helton’s status, which only Lynn Swann, the university’s athletic director, can really answer.
“That’s a great question for Mr. Swann,” Helton said when asked if he knows if he’ll return for the 2019 season. “Out of honor and respect to him, I’ll let you ask him that. As I said earlier this week, I feel tremendous support from Mr. Swann and what we are doing here and thank him for it because he’s been with me every step of the way.”
The latest step — this loss — was described as heartbreaking by Helton. The offensive effort was somewhat similar to last week’s: a hot start followed by a quiet second half.
JT Daniels threw for 218 yards and two scores in the first half, the Trojans scored 24 points, and they were moving the ball. Then the second half started: They settled for a field goal on their first drive of the third quarter and failed to score the rest of the way.
After the field goal, USC drives ended in a punt, an interception, a three-and-out, another punt and then a turnover on downs. Its fate was sealed when it faced fourth-and-3 from the UCLA 29 with 37 seconds remaining.
Daniels, who completed 20 passes on 34 attempts for 337 yards with two interceptions, threw a pass in the direction of Amon-Ra St. Brown (six receptions, 98 yards and a touchdown) only for Bruins linebacker Krys Barnes to break up the pass and snap UCLA’s three-game losing streak in this rivalry.
“I had a little option route and broke out. The ball came and the defender made a great play,” St. Brown said. “He barely tipped it and threw the timing off of everything.”
But Barnes wasn’t alone in delivering USC this loss. Bruins running back Joshua Kelley was the main character in their performance. He rushed 40 times for 289 yards — the most rushing yards by a player on either team in the history of the rivalry — and two scores.
He put UCLA ahead for good, 28-27, on a 55-yard touchdown run with 10:39 left in the game.
“We game-planned for them,” USC defensive lineman Christian Rector said. “We knew Chip (Kelly) would bring something new, like he does every week, and we weren’t able to adjust.”
As a result of all these factors, the questions that Helton faced about his job security throughout the week will linger.
“I work my butt off every 24 hours trying to buy another 24,” he said. “If you work as hard as you can, and do the best job you can, for your kids, for the university you love, you have no regrets and I don’t. I’ll continue to work as hard as humanly possible. I’ve got great support from USC, from Lynn Swann and from these kids. I owe it to them to work as hard as I can for them.”
As far as the fans’ reaction to him? “I know the job. The job is if you win, people are going to pat you on the back. If you lose, they’re going to get after you,” Helton said. “If you don’t like it, don’t be in this profession. I know it. It rolls off my back. So I’m not worried about it.”
Of course, the players will face the questions, too. Like he did Tuesday, Daniels voiced his support of Helton.
“If you blame Clay Helton for that loss, then you have no idea what football is,” the true freshman quarterback said. “There are things players aren’t executing. That’s it. That’s the players’ part of the ballgame … to make plays.”
But at this point, for this season anyway, you are what the numbers say you are. USC hadn’t lost five games in Pac-12 play since it went 2-6 in conference games in 2000, Paul Hackett’s final season.
The Trojans went 5-7 that year and Hackett was fired at season’s end. Barring USC putting together the four-quarter game that’s eluded it all season against Notre Dame next week, 5-7 is a very real possibility this season, too.
In his postgame news conference, Helton said Swann hugged him on the neck after the game and that he told him he’d see him Monday for their weekly meeting.
Helton also had a moment with St. Brown after the game.
“He just told me better days are ahead of us,” St. Brown said.
The question that’s yet to be answered, though, is will Helton be the coach when those arrive?