Helton Somehow Remains On USC’s Tightrope

That doesn’t mean it’s been a smooth ride getting here. USC’s starting quarterback tore his anterior cruciate ligament two quarters into the season. The athletic director, Lynn Swann, resigned after Week 2.

Chico McClatcher, Isaiah Pola-MaoA devastating overtime loss to BYU in Week 3 was redeemed by a Week 4 upset over Utah, only to have that goodwill squandered a week later in Seattle. All the while, questions about the future of USC’s embattled head coach continue to linger.

But through the gantlet of this season’s slate, the Trojans, at 3-2, remain within striking distance of a Pac-12 title-game appearance. Even as sentiment surrounding the program grows ever more toxic, USC still has plenty of time to make something out of this season.

Whether it’s capable is another question entirely. With the bulk of the schedule still remaining, we still have plenty to learn about what the future holds for Clay Helton and USC football. But after five games, here are five things we think we already know:

1. Losing two quarterbacks makes matters difficult

As JT Daniels clutched at his injured knee on the Coliseum turf, late in the first half of the season opener, you’d be forgiven for thinking USC was done then and there. A torn ACL for your top quarterback can easily be a season-dooming prognosis. At the very least, it puts a new offense in a precarious position, forcing it to adjust on the fly.

For USC, it meant entrusting its offense to an inexperienced, unheralded freshman in Kedon Slovis, whose only other Pac-12 offer a year ago was from Oregon State. But Slovis stepped right in, stomping Stanford a week later.

That dominance made it easy to forget that he’s still a freshman, and the next week, USC felt those growing pains, as Slovis threw three interceptions in an overtime loss at BYU. A week after that, Slovis, too, was hurt, leaving USC with even more dire circumstances under center.

Still, behind their third-string quarterback, the Trojans prevailed over a top-10 Utah team. Showing no fear, Matt Fink took chance after chance throwing downfield. Against the odds, most of those shots connected. A week later, the same shots predictably backfired.

But such is life when you’re down to your last scholarship quarterback. It’s really difficult to find a rhythm when your conductor has changed three times in five weeks. As we consider where USC’s offense stands at the midway point, it’s important to keep that quarterback context in mind.

2. USC’s young secondary is ahead of schedule

When Helton was asked to name his biggest concern before the season, he didn’t hesitate. USC’s young secondary, with three inexperienced corners atop the depth chart, was going to have its share of growing pains, he said.

Few probably expected that six weeks later that same secondary would be one of the bright spots of USC’s season. Sophomore cornerback Olaijah Griffin has allowed just five catches on 16 targets this season, while breaking up six passes, good for third-most in the Pac-12. Freshman Chris Steele wasn’t a starter at the beginning of the season, but has forced his way into a role with his play. And Isaac Taylor-Stuart, a redshirt freshman, has also been solid, giving USC a trio of potential shutdown corners to develop.

At safety, however, the Trojans already have a star. Ball-hawking sophomore Talanoa Hufanga has established himself early on as one of the Pac-12’s premier players — and perhaps one of the best safeties in college football. His 10 1/2 tackles per game are the second-most among defensive backs in the nation.

3. More explosive plays, fewer turnovers

If you’re searching for the worst in USC’s season so far, turnovers are the obvious place to start. Through five games, the Trojans rank 121st in the nation in turnover margin, with 13 giveaways to just six takeaways (minus-seven total). Even UCLA, as hapless as it has been on both sides of the ball, sits at minus-two.

Turnovers were at the crux of losses in Seattle and in Provo, as Matt Fink and Slovis each had three passes intercepted. Two of those six interceptions came in critical junctures in the game, from which the Trojans never recovered.

It’s not hard to see how a cascade of turnovers might sink a fragile offense, especially one with such little margin for error. We’ve seen it come to fruition twice — and nearly a third time, as USC turned the ball over four times but held on against Fresno State.

But that penchant for turnovers shouldn’t dissuade the Trojans from trying to stretch the field. Graham Harrell’s Air Raid offense has been at its best when it’s able to manufacture explosive plays in the passing game.

USC has 24 plays of 20-plus yards this season, tied with Stanford for ninth in the conference. But when the Trojans can conjure up explosive plays, it makes a difference. Against Utah and Stanford, its two best offensive showings, USC combined for 15 plays of 20-plus yards, compared to just nine combined in the other three.

4. Michael Pittman Jr. is USC’s midseason MVP

Look no further than his show-stopping performance against Utah, in which the senior wideout soared into the air for a deep ball, shook off a defensive back as he came down with it, then sprinted 77 yards for a touchdown. It was kind of play in a 10-catch, 232-yard performance that should draw the attention of NFL scouts next spring.

On an offense in search of consistency, Pittman has consistently been a godsend. He’s one of just 13 receivers in the nation averaging more than 100 yards per game. Even as Washington bracketed him in double coverage two weeks ago, Pittman still managed to reel in a touchdown and 64 yards.

USC has suggested it may spread out the ball more in the weeks to come, as its young wideouts find their groove. But considering what Pittman has shown over the first five weeks, it’s not the worst idea just to get him the ball as much as possible.

5. A Pac-12 championship appearance is a must, if Helton has hope of staying on as coach

For so many, this USC season has been seen only through the scope of Helton’s job status, and unless the Trojans go on a tear through the season’s second half, starting with a road win over Notre Dame this week, it’s hard to imagine the narrative shifting anytime soon.

But what if the Trojans find their way to the Pac-12 title game? What if they win? Since the start of last season, USC is just 8-9. Its fan base is despondent. Its issues on the recruiting trail are real. So would a Rose Bowl be enough to forgive and forget?

We don’t know just yet. But at this point, all signs point to it taking at least that for Helton to stay on as coach past this season.

latimes.com

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DebraSchulze
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Wow. Great overview of where we are at midway through the season! I hope we can upset Notre Dame this weekend…it may be “wishful thinking” but anything is possible. I really hope so…and hope for a spot in the PAC 12 playoff game for the overall PAC 12 championshhip..as much as I have been supportive of Coach Helton, I feel now that a HC change needs to happen for the sake of the future of USC football in recruiting, wins, depth chart, developing the players etc.

John Weld
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USC announced that it’s Homecoming Game against Arizona, on October 19th, will start at 6:30 pm and be televised on the PAC12 Network.

Rock2112
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Latest Coaches Hot Seat Poll has Clay Helton at number 5, and Chip Kelly at number 4. BYU’s Kilani Sitake is not far behind Clay at number 7. It’s telling indeed how Clay Helton was clearly outcoached by the only two “Bottom 10” coaches he has faced.

Jamaica
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I just want this coming USC-ND game final score be respectable. That in itself would be a victory of sorts playing there. It will be more up to our defense to make this happen.

TrojanRJJ
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I think I could handle Clay if he would stop sounding like “Baghdad Bob”.

RialtoTrojan
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Some the penalties this season didn’t have to happen. Two players, same number and excessive celebrations are penalties you can control with simple discipline. Hands to the face and blocks in the back are incidental, meaning they happen in the heat of battle and SC will get flagged every time. With officials at practice calling penalties you’d think some of this stuff would get fixed. Half way Helton know he needs the refs in practice, what he doesn’t know is what to do when they flag the team. I imagine based on what I’ve seen he huddles up for a… Read more »

Steveg
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I wonder who would be the top 10 if the polls used strength of schedule in their evaluation. It sure couldn’t be the Tide or the Tigers.

UtahTrojan
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Article doesn’t sound so bad, if you are willing to ignore all of the negatives surrounding the program. All of which stem from Helton’s inability to fix the big issues, or his unwillingness to even put forth the effort.
Everything that was wrong with the team at the end of last year is still wrong today, except now you can add a recruiting class that is on pace to be ranked 50 or lower if Helton were to stay on as Head Coach.

Steveg
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Give me a win over ucla and the rest I don’t care about, get the new HC in and save the recruiting class. I would even go with Meyer if he could salvage the recruiting season.

Eastern Ave.
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That was funny, well done! grin

Jamaica
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I think, Utah Trojan, Helton knows his days are numbered here. So why beat your head against the wall, could be his thinking. Further, he has positioned himself to where CP & GH handle the coaching chores for him. So he sits back in his office, thinking of brilliant things to say at pressers, walk up & down the sideline of a game hoping for the best (I think that is pretty accurate) and, collecting his paychecks. Now we know how he spent some 9-years at Memphis and almost as many at USC as an opportunist and fired/let go at… Read more »