Column

Kicker Chase McGrath has been on the money; now will USC show him the money?

What price victory?

After a game like USC’s 30-20 win over California on Saturday, one could generally answer that question with the usual blood, sweat and cliches.

But the Trojans’ most valuable player here paid an entirely different price.

For freshman kicker Chase McGrath, this victory was part of an experience costing around $70,000.

McGrath is not on scholarship. He and his family are responsible for paying full USC tuition and housing. While 84 others on the football team are on a free ride, he is walking every step of the way.

Except, of course, when he pauses to kick-start a victory, which happened again Saturday at California’s Memorial Stadium when he nailed three field goals that steadied a muddled attack.

McGrath began the Trojans’ scoring with a 37-yard field goal, gave them their first lead with a 34-yarder, and then gave them the lead for good with a 46-yarder at the start of a fourth quarter during which Cal finally collapsed under the weight of six turnovers.

The Trojans weren’t great, but McGrath was perfect. The Trojans were unsteady, but McGrath was chill. The Trojans were outgained, but McGrath’s leg made up for it, all of this occurring one week after he stared down Texas, his kicks tying the game at the end of regulation and winning it in overtime.

One of the best stories about these 4-0 Trojans, truly, is that they continue to get rich with the help of a kid who pays to play.

“What a great job he’s doing,” coach Clay Helton said. “You’re starting to gain confidence in him as coach, you can see his confidence beaming right now, and there’s confidence from the team right now.”

Confidence, but no scholarship? A great job, but he has to pony up for the privilege? Hey coach, show him the money!

“At some point in time, it’s going to happen, I promise you,” Helton said of a potential scholarship. “He’s done too much for our football team.”

Knowing how sensitively Helton runs this program, here’s guessing he’ll take care of the kid soon. Instead of doing it in front of the media Saturday, he probably wanted to make it official in some nice presentation in the locker room in front of his teammates.

In the locker room after the Texas victory, those teammates actually cheered for it, chanting, “Give him a scholarship.”

Now, at least one of them is sure of it.

“He’ll be on scholarship soon, don’t worry about that,” safety Chris Hawkins said Saturday. “He’ll be on scholarship soon.”

It seems like the only person who isn’t involved in the scholarship quest is McGrath himself. In interviews, the 19-year-old longshot is quiet, respectful and disarmingly calm.

“I have the same mind-set every week, which is, I just pretty much have to do my job,” McGrath said. “I just go out there and kick.”

While he’s quietly pleased, others are openly amazed. After all, the last time USC was talking this much about a kicker, Matt Boermeester was dancing the length of a Pasadena field in January after kicking the Trojans to a Rose Bowl victory over Penn State, and he was going to be around for another year.

But then in the offseason, Boermeester was suspended while the university investigated an alleged incident involving Boermeester and his girlfriend. Scholarship backup Mike Brown became the kicker, and McGrath was invited to enroll in school and join the team this summer to give Brown a little competition. McGrath attempted only five field goals as a senior at Mater Dei High, made three, and he already had a scholarship offer from Army. But he always wanted to be a Trojan, so he signed up with no guarantees.

“I was just happy to be on the team,” he said.

He won the job during training camp, but then stood around for two games until finally attempting his first college field goal against Texas. He missed it wide left and short, the crowd groaned, and it appeared his Rudy-like career could be a brief one.

But he hasn’t missed since, tying the Texas game with a 31-yarder and winning it with a 43-yarder in overtime, and then going three for three Saturday while his holder Wyatt Schmidt shared an opinion held by many.

“It’s really cool to see a guy come in, nothing given to him, no scholarship, paying out of his pocket, and doing all this,” said Schmidt, a senior who has been a walk-on for his entire career. “Being a walk-on, it just makes a person work harder, and he’s done that.”

It’s crazy how that works sometimes, right? The Trojans are led by one of the most famous players in college football in Sam Darnold, they are riding a 13-game win streak that is the longest since the Pete Carroll era, they could be headed for a national title run … yet the kid who has helped them survive September has to write USC a check?

“When you’re a walk-on, you’ve got to find a way,” Schmidt said. “But so does every other college student.”

While McGrath has found his way, there is some concern that Darnold is a bit lost. This was his lowest-rated passing game of the season, with two touchdowns, one interception, and a couple of dropped interceptions. Overall this year he has thrown for nine touchdowns with seven interceptions, which is only two fewer picks than he had in 10 starts last year.

“It’s 100% my fault,” Darnold said, but he’s taking too much of the blame for shaky receiving and a surprisingly struggling offensive line. “They’ve been a rough two games, but we are 2-0 in that stretch, that’s all that matters to me, that’s all that matters to the team.”

They won’t have much time to figure it out, as they have to travel to Pullman, Wash., to battle unbeaten Washington State in a nationally televised Friday night game that could wind up being a nightmare.

You’ll have to look hard to find the kid kicker, who ran around a bit after beating Texas, but generally just swings his leg and runs quietly off into the night.

“I don’t go through any emotions out there,” McGrath said. “But afterward, I might look back and say, ‘OK, that was good.’”

He has been more than good. He has been money.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

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