The eyes of Texas are wide today with delighted amazement.
This is USC? These are the Trojans who fought through the Longhorns last year in double overtime? These are Trojans who battled the Longhorns to the last breath in the 2006 Rose Bowl? These are their ancient and storied rivals?
No, these aren’t. Not on this latest suffocating Saturday night. Not even close.
The Trojans walked into at a raucous Darrell K. Royal Texas-Memorial Stadium that was juiced with orange.
They walked out as pulp.
The Trojans were surrounded by a stadium record 103,507 fans screaming so loud, the sweltering concrete shook.
They responded by making what seemed like a record 103,507 blunders so loud, their season is now quaking.
In many other years, this would be a column about a USC team that stormed to a 14-3 first-quarter lead over an inferior Texas team and continued to stampede.
On this night, however, it is a column about a USC team that took a 14-3 lead then lost its focus, its discipline, and most semblance of what it means to be a USC team.
After that first quarter, Texas outscored USC 34-0 to complete a 37-14 victory.
After three games, the Trojans are 1-2 in a messy autumn growing more unruly by the week.
This is not officially the worst start of Coach Clay Helton’s three full seasons, but, in reality, it is. They were in a one-possession game against UNLV until the fourth quarter. They scored three points against Stanford, their lowest total in that rivalry in 77 years. And now this, a blowout against a Texas team that appeared on the verge of being rolled by the more talented Trojans.
Rolled, until USC’s entire presence rolled over, with missed tackles, dumb penalties, poor play calls, disorganization, a blocked field goal try for a touchdown, and even shanked punts. Consecutive shanked punts.
They have been this bad before, but they haven’t been this bad with stable leadership in several years. In fact, this is the first time the Trojans have suffered consecutive regular season losses with the same quarterback and head coach since Lane Kiffin and Matt Barkley in 2012.
Uh-oh. There it is. The season’s first reference to Kiffin. You know what that means. A coach is going to be feeling some heat.
The brunt of the blame here indeed must rest with Helton who, despite coming off consecutive 10-plus-win seasons, thus far seems unable to inspire this team without a certain NFL star rookie running things on the field. Without Sam Darnold as his quarterback, Helton has now lost his last six games against Power 5 conference teams.
“There’s a lot of guys playing a lot of good ball out there…we’re just not doing it all together right now, and that’s my job,’’ said Helton afterward. “Nobody else’s. It’s mine. My responsibility. So, put it on me.”
Lots of folks around town are already doing that. From this moment until the end of this season, all the pressure will be on Helton to figure it out. He is the nicest of guys, but folks are clamoring for this team to get nasty.
Helton needs to fix offensive chaos that resulted in a minus-five yards rushing total that included three sacks of freshman quarterback JT Daniels. Seriously, how can any supposed power football program, playing against the 90th ranked run defense, have running backs gain just 24 yards?
Helton needs to fix pass protection. He needs to fix run blocking. He needs to fix play calling.
”I thought they did nice job with their zone pressures, their run pressures, give them credit,’’ said Helton of the Texas run defense. “I thought they came to the park to see how the quarterback would play, and I literally saw the guy grow up before my eyes.’’
Daniels was indeed looking all grown up, even brilliant at time, completing 30 of 48 passes for 322 yards and one interception. Who would have thought that the 18-year-old quarterback is the one thing on this team that nobody needs to worry about?
“He got better today, there’s no question,’’ Helton said of Daniels.
Helton needs also needs to fix some of the 10 penalties for 99 yards that kept Texas alive and got Porter Gustin kicked out of the game for targeting, and he needs to fix the other reckless play that led to big Texas plays.
In general, Helton needs to remember whatever it was that led this program to its last truly great victory, in the Rose Bowl after the 2016 season.
Standing on the Pasadena field after that chilling victory over Penn State, he said, “This team is the definition of ‘Fight On.’’’
He needs to inspire his player to rediscover that definition, because they have certainly lost it somewhere, just like they lost Saturday’s game, slowly, painfully.
Beginning in the second quarter, Texas scored a touchdown on a missed tackle, a field goal after a lofted interception and another missed tackle, and then USC lived out the the sequence that epitomized the night.
Midway through the second quarter, with USC leading 14-13 and facing third down from the Texas one-yard line, the Trojans were penalized for illegal formation. But instead of pushing USC back to the six-yard line and giving the Trojans two more shots at the end zone, Texas Coach Tom Herman surprisingly declined the penalty and kept the Trojans on the goal line and challenged them to score.
That’s right. He thought so little of their toughness that he gave them the ball on the goal line and dared them to punch it in. They couldn’t. Stephen Carr was run down by Brandon Jones on an ill-advised outside scamper and Texas took possession.
USC botched the potential field position advantage with a roughing the punter penalty followed by their own shanked punt. Then, in ending a quarter of misery, a hands-to-the-face penalty on Gustin moved the Longhorns into range for third Cameron Dicker field goal – this one from 46 yards - to give Texas a 16-14 halftime lead they never lost.
“The last six scores were by us,’’ pronounced a chest-thumping Herman afterward of his mighty 2-1 team. “We shut them out in the second half.’’
Before the game, one of the shining Helton statistics is that his ranked teams were 11-0 against non-ranked teams. That stat is now stained. This season is further marred. This is a team that could still go to the Rose Bowl, believe it or not, but that goal currently seems impossibly distant.