As honeymoons go, this one lasted about as long as it takes to whisper the words, “Chip Kelly.’’
As eras go, this one has officially started with a limp.
Clay Helton was the choice here to fill the USC football coaching vacancy, and he is still the choice here; it is impossible and unfair to judge him before he has a chance to pick a staff and coach through spring football and summer training camp.
But, yeah, he’s been pretty much knocked backward off the starting line.
On a chilly Wednesday night here, for the second time in two games since Helton signed a five-year contract to become USC’s permanent head coach, the Trojan players did little to support the man they once begged the administration to hire.
In a Holiday Bowl that felt like work, Helton’s Trojans became the first USC team in 15 years to lose a bowl game to a Big Ten team -- a span of eight games -- in a 23-21 defeat to Wisconsin at Qualcomm Stadium.
Coming off a 41-22 loss to Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game in which they allowed 417 yards, the Trojans were pushed around again, giving up 394 yards, including many bruising shoves where they did not push back.
The Trojans' rushing philosophy espoused by Helton was stifled by the nation’s fourth-ranked rushing defense, and the Trojans ran for only 65 yards. The Trojans' offensive line gave up, at one point, three consecutive sacks of Cody Kessler by the same player, Wisconsin’s Jack Cichy.
And, amid all the discipline preached by Helton, what happens? The start of the Trojans’ final potential game-winning drive is pushed back to the 10-yard line when Don Hill was flagged for a senseless personal foul for scuffling with a Badger.
That drive ended at midfield in the final seconds with Kessler inexplicably throwing it out of bounds to receiver Darreus Rogers instead of going downfield for one last shot at putting the Trojans in field-goal range.
For sure, none of this was good optics for a coach who could use some. Not only does Helton have an 0-2 record since being named permanent head coach, but overall he has lost three of his last four games and will enter his first full season as the boss with a 6-4 overall coaching record at USC.
“I told the guys in there, any fault they have is on me and the coaches,’’ Helton said afterward. “It’s my job to make sure our assignments are sound. We could have done a better job tonight.’’
Even then, for a moment Wednesday, it seemed like the kind of inspiration that Helton used to lead the Trojans to his job-confirming victory over UCLA was working again. They came back from a 20-7 deficit to take a 21-20 lead with 10:19 left in the fourth quarter after a brilliant drive ended with a leaping touchdown catch by Rogers.
But, once again, they couldn’t stand up to Wisconsin when it counted, with the Badgers rolling to a seven-play drive that included a pair of 17-yard pass completions in traffic and a nine-yard run by Dare Ogunbowale to set up an eventual game-winning 29-yard field goal by Rafael Gaglianone with 2:27 left.
“This is a big win, whoo!’’ shouted Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave to the crowd.
For the Trojans, Helton in particular, it was a big loss, one witnessed by Pat Haden, the athletic director attending his first game since mid-October when he was sidelined because of medical reasons.
Helton needed this to quiet the doubters, to convince potential recruits, to dissolve the spectre of a certain former Oregon coach, and to basically end a swaying and lurching season by finally calming the USC waters for the first time in several years.
Instead, oh boy, that roiling Trojan surf is still up.
“You’re looking at very young kids ... who won a Pac-12 South championship,’’ said Helton, ever optimistic. “I think that we’re on the rise, I really do. You look at the amount of talent coming back. You look at it, you think, 'Wow, the future is so, so bright.' ’’
He’s talking about the Ronald Joneses and Adoree Jacksons of his world, and he’s right, the Trojans are young and talented at skill positions and have a promising kid quarterback in Max Browne. But still, the critics who wanted the Trojans to hire a more prominent name as their head coach will be out in force after this loss, particularly since this young team will open next season against Alabama, placing extra pressure on Helton throughout this summer.
“I think our future is very, very bright and I do not let this game deter it,’’ Helton said. “Two really good teams that have a very hard-fought game.”
It’s already been a hard-fought road for Helton since being hired at the end of November after the Trojans dominated UCLA to give him a 6-2 record during parts of two seasons as an interim coach.
First, there was the loss to a Stanford team that, even though the Cardinal ranks as one of the nation’s best and features Heisman trophy runner-up Christian McCaffery, still rankled many Trojan fans because of its one-sided appearance.
Then, in response to a defense so awful in that game that Trojans' assistants were heard loudly cursing from the coach’s box next to the press box, Helton fired four assistants, including defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox. This meant that his team took the field against Wisconsin with a coaching staff that featured an assistant strength coach and an administrative assistant.
“It’s a juggling act,’’ Helton told The Times’ Gary Klein when asked about his myriad issues. “And thank God I know how to juggle.’’
But then, on Tuesday afternoon, barely 24 hours before his first bowl game as a permanent head coach, Helton was required to juggle knives. Chip Kelly, the former celebrated coach at Oregon, was fired by the Philadelphia Eagles, and suddenly Helton’s hiring was being scrutinized even more than ever.
To some Trojans fans, Kelly would have been the Holy Grail of USC coaching candidates. Those fans feel Haden acted hastily in hiring Helton after the victory over UCLA, and are certain Haden could have hired Kelly if he just waited.
Not so fast. Seriously. The hard truth is that while Kelly's offensive wizardy worked at Oregon, his aloof personality and analytics-based culture would have had difficulty finding solid footing at USC. Even though Pete Carroll painted an impish grin on Heritage Hall, the Trojans have always been an old-school program that has been most comfortable, and successful, winning the old-fashioned way. The quirky, distant Kelly is the opposite of all that, and here’s guessing both he and the Trojans would have quickly realized he wouldn’t be a good fit.
But, still, in the last 24 hours the Trojan buzz has been peppered with whispers that Kelly was the one who got away, and that this Holiday Bowl was now an even more important potential statement for Helton.
Then the game was played in a way that, well, only Kelly lovers would have loved.
Helton deserves more of a chance than this night, more of an opportunity than these last few weeks. He deserves an extended chance to place his promising and stable imprint on this tumultuous program, and he’ll get one. But as Wednesday night showed, his battle will be an uphill one, and that battle starts now.
Follow Bill Plaschke on Twitter: @BillPlaschke
MORE ON USC