They fought boldly for their embattled coach, playing as they should have played all season, with fire and purpose and desperation.
But is this fight good enough if they didn’t win?
USC showed up big against unbeaten and third-ranked Notre Dame on Saturday night at the Coliseum, saving its best for last.
But did a 24-17 defeat save Clay Helton’s job?
The fans who booed him and screamed for his firing as he walked off the field say no.
But the “Fight On’’ gesture he gave them as he exited, thrusting his hand into the middle of their catcalls, say yes.
The overwhelming frustration that has enveloped the majority of Trojan nation say no, as evidenced by the banner flying above the Coliseum early Saturday afternoon reading, “Lynn Swann – Please Fire Clay Helton!”
But the fact that, according to Helton, the Trojans athletic director hugged him in the locker room afterward and told him, “Coach, there are better days ahead,’’ would indicate yes.
Yes or no? Stay or go? Helton thinks yes. Helton continues to talk as if he’s staying.
“I’m fully confident in the support I have not only from Mr. Swann but this administration,’’ said Helton. “They have been terrific to me and our staff and our football team. I know I’ll get their continued support and we’ll do a better job not only for them but our Trojan family.”
Several reporters tweeted afterward that Swann told them he had a plan and will soon release a statement, and Helton later agreed that a statement was forthcoming, and would they actually both talk about a statement if Helton was getting fired?
But thousands of Trojans fans and boosters and some of the biggest donors are asking a different sort of question.
What kind of statement is USC making if Helton is retained?
The Trojans finished the season at 5-7, their worst record in 18 years.
It is the first time they won’t be going to a bowl game in a non-probation season in 18 years.
It is the first time they’ve lost as many as seven games in a season in 18 years.
With consecutive season-ending losses to UCLA and Notre Dame, it is one of their worst finishes ever.
As everyone who has been following this saga knows, the last time it was truly this awful, 18 years ago, changes were made. Two days after the Notre Dame game, then-coach Paul Hackett was fired.
Can Swann afford to think it’s any different now, especially for a program that remains the university’s best marketing tool? Fans are already staying away in droves. Can Swann afford to alienate the keepers of the championship culture that made this university so great?
Helton’s appearance on the video board in the first quarter caused massive booing, even though he was saying thanks to the fans for their support, and even with the Trojans leading at the time, and how does that look?
So third-year boss Helton followed up seasons of 10 and 11 wins with one clunker, and he’s won a Rose Bowl and a Pac-12 championship, and with uncommon decency he steadied a program that had been rattled with Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian.
But even with the great finishing effort against Notre Dame Saturday, the issues run much deeper than even this season. Without Sam Darnold as his quarterback, Helton is 12-13. When facing opponents ranked in the top 25 at the time, they are 9-11.
Helton understands and accepts responsibility for this. But he also talks as if he knows he will get another chance to fix it.
“USC is about championships, it deserves championships… the fact of the matter is, this year, we didn’t get the job done,’’ said Helton. “It doesn’t mean we can’t. I believe …we can create a disciplined football team that competes at the highest level.’’
Helton even said he’s already thinking about fixing the issues and moving ahead.
“Is it frustrating? We’re all frustrated, 5-7 is not what USC is about, losing close ballgames is not what USC is about,’’ Helton said. “It will be my task moving foward that this doesn’t happen again.’’
He said that task would begin the moment Swann would issue that press release, which would hint it will ensure his job safety.
“I’m looking forward to being the head coach here if given the opportunity,” Helton said. “I know that (Swann) will release a statement at some point in time, and we’ll move forward from there.’’
The close call Saturday certainly helped Helton’s confidence. But the close call also only heightened the feeling that Helton hasn’t been getting the most out of his talented players, and further reinforced why.
In battling the Irish down to the last seconds – a failed onside kick finally ended it -- the Trojans revealed their incredible athletic gifts. But in failing to capitalize on a 10-0 lead and a Coliseum full of momentum, they also showed the maddening flaws that have kept them from taking full advantage of those gifts throughout the Helton era.
Yes, they built up that first-half lead by knocking the slower and stiffer Irish all over the field. But amid this dizzying, exhilarating rush, they lost two fumbles that deadened the momentum.
And, yes, after Notre Dame took a 14-10 lead early in the third quarter, the Trojans kept charging, but penalties killed two strong drives in midstream, adding to a problem that has vexed the Trojans throughout the Helton era.
They committed eight penalties for 71 yards Saturday while Notre Dame committed just three penalties for 38 yards. They keep making the same mistakes over and over again.
“At end of the day, the buck stops here, it ends with me,’’ Helton said. “It’s my responsibility that the penalties go down.’’
The Trojan did have a chance for a dream finish. Jordan McMillan, a walk-on safety, picked off Irish quarterback Ian Book in the end zone midway through the fourth quarter to give USC the ball with 7:54 remaining and facing a one-touchdown deficit.
But Daniels was sacked twice, the Trojans punted, and Notre Dame drove down to score the clinching touchdown with two USC defensive mistakes. On one third down, Book scrambled untouched for 16 yards. Three plays later, Book tossed a short pass to Tony Jones Jr. in front of virtually wide-open field, and Jones sprinted down to score on a 51-yard touchdown catch.
Once again, USC’s early battling was transformed into late breakdowns. Once again, in a game in which they clearly and stunningly appeared to be the better team than the celebrated Irish, the Trojans weren’t disciplined enough to finish.
“So proud of the men that stepped into the arena tonight and fought as hard as they can fight,’’ Helton said. “The best is yet to be, I truly believe that. I see guys who are truly talented individuals that will develop into a quality football team that will win championships.’’