Column: Trojans’ five-game hot streak gets Clay Helton off the hot seat

USC quarterback Sam Darnold scrambles away from Oregon linebacker Troy Dye during the first quarter.

USC quarterback Sam Darnold scrambles away from Oregon linebacker Troy Dye during the first quarter.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

As a settling fog transformed the Coliseum into a smoky nightclub, one play typified USC’s surprising dance back into December dreaming.

Late in the third quarter against Oregon on Saturday, the giant video board showed a tape of Trojans tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe leading teammates in collectively boogieing to a Michael Jackson song.

Soon thereafter, quarterback Sam Darnold furiously scrambled left, eluded a pack of Ducks defenders and hoisted a soaring pass that fell into a crowd where it was tipped and somehow caught by Imatorbhebhe at the Oregon 28-yard line for a 37-yard gain that eventually led to USC’s fifth touchdown.

The fans roared, again. The Trojans along the sidelines leaped in a mixture of joy and disbelief, again.


It was a thriller, thriller evening again for a USC team whose 45-20 victory over Oregon continued to hammer home a truth texted in the middle of the game from a faraway and faithful Trojans alumnus whose words carried a relief shared by many.

“Looks like the Trojans got their groove back!”

It looks like it, it feels like it, and it even sounded like it on a night when one could actually hear Ronald Jones II crashing, Trojans defenders crunching and Darnold dealing.

“It’s like playing with a Steve Nash on a basketball court,” Imatorbhebhe said of Darnold’s work on that tip play. “He’s got a great feel.”

The one sound you couldn’t hear was folks complaining about Clay Helton. That hot-seat talk has disappeared as quickly as an Oregon running back under a smothering tackle. Helton has also found his own groove, and turned a seemingly disorganized mess into a dangerous unit with a 6-3 resume that keeps getting better.

All of you readers blaming me for pushing for Helton’s hiring last year? If USC keeps playing with this sort of balance and passion, in three weeks you can feel free to start giving me credit.

This makes five consecutive USC wins for the first time since Ed Orgeron was the interim coach in 2013, and for only the second time since Pete Carroll managed it eight years ago.

The Trojans’ 579 total yards also made it five consecutive offensive performances of 500-plus yards. Even though the victims have included three of the five worst-ranking defenses in college football, assets have surfaced and eyes are opening.

“You want to be playing your best football by November, and that’s where we’re going right now,” the always level-headed Helton said afterward.

The resurgence of the coach, of course, occurred with the surfacing of his quarterback. Darnold didn’t have a spectacular game, but he still threw for 309 yards and two touchdowns and now has 20 touchdowns with only four interceptions — plus a 5-1 record — since taking over the offense in the fourth game of the season.

On Saturday, Darnold did everything from rushing for first downs twice in a three-play stretch to completing passes in traffic to nine different receivers, and his coach described him with an unusual quarterback verb.

“He really attacked the middle of the field,” Helton said.

Don’t look now, but the Trojans have also found a running back. Jones clinched the game with a 66-yard touchdown run through a gaping hole up the middle and ended up with 171 yards, giving him 394 in the last two games. And, yes, rather amazingly, his four rushing touchdowns in one game tied a record at a school whose footballs were once carried by the likes Mike Garrett, O.J. Simpson, Charles White, Marcus Allen and Reggie Bush.

“I hold my breath every time he touches it, I know there’s a chance it could go all the way,” Helton said.

Breaking down USC’s 45-20 victory over Oregon, plus looking ahead to the Trojans’ game next Saturday against Washington. For the record: Washington led California 21-20 in the second quarter at time of taping. 

The Trojans also have discovered a defense. They slowed Oregon like nobody has in years., holding the Ducks to a season-low 288 yards, 231 below their average of 519 per game. That included holding them to 85 yards rushing, barely one-third of their average.

“It started with our defense,” Helton said. “One thing Clancy Pendergast does a great job of is taking away the strength of their team.”

The Trojans are even rolling out the sort of special teams that are like, you know, special. USC scored its first points of the game on a field goal after a 28-yard punt return by Michael Pittman Jr. in which Pittman actually ran back from the formation to catch the punt, thus frustrating a Ducks team that was trying to keep the ball away from Adoree’ Jackson. USC was so excited by that play, the dudes on the sideline were immediately issued a warning because they were partying so hard.

“Using Adoree’ as the bait,” said a satisfied Helton.

The Trojans also have doubters. Because of their weak recent schedule, some folks are wondering what will happen the first time during this streak that they actually get punched in the mouth. But the great thing about this new era in college football is that most arguments are often decided on the field, and so it will happen for USC next Saturday.

The Trojans can’t qualify for the College Football Playoff, but they can knock fifth-ranked and undefeated Washington out of it in a game at Seattle. A win there might not do anything for the Trojans’ chances of even playing in the Pac-12 championship game — they need losses by Colorado and Utah to have that shot — but it could certainly cement a solid beginning of the Helton era while keeping them on track for a decent bowl.

“We will have our hands full in a very hostile territory, it ought to be a lot of fun,” Helton said. “We played our way into a really big game in November and that’s what you want to do.”

It’s a long way from that first weekend against Alabama. It’s also a long way to that last weekend against Notre Dame. But for the reborn USC football team, the thrill is back, almost like it was choreographed, as smooth as a guy walking backward on his toes.

Get more of Bill Plaschke’s work and follow him on Twitter @BillPlaschke