Column: Don’t call USC’s Pac-12 title a consolation prize for Helton’s heroes

Stanford's Cameron Scarlett comes up a yard short of the goal line against the USC during the Pac-12 championship game at Levi's Stadium.
(Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images)

This USC football team underachieved?

Try telling that to Uchenna Nwosu as he hurled his thick body across the Stanford backfield for a game-saving tackle.

“Hunker down, this is what Trojan football is!” he urged his teammates.

This USC football team didn’t go anywhere?

Try telling that to Sam Darnold as he scooted through his own end zone before lofting the ball nearly half the length of the field for a game-saving pass.


“Something I’ll never forget,” he said.

This Pac-12 championship victory is a consolation prize?

Not on this Friday night, not a chance, not after USC defeated Stanford, 31-28, at Levi’s Stadium to win its first conference title in nine years.

“Trojan Nation, we’re Pac-12 champs again!” coach Clay Helton screamed into a sea of thousands of Trojans fans.

He was standing on a stage in the middle of the field with his team. They were wearing newly unpacked conference championship T-shirts and caps. They were being showered with gold confetti and serenaded by the USC marching band.

That the Trojans did not live up to their preseason hype should not, and did not, diminish any of this. They won 11 games. They won a conference championship. They are kids, and they had a blast, and they found a way, and on this night, that was enough.

“They can do whatever they want to do, I don’t care,” said safety Chris Hawkins, who played for the memory of his grandmother, who died early Friday morning. “We won tonight, and they can’t take that away from us.”

No, this victory won’t vault the 10th-ranked Trojans into the four-team College Football Playoff. They don’t have the signature or dominating victories while their two losses were to teams out of the top 10.

No, this victory won’t even get them in the Rose Bowl. In the cruelest of coincidences, this is the one out of every three years the Rose Bowl will be occupied with a CFP semifinal game.

But they still won the most games since the Pete Carroll era. And they’ll play in one of the New Year’s Six bowls, probably the Fiesta Bowl on Dec. 30 against another top-10 team.

“We tested everybody’s heart rate, we tested everybody’s soul in this season, but [Helton] brought them to the Pac-12 championship, we beat a good, resounding, solid Stanford football team, and now we’re going on to the next bowl game,” Trojans athletic director Lynn Swann said, dressed in bits of confetti while on the field.

While this is not the 2017 path most folks envisioned in the joyous wake of USC’s dramatic victory over Penn State in last year’s Rose Bowl, Swann strongly feels this night was another step forward.

“From the outside you can say it was an underachieving season, but this [Pac-12 title] is our primary goal,” Swann said. “This is a building process. You don’t come in one year because you have a great Rose Bowl win and one great recruiting class for a first-year head coach and suddenly you’re supposed to be a national championship team. That’s a little lofty; that’s a little presumptuous.”

As if addressing those Trojans fans who have blamed Helton for the team’s inconsistent play through those victories, Swann offered a solid vote of confidence, and good for him.

“We want to build for the long term, we’ve got a solid team, a solid organization, we’ve got a head coach that we’re going to keep, OK?” Swann said of Helton. “He’s not going anywhere, and we’re going to stair-step this up and build our way up to a national championship. My goal is to emulate the success of the Pittsburgh Steelers — they’ve only had three head coaches since the late ’60s, and each one of them has won Super Bowls.”

On a cool night with lots of empty seats — the announced attendance was 48,031 and the upper deck was covered in tarp — the Trojans turned the place into a rollicking dance hall by playing their best when the pressure was the most. They won the game midway through the fourth quarter when Nwosu and Darnold saved them from a late Stanford surge that nearly stole it.

At the start of the quarter, with Stanford trailing by three, the Cardinal took advantage of a lousy punt to drive from the USC 32-yard line deep into Trojans territory. They wound up running six plays within the 11-yard line and yet, somehow, they did not score. USC held, and held, and when the Cardinal’s Cameron Scarlett ran the ball on fourth and goal from the one-yard line, Nwosu blitzed from the outside and tripped him up to complete the stunning stand.

“I shot my gun and was able to make the play,” Nwosu said. “We felt like this is what we came to USC for.”

The Trojans took over at their one-yard line and, if possible, executed an offensive push that nearly matched their defense. On the second play, Darnold avoided a big rush to toss a 54-yard pass to Michael Pittman Jr. that began a 99-yard touchdown drive.

“It was a sluggo scheme concept,” Darnold said, and if you only understood the “sluggo” part, then you understood the quote.

Helton was asked if the goal-line stand and the drive were the plays of the year. He gave the answer one would expect from anyone who witnessed them.

“I would say no question,” he said. “When you’re trying to win one, those are the plays that are going to define you and define your football team, and that’s these kids. ... They are the definition of ‘Fight On.’”

During the course of this crazy USC season, lots of things have changed. But on a refreshing championship night in December, that definition did not.

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