As a late Saturday afternoon chill descended upon his latest nightmare, Clay Helton disappeared into a Rose Bowl tunnel underneath USC fans wildly flapping their hands.
They were waving him good-bye.
Helton later walked into a corridor that had been filled with a baritone voice resonating in anger.
“[Bleep] Helton!’’ chanted a man from the bleachers above. “Fire Helton!’’
If Saturday in Pasadena wasn’t the precise end of Clay Helton’s career as USC coach, you could certainly see it from here.
In the wake of the season’s most embarrassing loss in its biggest game, a 34-27 defeat to UCLA, it seems impossible that Helton will keep his job beyond next week’s season finale against Notre Dame.
With all due respect to the three-win Bruins, this wasn’t so much a football game as a portrait of a talented Trojans team in chaos.
They were shamed on defense, embarrassed on offense and fooled on the sideline. They committed horrendous penalties, threw unbelievable interceptions, and missed a field-goal try.
They allowed running back Joshua Kelley to gain an unimaginable 289 yards, the most by any player ever in this game. Against a porous UCLA defense, they unimaginably didn’t score a touchdown in the second half. The overwhelmed freshman quarterback JT Daniels put up decent numbers, but missed horribly on some big throws, and generally made folks continue to wonder why Helton keeps giving him the ball.
From beginning to end, it felt like an end.
The game started with USC players running onto the field in a half-empty Rose Bowl that contained what is surely the smallest Trojans fan group in the 88-game history of the rivalry. The sections that once held teeming masses of cardinal and gold had been transformed into vast swaths of empty seats. It’s as if fans were trying to send a message to the USC administration, registering a Helton approval rating that hovers around zero.
The game finished with some of those same Trojans running off the field in tears, all of them passing directly underneath a sign that called for Helton’s firing.
“It’s pretty tough,’’ senior safety Ajene Harris said. “It’s heartbreaking.’’
They lost to UCLA for the first time in four years, and for only the fifth time in their last 20 meetings. They fell to 5-6 and, if they don’t beat the third-ranked Irish next week, they will fail to qualify for a bowl game for the first time since 2000.
Two days after a loss in the finale against Notre Dame that season, then-coach Paul Hackett was fired.
The same scenario seems likely here, even as Helton continues to claim that he has his bosses’ support.
When I asked him after Saturday’s game whether he had spoken to athletic director Lynn Swann, Helton nodded at the locker room door and said, “He just hugged my neck in there and said, ‘Coach, I’ll see you Monday,’ and I’ll look forward to it.”
Yet, unlike the last time Helton’s team played in Pasadena, when they won the Rose Bowl game after the 2016 season, Swann did not hold an impromptu corridor news conference to issue a vote of confidence. This time, when the media departed Helton’s news conference, Swann was gone.
“If you work as hard as you can, do the best job you can, for your kids and for the university you love, you have no regrets, and I don’t,’’ Helton said.
Regrets, the USC fans have plenty. Saturday, the Trojans again didn’t play smart or focused for Helton, the prime example being what happened early in the second quarter, with UCLA facing third and goal from the USC five.
Just when it seemed as if USC would pull off a goal-line stand, nose tackle Brandon Pili threw a punch that landed on the helmeted head of Christaphany Murray, drawing a personal-foul penalty. Two plays later, Joshua Kelley scored on a one-yard run to give the Bruins a 21-17 lead.
All this happened only one week after Iman Marshall drew a penalty for talking smack to the California players, costing the Trojans a chance at a possible game-winning drive.
Helton may be a great teacher, but his players aren’t learning. Helton screamed at Pili on the sidelines, but his players aren’t listening.
They fell behind 14-3 early, came back to lead 27-21 midway through the third quarter, and seemed on the verge of gaining control when they had first and goal from the UCLA five.
Then, like Helton’s coaching tenure at USC after a Rose Bowl victory and Pac-12 Conference championship in his first two full seasons, everything quickly fell apart.
A false-start penalty on first and goal pushed the Trojans back and they eventually traded a potential touchdown for a field goal.
On their next drive, in the fourth quarter, Helton wrongly played it safe by calling for a run that failed on third and 21, and UCLA took possession and the lead on a 55-yard touchdown run by Kelley.
Daniels lobbed a pass with no Trojans receiver in the area and it was intercepted, a ball he said he was trying to throw away. Then UCLA drove for consecutive field goals to clinch it, the Trojans’ final drive failing at the UCLA 29.
There were still 32 seconds remaining when the Trojans gave up the ball, but most of them didn’t even stick around for the end of the game, running off the field while the clock was ticking as if fleeing a smoking wreckage.
“I know the job, the job is if you win, people are going to pat you on the back, and if you lose, they’re going to get after you,’’ Helton said. “If you don’t like it, don’t be in this profession. It rolls off my back. I don’t worry about it.’’
Everyone else will have to worry about this situation for probably only another week, at which point a change will surely be made. With a likely loss to Notre Dame and no secondary bowl to demand its attention, at least USC can get a head start on retooling a program that has basically been in turmoil since Pete Carroll left after the 2009 season.
A hint to the hiring folks: Stop thinking USC ties. Stop thinking of former players or coaches. Think outside the box. Look outside the family.
When Carroll was hired, he was the ultimate outsider. He didn’t look or act or think like traditional USC. Because of this, he was able to transform and uplift and eventually honor traditional USC.
Just as UCLA took a big swing in hiring Chip Kelly — worked pretty well Saturday, no? — the Trojans need to take a similar healthy hack. They need to do something big. And they need to do something soon, as was mandated by a Saturday night description of a program that must change.
It was a tweet from USC’s Heisman Trophy-winner Matt Leinart. It was a word that spoke for a season that surely will be Helton’s last.