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A muffled UCLA-USC rivalry game might be best for Chip Kelly and Clay Helton

USC coach Clay Helton, left, talks with UCLA coach Chip Kelly after a 52-35 Trojans win on Nov. 23, 2019, at the Coliseum.
USC coach Clay Helton, left, talks with UCLA coach Chip Kelly after a 52-35 Trojans win on Nov. 23, 2019, at the Coliseum.
(Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)

An empty Rose Bowl might be preferable to the alternative for the coaches who will walk the sidelines Saturday afternoon.

It will offer cover for Chip Kelly, the UCLA coach who has sparked indifference while his teams have played in front of some of the smallest crowds in the stadium’s history.

It will provide shelter for Clay Helton, the USC coach who was pelted with profanity from his team’s own fans in his last appearance there.

The official attendance will be 0 when the Bruins (3-2) face the No. 15 Trojans (4-0), roughly matching the number of fans who seem satisfied with either coach despite several encouraging signs.

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Helton’s Trojans could be on the verge of their first 5-0 start since 2006 and their first appearance in the Pac-12 championship game since 2017.

A season that could have led to Clay Helton’s undoing instead might give him a stronger hold on his job as USC coach.

Kelly’s Bruins have a winning record for the first time in his three seasons and could secure bowl eligibility with a victory over their rivals.

“They could easily be undefeated right now,” Helton said of the Bruins, alluding to narrow losses against Colorado and Oregon in which turnovers proved to be UCLA’s undoing.

Some context may be warranted before anointing either UCLA or USC as worthy of top-tier status. As of Friday, before Arizona played Arizona State, the Bruins’ wins had come over teams that had gone a combined 1-9; the Trojans’ wins had come over teams that had gone a combined 2-10.

The gripes about Helton have remained largely unchanged since what might go down as his one shining moment, the strong finish to the 2016 season that ended with a riveting Rose Bowl victory over Penn State. Fans contend that his teams play an undisciplined brand of football and suffer from terrible line play while failing to maximize the annual haul of top high school talent he had brought in before a notable dip in his most recent class.

USC coach Clay Helton looks on following a game against Utah on Nov. 22, 2020.
USC’s unbeaten start in 2020 amid the hardships of COVID-19 would seem to ensure that Clay Helton will return to roam the Coliseum sideline for at least one more season.
(Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

Each of the last two rivalry games seemed like they might be Helton’s last after he followed a 5-7 season in 2018 with a marginally improved 8-5 record in 2019. The last time Helton departed the Rose Bowl, following USC’s 34-27 loss to the Bruins in 2018, several Trojans fans standing over a tunnel waved goodbye while another yelled an expletive while calling for his firing.

A year ago, USC athletic director Mike Bohn committed to keeping Helton while allowing the coach to overhaul his defensive staff and set up what felt like a last-ditch, no-excuses attempt at preserving his job.

USC’s unbeaten start in 2020 amid the hardships of COVID-19 would seem to ensure that Helton, whose contract runs through 2023, will return to roam the Coliseum sideline for at least one more season, even if fans continue to grouse about a rushing offense that generated only five yards last week against Washington State.

Here’s a look at how Kedon Slovis and the USC Trojans match up with Dorian Thompson-Robinson and the UCLA Bruins going into Saturday’s rivalry game.

“I’ll leave that up to y’all,” Helton said when asked if he had sufficiently corrected course. “That’s y’all’s job. My job is to win football games and so I’m gonna concern myself with my job. But y’all do a pretty good job of that, so I’ll let y’all do it.”

Across town, Kelly continues to busy himself with having a really good Wednesday, as he likes to say, while Bruins fans fixate on Saturdays that have often gone awry on the way to his 10-19 record at the school. The good news is that Kelly is no longer being sold on Craigslist, as he was in October 2019 with an ad touting him as “broken beyond repair,” and fans have momentarily ceased debating the merits of paying his $9-million buyout in the wake of the Bruins’ resurgent defense.

UCLA coach Chip Kelly coaches the Bruins against Colorado on Nov. 7, 2020.
UCLA coach Chip Kelly is no longer being sold on Craigslist, as he was in October 2019 with an ad touting him as “broken beyond repair.”
(David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

Three years after mentioning championships in his introductory news conference, Kelly declined to say where he was in the process of fulfilling his goals, preferring to stay motivated by minutiae.

“Really excited about Wednesday,” Kelly said midweek. “So that’s kind of how our approach has been. I mean, I think you can always talk at the beginning about what your long-term goals are, but once you get into the daily grind of things that’s what you need to focus on and we’re focusing on having a really good Wednesday.”

Even with UCLA on the verge of a possible bowl bid for the first time since 2017, fans worry that Kelly’s recruiting misses will keep his teams from matching the kind of success he enjoyed at Oregon, where his teams went 46-7 and appeared in four major bowl games. Over the last few weeks, three of the Bruins’ top prospects have backed out of oral commitments, with Oxnard Pacifica High linebacker Devin Aupiu announcing his allegiance to Notre Dame.

Fortunately for Kelly, those players who have chosen to play for him have adopted their coach’s businesslike approach.

The athletic directors at USC and UCLA worked together to help salvage a football season for the Pac-12. Their teams meet Saturday.

“Everyone’s totally bought in,” Bruins wide receiver Kyle Philips said. “Each year, it’s kind of better and better where guys come now wanting to work hard in practice every day and now it feels like the entire team’s totally bought into what coach Kelly’s program is really about.”

Relayed Philips’ comments, Kelly said they made him even more excited to go work with players who weren’t focused on anything besides what’s directly in front of them.

That mentality could be especially beneficial Saturday at the Rose Bowl, given the vast emptiness around them.

Times staff writer Ryan Kartje contributed to this report.


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