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Commentary: College football Saturday review: USC coach Clay Helton must go after loss to Stanford

USC head coach Clay Helton watches from the sideline as his team loses to Stanford
USC head coach Clay Helton watches from the sideline in the closing minutes of the Trojans’ 42-28 loss to Stanford at the Coliseum on Saturday night.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

They’ve done everything but the one thing that has to be done to fix USC football. They’ve swapped out nearly every assistant coach, bolstered the recruiting staff and hired away young people who create impressive videos that are meant to make something that isn’t very cool right now look way cooler on social media.

The natural pop culture reference is that USC athletic director Mike Bohn has spent much of his short tenure rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, but, days before the Trojans’ latest inexplicable embarrassment — a 42-28 loss to Stanford on Saturday night at the Coliseum — another apt Hollywood comparison for the Clay Helton era at USC casually surfaced.

At a USC practice this week, Helton was asked by a TV reporter, looking for something offbeat, if he’d ever seen “Ted Lasso.”

“One of my favorite shows,” Helton said happily, revealing that the hit feel-good comedy of the pandemic has become his Sunday night go-to.

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USC’s defense broke down in a loss to Stanford that once again raises questions about coach Clay Helton’s future with the program.

The reporter continued, “Instead of Xs and Os, because he doesn’t know the game, he is more about psychology. Is that your approach?”

Most head coaches would not have gone any further, but Helton engaged.

“I get to deal with 18- to 21-year-olds. It’s not only the Xs and Os on the field, but you’re also teaching them life,” he said. “The combination of that is what I’ve always liked. I saw my dad coach in the NFL, and my niche was here. I really like being not only their coach, but their friend, their mentor, some of them their adopted father and bringing them along. Maybe that’s the reason I like the show. I appreciate that question.”

That was quite a soundbite. It summed up everything that is novel about the idea of Clay Helton as a major college football coach, the qualities that make you want to root for the guy to rise above his limitations. It also summed up why USC has to move on from Helton as soon as possible: The Trojans don’t appear serious about winning anymore, not as long as he’s their leader.

Those who witnessed Helton’s “Ted Lasso” exchange say the question wasn’t a setup to compare the coach to Jason Sudeikis’ lovable character who has never coached soccer before but is hired to coach a sad-sack British club for the purpose of tanking it, unbeknownst to him. But the fact that it was so easy to fashion Helton as USC’s bungling, affable Lasso points to the problem that Bohn — and USC President Carol Folt — must finally address.

USC fans don’t need to be reminded of the reasons that Helton must go. They’ve been gnawing on them for three years now (heck, some weren’t even swayed by Helton’s 2016 Rose Bowl win and 2017 Pac-12 championship, and those folks turned out to be prescient).

During the 2016 and 2017 seasons, Helton was coaching kids recruited by Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian. Those coaches didn’t re-create the Pete Carroll years either, but they knew how to recruit, particularly Sark. After Sark’s grand fall, Helton must have seemed safe to Pat Haden, then the athletic director trying to stabilize a shaky program.

In the two years as USC athletic director, Mike Bohn has faced adversity, which includes deciding football coach Clay Helton’s fate.

How bad could Helton be, anyway? USC recruits itself, right? The problem was Haden and his successor, Lynn Swann, were in denial about how far behind the Trojans were in program infrastructure. USC is in this spot today because Swann made the ultimate folly — after the Trojans won the league in 2017, he staged a bidding war with himself and signed an extension so advantageous to Helton that it has kept the USC bean counters from pulling the plug.

It’s important to remember Haden and Swann were King Nero in the scenario of this former empire, not Helton. Clay Helton has given all of himself to USC — it’s just not enough to win when it counts and we’ve known that for a while now.

Bohn has bought himself two years off that extension and whatever is included within the contract that has tied his hands. The time is now to put an end to this.

Instead of making a move to inspire the USC fanbase, athletic director Mike Bohn has opted to keep the football program mired in mediocrity.

USC should be better than losing 42-28 to a Stanford team that just got waxed by Kansas State. USC should be better than watching most of the best players from its own backyard playing in all the big games across the country Saturday after Saturday. USC should be better than living in fear of having to buy its way out of mediocrity — the school and its donors certainly used to have the money.

There are only two words left that can fix USC’s tired script with Clay Helton as a leading man:

And cut.

Ducks seize stage

The Pac-12 is about to finally be the beneficiary of one of college football’s truths: Nobody cares what the lesser teams in your league do as long as the best teams win big.

And no conference has won bigger through two weeks of 2021 than the Pac-12.

No. 12 Oregon went into the Horseshoe and upset No. 3 Ohio State 35-28 for the conference’s most important result since the Ducks knocked off Florida State in the 2014 College Football Playoff semifinals.

With a history of innovation and elite problem-solving skills, commissioner George Kliavkoff says it will be fun helping the Pac-12 navigate massive changes.

Of course, I made the same claim about No. 16 UCLA’s punishing 38-27 victory over Louisiana State last week, which is how you know the Pac-12’s finally done something worth talking about in September.

New Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff has to be elated. Power in this sport is built on how you perform in the spotlight, and while there’s been plenty of disappointment across the conference, that can be said of any league.

Oregon defensive end DJ Johnson celebrates his sack of Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud
Oregon defensive end DJ Johnson, front, celebrates his sack of Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud on the final play of the game Saturday in Columbus, Ohio. Oregon beat Ohio State 35-28.
(Jay LaPrete / Associated Press)

Oregon’s performance felt totally legitimate, too. The Ducks owned the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball against a roster stacked with blue-chip talent. They pushed Ohio State around without defensive stars Kayvon Thibodeaux and Justin Flowe. Joe Moorhead’s offensive plan had the Buckeyes befuddled all game. Expect the Ducks to land in the top five. Can they stay there?

It’s looking very possible Oregon and UCLA will play in the Rose Bowl on Oct. 23 with early playoff positioning hanging in the balance.

Who cares that Utah lost to Brigham Young, that USC lost to Stanford (which already lost to Kansas State), that Washington lost to Michigan (after the Huskies lost to Montana), that Colorado couldn’t finish its upset bid of No. 5 Texas A&M, that California is now 0-2?

Despite all of that carnage, the Pac-12 has a legitimate path to the CFP because whoever wins the conference — if it’s not Oregon — will have beaten the Ducks, who now hold the best nonconference win of the year.

Texas bull-rushed

Is Texas sure it wants to join the Southeastern Conference?

The jokes write themselves after the Longhorns got drilled by SEC foe Arkansas 40-21 in Fayetteville on Saturday.

Making it worse for first-year Texas coach Steve Sarkisian is that the Razorbacks are an old Southwest Conference rival, and the faithful in Austin will not respond well to this whipping.

Texas coach Steve Sarkisian rebuilt his life after getting fired from USC because of alcohol issues, but he did so without those who helped launch his career.

Sark’s chosen quarterback, freshman Hudson Card, completed 8 of 15 passes for 61 yards. He didn’t do anything egregious, but he didn’t move the ball either. It will be interesting to see whether Sark goes with the elder Casey Thompson — he rushed for 44 yards and two touchdowns in relief — next week.

Arkansas fans rushed the field, and rightfully so. The Razorbacks have it going under second-year coach Sam Pittman.

Tallahassee trick

On Sept. 5, as Notre Dame escaped Florida State 41-38 in overtime, it was easy to get swept up in the moment and assume we were watching two pretty good football teams involved in a classic.

College football is funny like that. The game was certainly a classic, but Saturday indicated the Fighting Irish and Seminoles aren’t exactly world-beaters.

Notre Dame needed a late touchdown to take the lead against Toledo, winning 32-29. Florida State lost to Jacksonville State of the Football Championship Subdivision on an unthinkable “Hail Mary” pass as time expired.

At least Notre Dame is 2-0. Misery can’t get enough of Tallahassee these days.

Stumped in Ames

I liked Iowa State’s potential to crack the playoff semifinals. Clearly I forgot that Matt Campbell can’t beat Kirk Ferentz. After Iowa’s 27-17 win in Ames on Saturday, Campbell is 0-5 against Ferentz.

Now No. 10 Iowa, with authoritative wins over Indiana and Iowa State, is a team that deserves attention. The Hawkeyes host Penn State on Oct. 9 in what should be a top-10 showdown.


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