Clay Helton has said and mostly done all the right things.
Since taking over as USC’s interim coach less than a week before the Trojans played Notre Dame, the longtime assistant stabilized a chaotic situation, engendered support and admiration from players and calmed a fan base outraged and embarrassed by the school’s handling of former coach Steve Sarkisian’s hiring and subsequent dismissal.
Now, Helton’s drive to become the Trojans’ permanent head coach becomes serious.
USC takes a modest two-game winning streak into Saturday night’s game against Arizona at the Coliseum. It is the first of four November games that could decide Helton’s future at USC.
If USC goes unbeaten the rest of the way, and the Trojans win the Pac-12 Conference South, Helton would be considered a favorite to be USC’s coach when it opens the 2016 season against Alabama in Texas, where Helton grew up.
In 2013, Arizona was USC’s first opponent when Ed Orgeron took over as interim coach for the fired Lane Kiffin. The Trojans’ 38-31 victory was a feel-good affair that started a love-fest between players and their once-gruff coach, who turned warm and fuzzy and made football fun again.
Helton took a few pages from Orgeron’s playbook when he succeeded him as interim coach for the 2013 Las Vegas Bowl. And they were reinstituted — with Helton’s stamp — after Athletic Director Pat Haden turned to him again last month.
Helton’s focus has been on technique and fundamentals, Tuesday night family dinners and fun — along with a commitment to the running game and creating more pressure from the defensive front.
“It’s a similar situation with the interim head coach and two good teams getting together at the Coliseum,” Helton said when asked about the parallels between the 2013 game against Arizona and Saturday’s matchup against the Wildcats. “But that’s about it. It’s the next game for us.”
Helton probably gets a pass for the 41-31 loss at Notre Dame — he was on a plane with the Trojans to South Bend, Ind., three days after Haden fired Sarkisian.
He has since led them to victories over previously unbeaten Utah and California.
Arizona comes to the Coliseum after a 49-3 defeat at Washington, a loss that dropped the Wildcats to 5-4 overall and 2-4 in the Pac-12.
Coach Rich Rodriguez’s offense is ranked 13th nationally, generating 512 yards per game. Quarterback Anu Solomon has passed for 13 touchdowns, with two interceptions.
The game will be a test for USC’s defensive front, which has played well the last two games.
Other players also noted differences since Helton took over.
“Coach Sark was going through some personal problems I don’t really want to get into,” safety Chris Hawkins said. “Coach Helton is in his right state of mind, so he’s getting us right.”
Said linebacker Su’a Cravens: “Once you show that you’re with us and not against us, we’ll ride with you till the end.”
The players do not want Helton’s tenure to end after the season.
“You know what you’re going to get when he comes through the door,” quarterback Cody Kessler said. “That’s someone you enjoy playing for.”