There was a punt return for a touchdown, a double pass between two receivers for a score, a flea-flicker for a first down and a third-string quarterback leading the charge. When it was good for USC on Saturday, it had all the magic of a Disney football movie, and Clay Helton’s Trojans seemed destined to maintain their stronghold on the venerable old building by any means necessary.
“Whatever it takes,” Helton would say.
But in the third quarter, after Tyler Vaughns dropped a sure touchdown pass that would have put the Trojans up by 10 points and N’Keal Harry responded with a 92-yard punt return for a touchdown to put Arizona State ahead by three points, the recipe for what it was going to take to extend USC’s 19-game Coliseum winning streak changed dramatically. The game tightened, each play began to matter more and Helton’s hijinks were going to get the Trojans only so far in the fourth quarter.
As it turned out, what it would take was the Trojans, much-maligned for their inability to run the ball, getting a yard on the ground when the other team knew what was coming. It was going to take real football, the kind Helton learned from his father, the offensive line coach, the kind John McKay, John Robinson and Pete Carroll perfected to build USC into one of college football’s monolithic brands.
The Trojans did not get that yard.
They ran a play appropriately named “power,” the Sun Devils shot a gap, Aca’Cedric Ware couldn’t carry the ball that extra 18 inches and USC lost to Arizona State 38-35 to fall to 4-4 overall, 3-3 in the Pac-12 Conference.
“At the end of the day, I made a call, and I’ll live with it,” Helton said.
The Trojans, trailing 31-28 with less than 11 minutes to play, faced fourth and one from the Arizona State 20. The ball was spotted on the hash mark opposite the USC sideline, and Helton initially viewed it as a fourth and two. He sent kicker Michael Brown in for a 38-yard field-goal attempt and, maybe in some parallel universe where Helton believed a little less in his young men, there’s a Brown kick soaring through the uprights to tie the score, followed by a USC win.
But Helton believed. That’s who he is. And when he walked down to the 20 and saw the actual spot of the ball, he called timeout. It was one yard, not two. Helton reconsidered with a fresh memory of his runners popping a couple of “power” runs, which ask for a guard to pull to the other side of the line to bring an extra blocker into the fray.
“I told our kids we were going to be aggressive in this game,” Helton said. “Whether it was a flea-flicker, whether it was a double pass, we were going to be ultra-aggressive and not play scared.”
Later, with the clock on the Peristyle scoreboard ticking below four minutes, USC still trailed by three points and faced fourth and three from its 24. Going for it then, Helton thought, would be aggression crossing over into stupidity. He punted, believing this time in his defense to get the ball back with only one timeout in its pocket.
What would it take for Arizona State to close out the Trojans? Getting a yard on the ground when the other team knew what was coming. On third and one from the USC 45 with 1:33 left, quarterback Manny Wilkins faked a handoff and kept it, fooling the Trojans and sprinting into the end zone for the clinching score.
After the game, this was a different USC locker room. Tears flowed. Realities sank deeper. The home winning streak, which had come to define the positives of Helton’s program in the midst of so many struggles away from the Coliseum, would not reach 20.
“It’s kind of like our history,” receiver Michael Pittman said. “Like, all of the guys who have been here the past three years that kind of put work into that, it feels like we kind of let them down.”
Taken in a vacuum, this loss wasn’t so bad. The Trojans broke in a new quarterback, redshirt freshman Jack Sears, and played without their three senior defensive captains — Marvell Tell, Cameron Smith and Porter Gustin — because of injury. Sears showed plenty of promise, completing 20 of 28 passes for 235 yards and two touchdowns.
In a vacuum, one could take solace in Helton’s claim that this one came down to three or four plays. But coming after losses at Texas and at Utah, when the Trojans showed little fight in coughing up 34 consecutive points, when three or four plays snowballed into 13 or 14, Saturday was tougher to take for the announced crowd of 47,406.
There’s a reason that attendance was the lowest for a USC home game since 2001, when 44,880 showed up for Oregon State: The Trojans don’t look like the Trojans anymore, and those who bleed cardinal and gold don't want to watch that.
Helton told his team in the locker room that “things are going to be said outside the locker room,” center Toa Lobendahn said.
Of course, the coach is right about that.
“Up,” Pittman said. “The only way to go is up from here.”