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Injuries and lack of depth hurt USC as its dominance at the Coliseum ends

Injuries and lack of depth hurt USC as its dominance at the Coliseum ends
Arizona State cornerback Kobe Williams strips the ball away from USC wide receiver Tyler Vaughs, preventing what would have been a touchdown in the third quarter. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

This was the day that it all sank in, when the maybes and what ifs became a disheartening probably won’t for USC’s hopes of winning the Pac-12 South and repeating as conference champion.

The Trojans had lost their air of invincibility a long time ago but they had managed to cling to a 19-game winning streak at the Coliseum, including 14 straight victories over Pac-12 opponents. Their streak — all accomplished under coach Clay Helton — was a point of pride, a link to better teams and better memories, an achievement they sustained when so much else was going wrong. On Saturday, that pillar crumbled too, in a 38-35 loss to Arizona State. Reality finally set in for the Trojans (4-4, 3-3 in the Pac-12). It was inevitable, but that didn’t make it any easier to accept.

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“I shed my tears,” junior outside linebacker Jordan Iosefa said. “It’s tough.”

Missing several leaders on defense and left to start third-string quarterback Jack Sears because JT Daniels (concussion) and Matt Fink (broken ribs) were injured in their loss at Utah last week, the Trojans battled back on Saturday after the Sun Devils scored 24 straight points to take a 24-7 lead. USC fought back again in the second half, as Sears became more comfortable and assured, but too many missed assignments and too many penalties — maddening weekly occurrences —undermined their efforts.

They didn’t lose on Saturday because they stopped playing for Helton. They lost because they’ve been pummeled by injuries and they don’t have prime, experienced depth at a lot of positions. From all indications Helton appears to have their full support, though questions about his record and the chorus of criticism directed at him from USC supporters grow louder.

“No. He’s the best coach in the country. He cares for the kids so much and wants the best for us, whether on the football field or off,” Iosefa said when asked if he feared that more losses might get Helton fired. “And I love that man to death and there’s no chance, nothing in my mind where I’m thinking otherwise.”

Sears, a redshirt freshman who was the successor to Sam Darnold at San Clemente High, could have transferred out of USC when he didn’t win the Trojans’ starting job this season. He said he stayed because of his bond with his teammates and his respect for Helton.

“I love these guys. I’ve been with them for over two years. This man next to me,” he said, nodding toward Helton as they sat next to each other during a post-game news conference, “I believed in what he was doing here and I still do. I’ll fight for him every down, every play, no matter what’s going on. I love this university and I value a degree from this place. It never even crossed my mind.”

Helton described the locker-room atmosphere as “very sad,” and mentioned he was struck by the tears welling in the eyes of several players. “I hurt for them,” he said. But he also took encouragement from their emotions and from seeing how deeply those players cared. Their tears were proof they hadn’t given up on themselves or on their team. Or on him.

“They all stink,” he said of losses. “This one, I think, hurts these guys more because they love this place, as we all do, and we all know what walking in to the Coliseum means. It means your best effort and coming out with a victory, and we didn’t get that done today. And as a coach, you know you’ve got your kids when they’re sad and there’s tears. When I see a grown man like Jay Tufele being emotional because he gave everything he friggin’ had and I see guys just absolutely saddened by a loss, that’s what you want as a coach. You don’t want a loss, but that’s the emotion that you want to be able to see — that it hurts, that it hurts them when they lose. And I appreciated them, all the effort, and like I told them, there’ll be better days ahead.”

Those days probably aren’t coming immediately, or this season. Next week the Trojans will be in Corvallis, always a tricky place, to face Oregon State, which erased a 28-point deficit in the second half on Saturday and went on to defeat Colorado in overtime. “We can’t control all the other teams out there and what they do,” center Toa Lobendahn said, “so we’ve got to focus on ourselves and do what we can and make the best out of what’s left of the season.”

What’s left is pride and playing for each other and for a coach whose job might depend on it.

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