After a bye-week practice Saturday, USC Coach Clay Helton retreated to the football offices to work on the game plan for the Trojans’ next opponent, California.
Two potentially season-altering games were being played as he worked. Because of two early losses in Pac-12 Conference play, USC (4-3, 3-2 in the Pac-12) can’t win the South division without help. Utah and Colorado are each ahead in the standings. And each were locked in tight games.
So Helton was monitoring. How closely?
“Want the truth?” Helton said. “Very closely. I was game-planning as well as having a couple TVs on. And cheering loud for their opponents.”
The bye week coupled with a Thursday game against California has freed the Trojans to be emotionally invested Saturday spectators.
“It’s getting down to the end in Pac-12 play,” linebacker Michael Hutchings said. “It’s the second half of the season. Every single game is pretty important. So we are paying attention to it pretty closely.”
Utah ultimately defeated UCLA on Saturday, and Colorado nudged past Stanford. Those results underscored reality for the Trojans: They can’t afford to lose another conference game.
So USC vowed not to overlook California (4-3, 2-2), which has an identical overall record to USC and which has a dangerous offense capable of giving scoreboard operators carpal tunnel syndrome.
The Bears average 42 points per game. The only time they failed to score at least 40 was against Utah — and they won that game. Spectating, USC said, can wait until after Thursday.
“I’m not really worried about nobody else,” cornerback Adoree’ Jackson said. “Basically all we can do is worry about ourselves.”
Linebacker Quinton Powell said the team’s approach is this: “It doesn’t matter what the other teams are doing as long as we’re winning.”
That’s not precisely true. USC needs at least one more loss from Utah or Colorado before the teams play each other in the last week of the regular season.
The next game for each is crucial. Utah hosts undefeated Washington on Saturday. Colorado hosts UCLA Nov. 3. That puts the Trojans in the uncomfortable position of rooting for UCLA for the second game in a row.
Hutchings refused to mention UCLA by name, but he acknowledged that “you cheer for others more than you usually do.”
Helton believes the Pac-12 picture will clear up if USC keeps winning. Two losses typically mean a trip to the Pac-12 championship game, he said.
“If you win out, you’re 7-2, and that has won the league every year since it’s been created,” Helton said, though he quickly amended that Arizona State, at 8-1, was the lone exception in 2013.
USC’s position, Helton said, reminds him of last season. The Trojans were 1-2 by the second week in October, but they won five of their next six conference games to advance.
“We were actually talking about it as a staff,” Helton said. “We took each game one game at a time and all of a sudden you look up and you’ve run the table in November.” (USC did lose once, to Oregon.)
Helton said a long winning streak to close the season is “probably what it’s going to have to take this time around. We’ve got to pour all our efforts in this game right now. You can’t get caught looking ahead.”
USC practiced early Saturday, meaning the team could gather to watch the rest of the day’s games. There will be no practice this weekend, so if USC wins, players will have to make their own plans to watch Utah.
Safety Chris Hawkins said he might just ignore it.
“We needed both of them to lose, and that didn’t happen,” he said. “I guess we should probably stop hoping that they lose and just let them play. Because when we hope they lose, they both win.”
USC’s best course, he said, was to focus on California.
The Golden Bears, he could have added, already did defeat Utah.
Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand