Column: Trojans are regaining stability under Clay Helton


— USC unleashed four quarters of mutual-fund stability at Memorial Stadium on Saturday.

It wasn’t flashy, glitzy or glamorous, but it was just what the program needed.

The winning score of 27-21 over California wouldn’t excite anyone who stayed up Thursday night-Friday morning to see Oregon outlast Arizona State in triple overtime.

USC, though, has had enough crazy.

After weeks of TMZ drama, document searches and athletic department tumult, the Trojans gave cloth coat conservatism a try.

Amid the off-field chaos of recent weeks, calm developed between the sidelines. A team, torn asunder by another midseason coaching change, hunkered down around interim Coach Clay Helton.


We saw a coach getting more comfortable.

“Yeah,” Helton said, “by the day.”

Part of running the ball 50 times, and passing only 23, was a strategic decision to keep Cal’s explosive offense off the field.

Part of it, though, seemed a concerted effort to quiet the naysayer noise with the kind of play that would remind any old-guard Trojan how USC football can still be played.

That style is physical, close to the vest, preferably at noon Saturday.

Part of it, maybe a lot of it, was a want to push Helton closer to the short list of possible USC coaching candidates.

“It’s true,” offensive tackle Chad Wheeler said in the postgame breezeway outside the stadium. “We want him to stay.”

Building the case required a game plan that was, foundationally, settling.

Told that USC’s performance might remind and old-timer of a Pac-8 Conference game played in the mid-1970s, offensive line coach Bob Connelly responded, “awesome.”

Connelly said game approaches can change, week to week, over the course of a Pac-12 season.


Yet, he could not contain his love for what happened: Trojans tailbacks running a pile-moving offensive line.

“No question it will work in this league and our personnel plays to it,” he said.

Saturday’s game at Cal was strange in the sense it had a lot in common with the game played here two years ago.

That was also a day game, with an interim coach, Ed Orgeron, trying to make his case for being the permanent hire.

One could also sit there Saturday, though, and see ahead two years from now, with Helton as coach and Steve Lopes observing from the press box.

Lopes, USC’ senior associate athletic director and chief operating officer, represented the school this weekend as ailing Pat Haden, on doctor’s orders, stayed home.

One solidifying, comfort-food Saturday moment came in the third quarter, on fourth and one at the Cal two.


The Trojans led, 10-7, and a field goal would have been nice. But it wouldn’t have been very USC-like.

Helton decided to go for it. As the Trojans line hovered at the line of scrimmage, center Khaliel Rodgers turned to the backfield and pounded his chest several times.

“It’s the heart,” Rodgers said later. “Just a vibe and energy to give to the offensive line. … It was just all the emotion about getting it done.”

Tre Madden ran it in to put USC up, 17-7.

Later, facing fourth and three at the 27, Helton took a longer pause. He called time out and opted for a field goal to make it 27-14. That meant Cal had to score two touchdowns to take the lead.

It seemed a reasoned, sensible play.

If this game was soup, you’d say it had all the right ingredients. The players seem focused and, most of the time, in the right positions. There were only six penalties, for 65 yards. There were very few panicked looks or blown plays.

Cody Kessler threw only 23 passes and left without a touchdown. And it was OK.

This was different from Steve Sarkisian’s last game, a 17-12 home loss to Washington, in which the Trojans abandoned the run to keep Kessler involved.


The game plan, then, was still weighted toward Kessler’s efficient passing attack. He was still a Heisman Trophy candidate.

Times have changed. The Heisman is no longer in play, nor is any long play for the four-team playoff.

USC was in prime position to reboot.

Helton has probably not done enough yet to warrant consideration to be Sarkisian’s permanent replacement.

A solid case can be made to break clean and start over, without an outsider who doesn’t even know the fight song.

There is avenue, however, where Helton can play himself into the game.

USC needs to keep winning games, the way it did Saturday, with the same passion and purpose.

Orgeron got everyone on board in 2013 and took his tryout down to a final stand against UCLA. Had the Trojans not flopped in that game, Orgeron might be USC’s coach today.


Helton is Orgeron without the rough edges. His campaign will be quieter, with less bravado and speaker volume.

As Helton exited Memorial Stadium, he wished reporters a safe journey home. He seems to work the words “Trojan Family” into every third sentence.

Helton can get to being the long-term answer by solving weekly riddles from here until late November.

His stretch of sales pitches are Arizona, Colorado, Oregon and UCLA. Common sense says he’d better not win three and then lose to UCLA.

Four victories, though, added to the present five, will give the hiring hierarchy plenty to contemplate.

Helton is 2-1 since taking over for Sarkisian.

That’s solid and stable.

In these trying, ongoing and seemingly never-ending wacky USC times, it’s almost comforting.