Clay Helton praises USC’s resolve, defends decision to punt against Stanford

USC Coach Clay Helton tried to keep the Trojans on an even keel during a rugged early part of the season.
(Shotgun Spratling / Los Angeles Times)

During halftime of USC’s loss to Stanford on Saturday, Coach Clay Helton said, the coaching staff challenged the team. The staff offered its adjustments, a plan for how it would defeat Stanford.

Then, Helton said, the team took the field and mounted an inspired touchdown drive to start the half.

Helton’s account was at odds with two USC players, who said they believed some players had given up at halftime, when USC trailed by 14 points.


Outside USC’s locker room on Saturday, quarterback Sam Darnold said “it looked like the game was over.”

Running back Justin Davis recounted that “it felt like the players were starting to feel down.”

During a teleconference with reporters on Sunday, Helton said that USC had some issues on Saturday, but motivation was not among them.

“I thought the way they came out, anybody that watched the first drive, I thought they came out exactly the way you wanted them to,” Helton said.

The Trojans moved the ball 75 yards in nine plays for a touchdown on the first drive of the second half.

“It started exactly like we wanted it to,” Helton said.

The Trojans have reached a treacherous point of the season. Frustration may be congealing after two early losses against top-10 teams. But USC always knew the first four games of its season offered an unusual challenge. Its season opener came against defending champion Alabama. Its third game was Stanford, the defending Pac-12 Conference champion.

Its fourth game, on Friday, is at Utah, and it will determine whether USC can claw its way back to a .500 record, or whether it will fall to 1-3.

USC hasn’t lost three of its first four games since 2001, Pete Carroll’s first season as USC’s coach. The Trojans began that season 1-4, though they finished 6-6.

The rare Friday game has also left the Trojans with one fewer day to prepare. Instead of using Sunday as a day off, USC began correcting Saturday’s mistakes, installing the game plan and holding a walk-through.

“We don’t have enough time to feel sad or out,” Helton said. “We’ve got to go to work immediately. And the only way you can get rid of a bad feeling is to go win.”

Is punting winning?

The decision puzzled some observers. Down 17 points, with a little more than nine minutes left and on Stanford’s 44-yard line, USC faced a fourth and six.

Helton chose to punt.

Helton explained after the game that he wanted to pin Stanford deep in its own territory. Punter Chris Tilbey did — the ball was fair caught on Stanford’s eight-yard line. But the Cardinal’s eight-play drive left USC with time for only one more series.

Still, Helton reaffirmed on Sunday, he believed the decision was sound.

“If I had to do it over again,” Helton said. “I would’ve made the same decision.”

Helton said that he refers a time chart when facing fourth-down situations with less than four minutes left. Usually, he said, he prefers aggression.

“As you’ve seen throughout the season, I love going for it on fourth down,” Helton said.

But he felt punting gave USC the best chance to win.

“In that situation, where we were, I wanted to try to pin them deep and use timeouts and try to get the ball back,” Helton said. “So I ended up punting.”

Quick hits

Center Nico Falah dislocated a finger during Saturday’s game but did not miss any action. … Tight end Tyler Petite suffered a thigh bruise but Helton does not expect it to be serious. … USC resumes practice on Monday, a day early, because of the short week.

Twitter: @zhelfand