After skimping last season, USC vows to beef up its bowl preparation

USC nose tackle Stevie Tu'ikolovatu wraps up Notre Dame running back Josh Adams in the second quarter.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

When USC was selected to play in the Holiday Bowl last season, Coach Clay Helton vowed to prepare his team for what he considered to be a crucial game, even if it was just a mid-tier bowl.

“To me, it’s as important as the Notre Dame game, the UCLA game,” Helton said at the time.

Yet USC skimped on bowl practices. Teams are allowed to practice 15 times. USC had more than three weeks between its loss in the Pac-12 Conference Championship game and the bowl game, but it used just seven practices. And the practices were shorter than normal, sometimes significantly so. Some lasted an hour or less.

USC lost a sloppy game to Wisconsin, 23-21.


The Trojans don’t know their bowl destination this season. The Rose Bowl or the Alamo Bowl are the most likely landing spots, with an at-large bid to the Cotton Bowl also possible.

No matter where USC ends up, it will have a beefier practice schedule.

“We’re going to end up taking three weeks to work on the game plan, is my goal, once we figure out exactly where we’re going,” Helton said on a teleconference with reporters Sunday. “I really want to be able to put a game plan together and have three weeks of preparation for that game.”

Helton said practices would follow USC’s in-season schedule, which comprises a light practice on Mondays and full sessions on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

The extra 15 practices are one of the main perks of qualifying for a bowl game. Sessions earlier in December provide an opportunity to devote time to redshirt players and underclassmen without having to worry about preparing the starters for a game.

Helton said he would set aside time “at the end of practice to help develop our young people also, people that will be critical for us next year.”

USC’s health has given it more options. Three players are out for the season because of knee injuries — receiver Steven Mitchell, who was injured against Arizona; center Toa Lobendahn, who was injured in the season-opener against Alabama; and defensive tackle Kenny Bigelow Jr., who was injured during spring practices. Otherwise, USC’s only player with a significant injury is running back Aca’Cedric Ware, who is in concussion protocol after taking a blow to the head in the season finale against Notre Dame.

Last season, USC was worse for wear, and Helton didn’t want to jeopardize more players.

“We really felt like we needed a two-week break to really get fresh,” Helton said at the time.

No hard feelings

Helton offered conciliatory remarks toward Notre Dame after one of its players, defensive lineman Jerry Tillery, was caught on camera jostling Ware’s head with his foot immediately after Ware sustained his concussion. Tillery also was penalized later in the game for stomping on the ankle of USC offensive tackle Zach Banner.

“It was a poor decision by a young person, and I know that’s not Notre Dame football and most important, that’s not Brian Kelly,” Helton said, referring to the Notre Dame coach. “He’s been a class act the whole way.”

Notre Dame did not make Tillery available for comment after the game. On Monday, Tillery issued an apology on Twitter, saying he took full responsibility for his actions and that they were “out of character.”

Kelly said he would hold Tillery accountable if Kelly found Tillery had made a mistake.

“I’ve always known Brian as a man of class and integrity and I know he’ll address it with him,” Helton said.

Final tally

USC’s sluggish start dragged it out of the top 25 in almost every statistical category in team yardage and scoring. The one exception was scoring defense, where USC ranked 25th, giving up 22.2 points per game.

Two individual players cracked the top 10 in a few metrics. Quarterback Sam Darnold finished his regular season 10th nationally in quarterback rating, at 161. He was 21st in yards per pass, 8.4.

Adoree’ Jackson ranked near the top of every return category. He was fourth in punt return average (15.9 yards) and sixth in kickoff return average (30.5 yards). He tied for second in both punt return touchdowns and kickoff return touchdowns, with two each. The four scores tied for first in total return touchdowns.

Defensively, Jackson’s four interceptions ranked 23rd, and his 15 passes defended ranked 13th.

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand