As seconds ticked away toward USC’s 10th win of the season on Saturday night, the Coliseum video boards tried to fire up the fans. They flashed clips of USC players loudly chanting “We are SC!” to get the crowd to do the same.
The crowd was in no such mood.
“We are SC!” the video boards blared.
Grumble, came the response.
“We are SC!” the players chanted.
Despite No. 11 USC defeating its crosstown rival, despite the 10 wins and the clinched spot in the Pac-12 championship game in two weeks, there was little jubilation among the fans. In the parking lots and on social media, many instead dwelled on USC’s uninspiring performance, one of several this season.
In a strange way, it marked a return to normalcy for USC. When Clay Helton jogged off the field, he had accomplished something no one had done at USC in five years. He made it two full seasons as head coach without getting fired.
Now, with stability restored, fans can reset their expectations to USC’s typical, stratospheric levels.
Helton was asked on his weekly teleconference Sunday to grade how fully he has fulfilled those expectations after completing two calendar years since being named the full-time head coach.
"I always feel like you want your program to progress, and you want to get better each and every year,” he said. “A season ago, we were not in the position to have the opportunity to win a Pac-12 championship.”
He noted that USC won a Rose Bowl, that it can win its first Pac-12 Conference title. And USC is also ahead of last season’s team in the most important category: victories.
But other signs of progress aren’t as clear.
The Trojans score almost half a point more and gain 11.5 more yards per game than a season ago. But their defense gives up two points and 42.7 yards more per game.
USC is 8-1 in the Pac-12, yet it has dominated just two games, against Stanford and Arizona State.
Saturday’s game against UCLA was typical. USC gave up 501 yards to UCLA, USC’s worst mark since 2015. Yet the Trojans still earned the win.
Helton said his grade was not yet complete. He cautioned that he is “nowhere near a finished product.”
Could Gustin return?
With the benefit of a bye week before the Pac-12 championship game on Dec. 1, USC finally has the chance to get healthy after a particularly injury-plagued season.
Is it possible that outside linebacker Porter Gustin could return?
"I just don't have a crystal ball,” Helton said. “We're just playing it one week at a time."
Gustin has missed the past three games, and eight games total, with two injuries — a fractured big toe and a torn biceps — that may have been exacerbated by a hasty return.
Another coaching casualty of rivalry game
A USC win over UCLA has immediately preceded the firings of three consecutive UCLA coaches.
In 2007, Karl Dorrell’s UCLA team lost 24-7 to the Trojans. He was fired two days later.
In 2011, Rick Neuheisel’s team lost 50-0 to USC. He, too, was fired two days later.
Jim Mora was fired a half-day after UCLA’s 28-23 loss.
Helton called the news “very sad.”
“You know it’s a hard part of our profession, a very hard part,” Helton said. “We’re in a high-risk profession and business, and coach Mora has always been so respectful to me. He did a wonderful job and gave everything he had to those kids. Sad to see him go."