USC Report: Turnovers make Clay Helton a happy coach

USC Report: Turnovers make Clay Helton a happy coach
USC defensive back Ajene Harris returns an interception for a touchdown against Notre Dame during the second quarter Saturday. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Immediately after Ajene Harris intercepted a pass and returned it for a touchdown Saturday, he had an important fumble recovery to make too.

The interception near the end of the first half had blown open USC’s tight game against Notre Dame, and Harris was mobbed in the end zone by teammates. They jostled him hard. In the scrum, he dropped the football.

Before an official could take it, as is protocol after touchdowns, Harris pounced on it, made a beeline for Coach Clay Helton and held the ball out like a gift. Helton took it and wrapped Harris in a hug.

The practice has become a tradition this season.


"Every turnover they bring the ball to me," Helton said. "We try to get three a game, and I always say, 'Bring me three balls.' "

At some point early this season, players began taking it literally. By this point in the season, Harris viewed it as a requirement.

"Everybody was tackling me and stuff," Harris said. "I still got the ball and brought it to Coach."

It wasn't a perfect day for Helton. The Trojans forced only two turnovers.

Tillery makes it worse for Ware

USC running back Aca'Cedric Ware was knocked out of the game in the fourth quarter after absorbing a helmet-to-helmet to hit by safety Nicco Fertitta, who was called for targeting and ejected from the game after a review.

While Ware was on the turf, cameras caught Notre Dame defensive lineman Jerry Tillery nudging Ware's head with his foot.

USC defeated Notre Dame, 45-27, to finish the season 9-3. The Trojans now must wait to see if they can clinch the Pac-12 South by way of a Utah victory over Colorado. (Lindsey Thiry )

USC offensive tackle Chad Wheeler, who confronted Tillery after the incident, said, "I just saw an injured, vulnerable player. That could've made it 10 times worse if it had some oomph to it."

Tillery was not flagged on the play, and Ware walked off the field without assistance after several minutes.

Tillery was flagged later in the quarter for unsportsmanlike conduct after delivering a late hit to offensive tackle Zach Banner. Tillery subsequently stomped on Banner's ankle.

Notre Dame did not make Tillery available for comment.

"Jerry is a good kid, and if he made a mistake, we'll hold him accountable for that mistake," Notre Dame Coach Brian Kelly said.

Referee injured

Referee Ron Cherry was hospitalized after USC linebacker Michael Hutchings inadvertently collided with him in the third quarter. Cherry fell immediately to the turf, where he stayed for several minutes before being assisted to the locker room.

He was taken to a hospital for observation for a concussion but was expected to be released later Saturday evening.

Hutchings had his head down after a third-down stop in the third quarter when he ran into Cherry, Hutchings' helmet striking Cherry's head.

Good bounce, bad break

USC cornerback Jack Jones thought he had his first career touchdown when he breezed past the 50-yard line in the fourth quarter with no one near him. Then he heard whistles.

Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer had thrown a ball toward the sideline, almost parallel to the line of scrimmage. Harris dived to swat it away, and the ball bounced and bounded into the arms of Jones, who made toward the end zone. But the play was ruled dead. The officials had ruled that it was a forward pass.

The call was overturned on replay, but no touchdown was awarded, and USC took over from the spot of the recovery.

Return of the sack

USC sacked Kizer six times, a season high for the Trojans.

Six different players contributed: linebackers Porter Gustin (1.5), Uchenna Nwosu (.5) and Hutchings (1), defensive linemen Rasheem Green (.5) and Stevie Tu'ikolovatu (.5) and Harris (1).

Quick hits

Green injured his right knee in the first half and retired briefly to a medical tent on the sideline. He emerged with a knee brace and later returned to the game. … Significant rains began in the first quarter. The last time it had rained for a major portion of a USC home game was in 2010, against Notre Dame. This is the 17th such game in USC history. … USC's eight-game winning streak is the longest since a 12-game streak that spanned parts of 2008 and 2009. … USC completed its first perfect home record since 2008. … Quarterback Sam Darnold has thrown multiple touchdown passes in eight straight games, the longest USC streak since 2014. … Notre Dame's 18-point loss was its largest since a 49-14 loss to USC in 2014.

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand