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USC's upset bid fails in loss to Notre Dame with coach Clay Helton’s job on line

USC's upset bid fails in loss to Notre Dame with coach Clay Helton’s job on line
USC running back Vavae Malepeai scores a touchdown against Notre Dame. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

As Clay Helton walked off the Coliseum field for what could have been the last time, fans serenaded him with boos and chants of “Fire Helton.” USC’s headstrong head coach responded by holding up the Trojans’ trademark “V” for victory after a third straight defeat, the act of a man who believes he will be fighting on beyond this turbulent season.

Helton’s boss, athletic director Lynn Swann, had already made his way up the tunnel Saturday night after USC’s 24-17 loss to No. 3 Notre Dame, a result that meant the Trojans would finish at 5-7 with their first losing season since 2000.

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That offseason, USC fired head coach Paul Hackett and hired Pete Carroll, launching the program’s modern glory era.

Many USC fans were looking for a similar turn of fortune well before Saturday night’s latest second-half struggle, and one group of Trojans was so devoted to expressing a desire for change that they pooled their money this week to pay for a plane to fly over the Coliseum with a message for Swann.

There it was Saturday afternoon, as the Trojans entered the Coliseum, a place where they had a 19-game winning streak recently snapped. The message said, simply:

“LYNN SWANN - PLEASE FIRE CLAY HELTON!”

Several reporters tweeted after the game that Swann told them he has a plan for what he will do with Helton and that he would issue a news release “soon.” It was less than a year ago that Swann extended Helton’s contract after he led the Trojans to their first Pac-12 championship since 2008.

Helton said that he expected Swann to release a statement with his intentions for the program’s future but spoke — as he has throughout the last month, with unseemly losses piling up — as if he fully expects to be back.

Helton said Swann told him after the game, “Coach, there are better days ahead.”

“USC is about championships, it deserves championships,” Helton said, “and we did not do that. Just fact of the matter, this year we didn’t get the job done. It doesn’t mean that we can’t. I know and believe in the guys that are in that locker room that we’re going to get back and create a disciplined football team that executes at the highest level. We can compete with anybody in the country with the men that are in that locker room, as evidenced by tonight.

“I think we’re all frustrated. 5-7 is not what USC is about. Losing close ballgames is not what we’re about, and it will be my task moving forward to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

On Saturday, for the third straight week, the Trojans’ offense with Helton calling the plays looked competent and well-coached in the first half before flatlining in the second as the opposing defense got more looks at USC’s plan.

Freshman quarterback JT Daniels completed 18 of his first 19 passes for 159 yards, as the Trojans negated the Notre Dame pass rush with an array of crisp short completions. USC’s talent at wide receiver was on full display with Tyler Vaughns, Michael Pittman Jr. and Amon-ra St. Brown moving the chains, and the Trojans jumped out to a 10-0 lead.

Notre Dame trailed for the first time this season by double digits, but it could have been much worse for the Fighting Irish if not for fumbles by Pittman and St. Brown killing promising USC movement into Notre Dame territory. A 10-7 halftime deficit felt like a victory for the Irish, who improved to 12-0 and will play in the College Football Playoff next month.

In the second half, the usual offensive penalties came at the worst times. Notre Dame’s defense adjusted with more players in pass coverage. USC failed to adjust and found itself down 24-10, wasting a heroic effort by an undermanned defense.

Daniels’ late touchdown pass to Vaughns was the first USC touchdown in the second half since the win at Oregon State on Nov. 3, but it was just a tease of what might have been by that point.

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If Helton is not retained, it will be because the offense he decided to pilot — he took play-calling duties from offensive coordinator Tee Martin on Oct. 29 — could not finish what it started against California, UCLA or Notre Dame.

“It’s my responsibility to make sure the penalties go down,” Helton said. “We had eight again tonight for 71 yards in a lot of critical situations. You feel good about moving the ball 450 yards, but at the end of the day, it’s about scoring points.”

USC will unveil a renovated Coliseum in the 2019 season-opener against Fres-no State. Between now and then, the football program will undergo its own renovation inside the McKay Center. Will Helton be directing that project with Swann offering his continued support, or will Swann bring in a new steward for one of the nation’s premier programs?

“I’m going to sit back and let it soak in a little bit,” Helton said. “Everybody I know will want immediate changes. Tomorrow starts the first day of recruiting, and I have an opportunity to sit down with Mr. Swann and discuss everything we need to get moving forward, and it’s a bunch.

“We’ve got a big task ahead of us, and the changes will be made that need to be made from a culture standpoint, from a discipline standpoint, a personnel standpoint and a staff standpoint if needed. And that’s my job. We’ll put it all together and get moving.”

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