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Column: Clay Helton’s coaching hopes take hit but a Pac-12 title might be salvation

Oregon debacle shows USC can’t have Clay Helton as football coach next season

Oregon running back Kani Benoit celebrates after catching a touchdown pass against USC in the first half.

(Steve Dykes / Getty Images)

There is only one problem in attempting to write what needs to be written after Oregon eviscerated USC, 48-28, on Saturday at Autzen Stadium.

There is a hitch in declaring what needs to be declared: that interim Coach Clay Helton, as nice as he is, and as well as he has handled a tough situation, cannot be USC’s coach moving too far forward.

Those were the ground rules, right? Helton got a free pass for the Notre Dame defeat because that was the week he took over a Jerry Springer episode after Steve Sarkisian’s four-alarm firing.

It was understood from that point, to those who handicap these guesses, that his only path to permanent USC citizenship was winning the rest of his games.

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A four-game victory streak, however, was blown asunder in Eugene, a calamity for which there was no sugar-coating.

The U-haul truck should be, but can’t, be backed up to Heritage Hall just yet.

A small sticking point remains in claiming, in no uncertain turns, that Helton must go along with his defensive coordinator

It seemed clear by halftime, maybe before, that the USC defense coached by Justin Wilcox is no more ready to defend Pac-12 Conference defenses than the defense coached by Monte Kiffin.

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All you had to do was watch defensive backs break one way while Oregon quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. threw the other for long, gorgeous, easy touchdowns.

“Blown assignments,” is what USC junior linebacker Scott Felix called them.

The evidence demands that whoever hires the Trojans’ next coach must immediately un-crumple his list of potential candidates now. And then start reaching out, at least mentally, in alphabetical order.

That’s not as easy as it sounds, with candidates who sounded great a couple of weeks ago — Kyle Whittingham (Utah), Justin Fuente (Memphis), Tom Herman (Houston) — all losing Saturday.

What interim coach and his sidekick defensive coordinator, though, at a place like USC, can justify giving up 48 points and 578 yards to Oregon?

The last USC coach who led this kind of dumpster fire, Lane Kiffin at Arizona State in 2013, was fired when the team plane landed.

That was the night USC gave up a fire-worthy, intolerable, 612 yards.

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Never mind what a slithery sleuth USC ran up against in Oregon’s Adams, who passed for 407 yards and six touchdowns.

It was the most touchdown passes given up by USC. Adams had 313 yards passing in the first half. The Trojans then hunkered down, relatively, and refused to let him to set the all-time, single-game record for yards passing against USC.

That mark remains 526 yards and belongs to Notre Dame’s Joe Theismann, in 1970.

Not that anybody at USC was ready to throw a postgame party.

“Obviously unacceptable, disappointing and we’ve got to get it fixed,” Wilcox, an Oregon grad, said of USC’s defensive performance against his alma mater.

The big fly in the ointment of this obviously imminent decision to announce a new USC coach the week before Christmas is this:

USC, for as horrible as it looked in Eugene, can still win the Pac-12 championship in Santa Clara.

The Trojans (7-4) will win the Pac-12 South with a victory over UCLA next week at the Coliseum.

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That would put USC in the title game Dec. 5, with a chance to win one of the toughest leagues in America.

“That’s crazy,” Trojans left tackle Chad Wheeler said. “I never thought that would be possible after losing a game.”

Quarterback Cody Kessler promised the pain of losing to Oregon was a deep as any other defeat.

No one ever likes to admit losing by 20 points at Oregon is no big deal.

“We’re not OK with this,” Kessler said.

That said, on Nov. 21, the team picked to win the Pac-12 South by the media last July, is one game from winning it.

“We really wanted the win, but next week means the most,” tailback Justin Davis, who rushed for 141 yards, said after the defeat.

None of this is going to make angry USC fans any less angry. The outrage over Saturday’s performance is certain to resonate through the corridors of the alumni association.

Yet, all the venom and vitriol has to be temporarily couched as USC prepares for UCLA, a team it has not defeated in four seasons.

It is hard to imagine USC, based on Saturday, reaching that goal and advancing to the Pac-12 title game.

The best news is that UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen, while talented, is more of a pocket passer.

USC won’t have to worry about Rosen doing what Adams did, which was dance, dead-leg and dart while he bought enough time to make USC defenders look silly.

“He’s just a slippery guy,” Felix, the Trojans linebacker, said. “He’s short and fast.”

Adams looked as good as any quarterback has looked this season. He is showing, week by week, what Oregon might have done had he not broken a finger in early September. Oregon has won five games in a row since Adams returned to a 3-3 team. This is no 3-3 team anymore.

“When he’s healthy,” USC safety Chris Hawkins said, “they’re a top-10 team for sure.”

USC is a team that is, for sure, stuck in suspended animation, with an interim coach.

It is a team that deserves to be ripped for looking so unprepared, yet it is also a team that can win a league it was picked to win.

The Trojans’ place in the Pac-12 South is awkward.

Helton can’t stay based on Saturday, but can’t be fired if this suddenly becomes a dream season.

There’s nothing to do now for USC except wait, wonder and be glad this is Adams’ last year of eligibility.


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