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Clay Helton and USC hope to escape their troubles for one night against Oregon State

Clay Helton and USC hope to escape their troubles for one night against Oregon State
USC football coach Clay Helton left, and offensive coordinator Tee Martin, right, at the practice field on the USC campus. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

When things are going well for a college football program, its news value is contained to what happens on Saturdays. Even after a loss, the three or four plays that cost the team a game are dissected to a fine level until the attention naturally turns to the next weekend’s chance at swift redemption.

In the days that passed after N’Keal Harry’s 92-yard punt return sent USC to its fourth loss of the season, though, the Trojans fell into uncomfortable territory. Something had to change. Clay Helton could not deny it to himself anymore. That meant that his program spent a week being talked about for all the wrong reasons.

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The fodder out of USC was juicy enough to break through the noise of a city reeling from Dodgers heartbreak and an uneasy start to a Lakers season that seemed destined for more. The uber-loyal Helton fired his offensive line coach, Neil Callaway, a man who is like family. He took over play-calling duties from his “right-hand man,” offensive coordinator Tee Martin.

These were tough, hurtful conversations. No public spin could hide that. And to top it off, Helton’s boss, USC athletic director Lynn Swann, took to the airwaves to give his coach the dreaded vote of confidence. While Swann was extremely complimentary of Helton and said he stands “solidly behind” him, the fact that Swann felt he had to address Helton’s job security at all said just as much about how 2018 has gone for the Trojans.

But, through all the drama, Helton and his players could hold onto this: Another football game would be played Saturday night in Corvallis against Oregon State.

Outside the walls of the McKay Center, people may have stopped caring about this season and started creating their head coaching wish lists. Inside, it was another matter. A group of USC’s seniors had come to Helton early in the week with a proclamation: Unlike in past years, when the Trojans practiced a “no pads November,” the team’s leaders wanted to stay in full pads on Tuesdays the rest of the year. That spoke volumes to Helton, and it helped to give the coach an extra pep in his step when he really needed it.

“I was so proud of them,” Helton said. “They came to me and said, ‘Coach, we’d really like to have a sense of urgency and put the pads on and keep on grinding.’ So we did. I’ve always listened to my team and what they need. To watch their Tuesday practice, which was a very physical, very competitive practice, hopefully that pays off this Saturday.”

Helton has a 7-0 record in November as USC’s permanent head coach the last two seasons. Moving that record to 11-0 or 10-1 this month would go a long way toward giving him at least one more season to return the Trojans to the nation’s elite. Helton is putting more on his shoulders as the team’s primary play-caller — a role he has not performed since he was interim head coach in 2015 — but he can’t do this without seniors like Cameron Smith and Marvell Tell still fully buying in and holding the younger players accountable.

Smith and Tell are expected to play Saturday, returning from injuries that kept them out three games and one game, respectively. Helton was so impressed by their effort in practice that he showed the entire team clips of their repetitions.

“Today’s November 1st,” Helton said Thursday. “Kind of separates the men from the boys in November. There’s no time to be tired. The season is a grind, and when you hit Game 9, 10, 11, 12, bowl games, it becomes a grind. And I’ve really appreciated those older kids showing the younger guys, hey, this is how we work. This is how we win in November.”

USC has three games it should win on paper — at Oregon State, California and at UCLA — before undefeated Notre Dame comes to town Thanksgiving weekend. If the Trojans can take care of business leading into the game against the Fighting Irish, the talk around town may shift back toward actual football.

But there is much work to be done before then.

“For us, we’ve just got to win,” USC wide receiver Michael Pittman said. “I’ve been feeling the sense of urgency to win, and we haven’t been winning. I feel like we’re going to go turn things around and get rolling. And I feel like we should win out.”

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