Column: So far it’s a bad deal for USC after a 27-10 loss to Stanford

Coach Clay Helton reacts after the Trojans turned the ball over on downs to the Cardinal late in the game.

Coach Clay Helton reacts after the Trojans turned the ball over on downs to the Cardinal late in the game.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

It was an infamous question that once went both ways in this rivalry, a question exchanged at midfield by coaching greats Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh, a question that was actually a statement.

“What’s your deal?”

Seven years later, on the second dull and dispiriting Saturday in three weeks for USC, the rivalry was renewed, and so was the question, but it was directed only one way, and there nothing rhetorical about it.

Trojans, seriously, what is your deal?

How can such an athletically gifted team look so confused and sloppy in a 27-10 loss to seventh-ranked-but-beatable Stanford?


How can so much talent seem so lost? How can so much passion be so continually stunted and squelched?

The score said Stanford, the statistics said Stanford, but the eyes say these teams should have been on equal footing, except USC kept tripping and slipping and losing its grip on both the night and the season.

“If we don’t play disciplined with this talent, this talent is going to waste,” running back Justin Davis said ominously afterward.

In front of a Stanford Stadium crowd that swiftly quieted a usually loud USC contingent, the Trojans were marred by blown defensive assignments, strange play calling, dumb penalties and, yeah, you’ve heard all this before.

This wasn’t as bad as the season-opening 52-6 loss to Alabama, but in two games against top-10 teams this season, the Trojans have scored exactly one touchdown.

With a 1-2 record, the Trojans still have nine games left, but at this rate, they might be favored in fewer than half of those games, an almost indescribable plunge from that day in 2009 when Carroll and Harbaugh stole the headlines.

“I was proud of the kids, the way they competed,” Trojans Coach Clay Helton claimed afterward. “They compete like that, we clean up the errors, we will be a good football team.”

Hard to blame the coach for refusing to publicly bury his assistant coaches or kids, but . . . huh?

The Trojans’ “deal” is squarely Helton’s “deal,” and right now, it’s not a deal that anybody is buying.

Since being named permanent head coach after the end of the 2015 regular season — this columnist pushed for the move — Helton is 1-4. He has lost twice to Stanford, once to Alabama and once to Wisconsin, and his lone win during that time was against Utah State. His overall record since being named interim coach is 6-6.

Before this game, he said of Stanford, “They are what we try to be.” Yet even though the Trojans were outgained by only 51 yards and actually had just as many first downs, they weren’t even close.

“That’s the biggest thing, eliminating errors that are killing us,” Helton said, after his team continually made the sort of errors that Stanford rarely makes.

It was USC that gave up the game’s first touchdown on a 56-yard pass play to the one player who should never be left alone. Yes, Christian McCaffrey was somehow forgotten at the 30-yard line — how in the name of Heisman does that happen? — and he caught the throw from Ryan Burns and strolled untouched to the house.

It was also USC that gave up another touchdown on a slow-emerging reverse to Michael Rector that resulted in a 56-yard run during which he was touched once. It was as if everyone in Stanford Stadium saw it happening except USC, which has been lost a lot in this young season.

It was USC that came back from a 17-3 deficit to close the gap with a rousing touchdown drive at the start of the second half that included six runs and three passes. But then on the Trojans’ next drive, they inexplicably threw three passes and punted, giving Stanford a chance to make the big play with Rector and take a 27-10 lead that put the game away.

“They bent at times but didn’t break,” USC quarterback Max Browne said of the far more disciplined Stanford defense.

The USC offense, however, did little to make that defense break. All night the Trojans killed the momentum of powerful runs with short passes, and then, faced with third-and-long situations, they would inexplicably run. Tee Martin, the rookie play caller, will deservedly take much heat for this. But perhaps the most egregious and downright strange call was the responsibility of Helton.

In the fourth quarter, facing fourth and six at the Stanford 44-yard line and trailing 27-10, USC punted. That’s right, needing the ball and needing time, the Trojans gave the ball back to the most clock-killing offense in college football. The Trojans eventually regained possession but had only eight snaps the rest of the game.

“I thought it was good to pin them deep,” Helton said of the punt that put Stanford back to its eight-yard line, from where the Cardinal ran nearly five minutes off the clock.

And, oh yeah, it was USC that committed more than twice as many penalties as Stanford with eight infractions, including an amazing six false-start penalties in a quaint stadium that wasn’t even full and was rarely loud.

So what now?

Even though Browne was 18 for 28 for 191 yards with no interceptions — this wasn’t his fault — maybe it’s time for the Trojans to give more playing time to Sam Darnold. Even though the redshirt freshman threw a late interception, he was five for seven for 45 yards and has more mobility than Browne, providing more weapons to make things happen.

The Trojans also need to examine an offensive game plan that seems inconsistent and unsettled. After three games, who are they? They say they want to run, but they don’t stick to the run. They have a great receiver in JuJu Smith-Schuster, but on Saturday he caught only three balls. Somebody needs to figure out an attack and implement it, because right now, nothing makes sense.

What’s the Trojans’ deal? Who knows? But after three games, it’s a tough sell.

Twitter: @BillPlaschke