A game that USC led by two scores turned into the latest embarrassment for a proud program that now clearly has nowhere to go but up. Clay Helton will focus all of the sunshine he has in his big heart on seeking that trajectory, but after this 37-14 beatdown at the hands of the Texas Longhorns, his team’s season is sure to become a weekly referendum on his and his staff’s long-term ability to match elite talent with elite performance.
Saturday night was ugly. A hundred thousand people saw it live here at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. Many more tuned in across the country but probably found another game to watch after the Longhorns blew the game open in the third quarter on a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown.
“We’ve just got to execute better, in all three phases,” Helton said. “It’s going to be all of us, doing it together, coaches, players, as a family, as a brotherhood. We can’t feel sorry for ourself right now. We’ve got a conference game coming up, and it’s a very important one for us.”
If you’re up for a challenge this week, try getting a Trojans fan excited for Friday night’s conference home opener against Washington State with USC, 1-2 overall and 0-1 in the Pac-12, reduced once again to simply hoping it can pick up the pieces for another run through a soft South division.
Good vibes were up for grabs entering this showdown between power programs that have all the advantages but have not been routinely enjoying them.
Texas hasn’t won the Big 12 since 2009 and lost to a suspect Maryland team in its opener. USC was coming off a clunker at Stanford that could be written off as the inevitable learning moment for freshman quarterback JT Daniels. The winner would feel much better heading into the meat of its season and trumpet major improvement. Still, there was way more to lose than gain Saturday.
USC lost big, with Texas going on an unthinkable 34-0 run that exposed some truths about where Helton’s program sits three games into Year 3.
Asked why so many of his players are not playing well, Helton went searching for something positive to say before getting to the heart of the matter.
“I watched Marvell Tell literally not come off the field at the end,” Helton said. “That’s what gives you hope. When you see your kids just fighting until the last second … No. 7 wouldn’t even come off. I thought he was just a warrior. There are a lot of guys playing a lot of good ball out there. We’re just not doing it all together, and that’s my job. It’s mine, it’s my responsibility, so put it on me.”
Helton is the only USC coach to win 10 or more games in each of his first two seasons. His Trojans are the defending Pac-12 champions, which helped him earn a contract extension this offseason. But something is off. As the team’s permanent head coach, Helton is now 0-6 in games against Power Five opponents without Sam Darnold as his quarterback.
He has excelled at winning games that USC should win, but Saturday was his first loss as a ranked team playing an unranked team.
The list of deflating blowouts to big-name opponents is getting too long to recount. Maybe this one felt worse because the Trojans looked like they were ready to rout the Longhorns early, taking a 14-3 lead behind an offense that finally looked like what a USC offense is supposed to look like. Daniels was on target and seemed like he had already forgotten his Stanford disappointment.
“I was well prepared for this game,” Daniels said.
The predicted rain never came Saturday night, but the Longhorns brought their own torrential storm on the Trojans. It began when USC, leading 14-13 in the second quarter, was stuffed on fourth-and-goal from the 1 because of what Helton said was a miscommunication that left running back Stephen Carr without cover. So many times, the Trojans could have gotten back on track but bumbled their way off course.
USC’s special teams were the top culprit with a personal foul for roughing the punter and six punts that averaged 31 yards, setting up the Longhorns with prime field position all night. And of course, there was the blocked 49-yard field goal attempt that not only was returned for a touchdown to give Texas a 30-14 lead but also injured USC kicker Chase McGrath’s knee. Helton said they fear it’s a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
Texas entered the game ranked 90th in rush defense but held the Trojans to 16 carries for minus-5 yards, despite a 23-yard run by Carr for the game’s first touchdown. As the game went on, that put too much on Daniels’ shoulders. Daniels finished 30 of 48 for 322 yards and an interception.