Column: Pressure on Clay Helton now that USC has lost JT Daniels to injury

USC coach Clay Helton stands on the sideline during the Trojans' 31-23 victory over Fresno State on Saturday.
(Associated Press)
Share via

An MRI examination on Sunday confirmed what everyone in the Coliseum suspected the previous night.

JT Daniels has a torn anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in his right knee. The sophomore quarterback will miss the remainder of USC’s season.

Coach Clay Helton and his players can say what they want to the contrary, but the truth is their season is also over. Their already-remote chances of realizing their stated ambition of claiming a Pac-12 championship completely vanished the moment Daniels crumpled to the turf in a season-opening victory over Fresno State.


The bleak prognosis points to this being the beginning of the end for Helton, who now has to live with his decision to name a freshman his backup quarterback.

Helton will be counting on 18-year-old Kedon Slovis to save his job.

The embattled coach was saved after a 5-7 season last year by Lynn Swann, who, like Mike Garrett and Pat Haden before him, was appointed athletic director on the basis of a celebrated playing career that figured to make him an effective fundraiser. He was hired not because of his decision-making but in spite of it.

Perhaps Swann is really as resistant to change as he appears. Or maybe turmoil in other parts of the school made this a particularly inconvenient time to make a coaching change.

Whichever the case, Helton can’t expect to be spared again, not with USC playing in a renovated Coliseum.

USC quarterback JT Daniels is out for the season after he tore multiple ligaments in his right knee during the season opener against Fresno State.

Sept. 1, 2019

The 96-year-old stadium was the undisputed star of the 31-23 victory on Saturday night.


USC, which oversaw the makeover, did more than apply a couple of strokes of lipstick to what used to be a pig of a stadium. This pig underwent plastic surgery and had its stomach stapled.

I always associated the venue with the exhibition soccer games I attended as a child, my most vivid memories of the brawls in the stands and the perverse hilarity of watching Mexican fans hurling cups of who-knows-what at a Salvadoran recording artist performing at halftime. I’m sure others have similar memories about Raiders games.

The Coliseum isn’t that place anymore. The place feels different. It feels modern.

Feelings generally don’t have price tags, but this one does: $315 million, the cost of the renovation.

Anyone who calls this version of the Coliseum a war memorial is either incredibly naïve or appallingly disingenuous. With plenty of premium seating and a corporate sponsor, the edifice has become an unmistakable monument to capitalism.

The Coliseum wasn’t modernized as part of a neighborhood beautification project. The point was to increase revenues.

So the Trojans have to win.

Sign up for our free sports newsletter >>


They can’t afford not to, literally. They have tickets sell, a new parking lot to pack. The loss of a starting quarterback, especially one of Daniels’ pedigree, would ordinarily excuse a disappointing season.

But the why doesn’t matter anymore. Losing can’t be tolerated, regardless of the circumstances.

What has to be frustrating for Helton was how in addition to moving the ball well with Daniels at quarterback, the new Air Raid offense was starting to convince the Coliseum audience the team made major changes from last year, even though it avoided replacing its head coach.

That was why the Trojans hired Kliff Kingsbury to run their offense and why they turned to Graham Harrell to after Kingsbury bolted to the NFL after only a month.

Change inspires optimism and optimism sells tickets.

With Daniels injured in the final minute of the first half, Slovis played the remainder of the game. USC’s offensive focus shifted from the air to the ground, in part because the Trojans were leading and in part because Daniels was no longer in the game. Slovis attempted only eight passes.

In the final two minutes, Fresno State was somehow in position to force overtime. An interception in the end zone by Isaiah Pola-Mao preserved the Trojans’ eight-point advantage.

USC coach Clay Helton claps during the third quarter of the Trojans' win over Fresno State on Saturday.
(Getty Images)

The takeaways from the night were that USC has an inexperienced quarterback who might not be ready to run an offense and inexperienced cornerbacks who will have trouble covering opposing receivers.

The shortcomings were magnified by mistakes, the most egregious coming on the first play of the game, when Velus Jones’ 61-yard kickoff return was called back because USC had two players wearing the same number jersey on the field.

“We had a late substitution and the mechanics didn’t go,” Helton said.

There were also four turnovers, including an interception by Slovis in which he looked his age.

“A lot to clean up for us,” Helton conceded.

Helton was also questioned about a failed fourth down attempt in the fourth quarter near midfield, which nearly cost the Trojans their lead.

In other words, they were the same old Trojans.

The school already determined it was unacceptable to have the same old team playing in the same old stadium. So something was done about the stadium. Fair or not, the coach could be next.