Helton understood that, in the wake of a potentially season-defining victory and with a road trip to Brigham Young ahead, his Trojans were now especially prone to a letdown.
This week’s matchup has all the makings of a classic trap game, with a young team riding high as it takes to the road for the first time. Helton knew he needed to address it right away.
“We won a big game last week, but now a mature team ... puts that last game aside,” he said. “Let’s focus on this game. We’re not here to win one big game. We’re here to have a great season.”
So, in the team’s first meeting after that 45-20 victory, Helton played select clips of practice from the week before.
“This is how you won that game,” he told them. “You won it on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday.”
By the end of the Stanford game, the Trojans’ expectations had undoubtedly shifted. A breakout, 377-yard, three-touchdown performance from Kedon Slovis had rewritten the narrative on USC’s season, renewing hope in a team that a week earlier seemed entirely doomed.
How that team now responds to that sudden shift, starting on Saturday against the Cougars, will go a long way in determining the direction of this USC season.
In the hours after the Stanford game that turned him from lightly recruited backup to new Trojans savior, Slovis was inundated with messages on his phone. It was an immediate reminder of how much his life was about to change. For the most part, he tried to ignore them.
“At this point,” Slovis said, “we have to keep our eyes forward.”
It’s precisely that attitude that gives USC confidence that Slovis can handle the stakes being raised. Coaches have tried to take the pressure off his shoulders, reiterating again this week that he “doesn’t need to be Superman.”
“If you just do the easy things well, spectacular things happen because you have great players around you,” offensive coordinator Graham Harrell told him.
That certainly seemed to be the case last Saturday, as Slovis was far from the only standout on offense. The line mostly dominated in the trenches, keeping Slovis well protected. His receivers exploited the Cardinal’s secondary, giving him open targets.
The circumstances were ideal. Slovis is the first to acknowledge that.
“When the guys do such a great job up front, it’s not really that difficult,” he said. “You’re playing seven-on-seven out there, practically.”
That USC’s offense would operate at such a high level against a normally stout Stanford defense is undoubtedly encouraging. But with just one game of Slovis under center, it’s unclear what might happen when the circumstances are less ideal.
Against BYU, he will face a secondary which, in an admittedly small sample size, has proven formidable. The Cougars, who boasted the nation’s 29th-best pass defense a year ago, have allowed just 282 total passing yards through two weeks, good for 19th in the nation.
It’s on the ground where BYU’s defense has been exploited this season. After two games, only two Football Bowl Subdivision teams (Florida Atlantic and Liberty) have allowed more rushing yards than the Cougars, who’ve been steamrolled for an average of 252 per game. That could mean a big afternoon for the Trojans’ backfield duo of Vavae Malepeai and Stephen Carr, both of whom are averaging more than five yards per carry.
Still, all eyes will be on Slovis and how he reacts in his first hostile road environment. This week, after a nearly mistake-free first start, coaches raved about the strides he’d made in his decision making.
As he competed for the job with eventual starter JT Daniels in the spring and fall, it was that part of Slovis’ profile that had given coaches pause.
“There were a couple of practices I can think of in camp where things broke down and he scrambles and he leaves one in the middle of the field, and it gets intercepted,” Harrell said. “He didn’t do that the other day, and he needs to continue [not doing] that.”