After the first two games of his first season as USC’s offensive coordinator, Graham Harrell stood in front of reporters gathered in the Coliseum tunnel, ready and willing to answer any question.
On Saturday afternoon, as anger and doubt began to swirl around the program in the wake of a 30-27 loss at Brigham Young, Harrell was entirely absent from postgame proceedings.
That left Clay Helton to answer for USC’s questionable play selection, a subject on which many USC fans are still sensitive when it comes to the Trojans head coach.
As the fanbase seethed in the aftermath of the overtime defeat, rumors flew that Helton himself had taken over the team’s play-calling in the extra period. On Sunday, Helton defended his offensive coordinator’s performance, while reiterating that Harrell “is making all the calls.”
“I thought Graham called a good game,” Helton said. “You could always go hindsight after the game. But I thought Graham, for what everyone said is Air Raid, did a wonderful job staying disciplined while the defense is dropping eight.”
As the Trojans got the ball back in overtime, trailing by a field goal, running back Vavae Malepeai lost a yard on first down. On the next play, Malepeai took the handoff again, rushing for five yards.
The decision to run on those downs was roundly questioned after the game, considering the result of the next play — Kedon Slovis’ pass was tipped, then intercepted to end the game.
Helton twice defended those decisions since.
“Graham called the plays based on what he felt was going on in the game,” he said Sunday. “We felt like we were running the ball pretty good. We end up getting the first-down run, where we actually had a little bit of a hole and just missed it. We’re sitting there, second and 10, second and 11, and I thought it was a good call by Graham to get third and manageable. …
“That gave us a good opportunity to have a third and manageable rather than a possible third and long, to keep us in great field-goal range. He called a third-down spacing play that we did have, if you go through the read correctly, there is a man open.”
But Slovis missed him and, suddenly, for the first time since Harrell’s hiring, questions about USC’s offensive game plan lingered.
Of course, it was hardly the only question coming out of Saturday’s demoralizing loss. Helton pointed to “growing pains” associated with USC’s youth as a primary reason for its multitude of mistakes. He noted on Sunday that four bad plays by young players accounted for 150 yards of offense for BYU.
“It’s something that we’ll live and learn from and grow from,” Helton said.
But as the Trojans prepare to face down a gantlet in the next four weeks, beginning with No. 10 Utah this Friday, and continuing with No. 22 Washington and No. 7 Notre Dame soon after, the Trojans — and their head coach — might not have much time left to find answers.
With one of the nation’s best defenses looming in a few days, Helton said, “it’s not a lot of time to feel sorry for yourself. That’s what everyone was saying in [the locker room]. ‘Hey, it’s one game, we’ve got to correct it and move on.’ We plan on doing big things this season and it’s early in the season.”
Senior defensive end Christian Rector was “close coming into [Saturday’s] game, but just not close enough,” Helton said. As for Friday, Helton believes Rector is “pretty close” to returning against Utah. … Nickel cornerback Greg Johnson left Saturday’s game and did not return, but Helton had no update on his status. ... Utah running back Zach Moss, who’s tied for eighth in the nation in rushing, told reporters that Utah would add to the “good, little wound” received in USC’s loss to BYU.