Five or six plays. As USC coach Clay Helton sees it, that is all that separate his 3-2 Trojans from being the title-contending team he still believes they can be.
That message might not sit well with a passionate portion of USC’s fan base, which took to sharpening its usual pitchforks after the Trojans stumbled again on the road. But that’s the message the embattled coach will take into the upcoming bye week, a break that Helton said “couldn’t come at a better time for us” following a mistake-laden 28-14 loss to Washington on Saturday.
On Sunday, in his weekly teleconference, Helton remained steadfast in his belief that his Trojans are still on the right track. When asked about his strategy for the bye week, he made it clear that he saw no need for sweeping adjustments or wholesale changes with a game against No. 9 Notre Dame looming Oct. 12 in South Bend, Ind.
“I still believe in this team wholeheartedly,” Helton said. “They play hard. They play with a lot of heart.”
In fact, as Helton boarded the team plane on the way back to Los Angeles on Saturday night, he said he felt “even more confident that this is a team that can win the conference.”
In a muddled Pacific-12 Conference picture, it might not be out of the question. Five weeks into the season, every team in the conference has suffered at least one loss.
By virtue of its upset victory over Utah on Sept. 20, USC owns the tiebreaker over the Utes, who were the overwhelming preseason favorites in the South Division. Colorado and Arizona are atop the South but only 1-0 in the conference, while Arizona State, which already has four wins, already has one Pac-12 loss like USC.
In reality, there’s a ton of time left for USC to find its place in the conference championship picture, for better or worse. After Notre Dame, USC faces off with both of the South’s leaders, Arizona and Colorado, each of which it will need to beat to stay in that race. A stretch against No. 13 Oregon, No. 20 Arizona State and Cal follows after that, with the latter two games coming on the road.
As Saturday reminded, the road has not treated the Trojans very kindly under Helton. In nearly five years as coach, Helton is a dismal 12-16 away from the Coliseum. With his job on the line in the coming months, it will be up to him to iron out those road issues before that defining stretch in mid-November.
Turnovers might be a smart place to start. With a turnover margin of minus-seven, only four other Football Bowl Subdivision teams have been worse through five weeks.
On Saturday, it cost the Trojans any chance of an upset in Seattle, as quarterback Matt Fink threw three interceptions, the most crucial of which came in the red zone. In USC’s other loss this season, Kedon Slovis also threw three picks, the last of which lost the game in overtime.
“These are guys that are getting their first experience and growing from it,” Helton said. “We’ve got some very talented quarterbacks, kids we believe in, who we trust, who we’ll continue to trust. But they’re learning.”
Whether they will learn fast enough to save USC’s season — and Helton’s job — remains to be seen. But with the bye week ahead, the Trojans have time to look at themselves in the mirror.
Their coach still sees a Pac-12 contender.
“We have seven weeks in a row [after the bye],” Helton said, “and [we] have the opportunity to do something special down the stretch here.”
Kedon Slovis still uncertain
The hope is that Slovis, a freshman, will be cleared from the concussion protocol in time to return for USC’s post-bye game at Notre Dame. But on Sunday, Helton still had no update on Slovis’ status.
“Right now,” he said, “he is not medically cleared.”
Slovis missed USC’s loss to Washington and most of its win over Utah after his head slammed into the ground early in the game. He traveled with the team to Seattle on Saturday but dressed only in his jersey and a white baseball cap.
An update from Helton is expected Tuesday night, when USC returns to practice.