Five USC observations: Clay Helton must make Pac-12 title game to keep job
After six emotional weeks, three uneven wins, two turnover-riddled losses, a pair of injured quarterbacks, and one still-scorching hot seat under its head coach, USC is pretty much exactly where we expected it might be midway through a make-or-break season.
That doesn’t mean it’s been a smooth ride getting here. USC’s starting quarterback tore his anterior cruciate ligament two quarters into the season. The athletic director, Lynn Swann, resigned after Week 2.
A devastating overtime loss to BYU in Week 3 was redeemed by a Week 4 upset over Utah, only to have that goodwill squandered a week later in Seattle. All the while, questions about the future of USC’s embattled head coach continue to linger.
But through the gantlet of this season’s slate, the Trojans, at 3-2, remain within striking distance of a Pac-12 title-game appearance. Even as sentiment surrounding the program grows ever more toxic, USC still has plenty of time to make something out of this season.
Whether it’s capable is another question entirely. With the bulk of the schedule still remaining, we still have plenty to learn about what the future holds for Clay Helton and USC football. But after five games, here are five things we think we already know:
1. Losing two quarterbacks makes matters difficult
As JT Daniels clutched at his injured knee on the Coliseum turf, late in the first half of the season opener, you’d be forgiven for thinking USC was done then and there. A torn ACL for your top quarterback can easily be a season-dooming prognosis. At the very least, it puts a new offense in a precarious position, forcing it to adjust on the fly.
For USC, it meant entrusting its offense to an inexperienced, unheralded freshman in Kedon Slovis, whose only other Pac-12 offer a year ago was from Oregon State. But Slovis stepped right in, stomping Stanford a week later.
That dominance made it easy to forget that he’s still a freshman, and the next week, USC felt those growing pains, as Slovis threw three interceptions in an overtime loss at BYU. A week after that, Slovis, too, was hurt, leaving USC with even more dire circumstances under center.
USC came into the season with a young secondary that figured to have growing pains but also show a lot of promise. That’s exactly what has happened.
Still, behind their third-string quarterback, the Trojans prevailed over a top-10 Utah team. Showing no fear, Matt Fink took chance after chance throwing downfield. Against the odds, most of those shots connected. A week later, the same shots predictably backfired.
But such is life when you’re down to your last scholarship quarterback. It’s really difficult to find a rhythm when your conductor has changed three times in five weeks. As we consider where USC’s offense stands at the midway point, it’s important to keep that quarterback context in mind.
2. USC’s young secondary is ahead of schedule
When Helton was asked to name his biggest concern before the season, he didn’t hesitate. USC’s young secondary, with three inexperienced corners atop the depth chart, was going to have its share of growing pains, he said.
Few probably expected that six weeks later that same secondary would be one of the bright spots of USC’s season. Sophomore cornerback Olaijah Griffin has allowed just five catches on 16 targets this season, while breaking up six passes, good for third-most in the Pac-12. Freshman Chris Steele wasn’t a starter at the beginning of the season, but has forced his way into a role with his play. And Isaac Taylor-Stuart, a redshirt freshman, has also been solid, giving USC a trio of potential shutdown corners to develop.
At safety, however, the Trojans already have a star. Ball-hawking sophomore Talanoa Hufanga has established himself early on as one of the Pac-12’s premier players — and perhaps one of the best safeties in college football. His 10 1/2 tackles per game are the second-most among defensive backs in the nation.
3. More explosive plays, fewer turnovers
If you’re searching for the worst in USC’s season so far, turnovers are the obvious place to start. Through five games, the Trojans rank 121st in the nation in turnover margin, with 13 giveaways to just six takeaways (minus-seven total). Even UCLA, as hapless as it has been on both sides of the ball, sits at minus-two.
Turnovers were at the crux of losses in Seattle and in Provo, as Matt Fink and Slovis each had three passes intercepted. Two of those six interceptions came in critical junctures in the game, from which the Trojans never recovered.
It’s not hard to see how a cascade of turnovers might sink a fragile offense, especially one with such little margin for error. We’ve seen it come to fruition twice — and nearly a third time, as USC turned the ball over four times but held on against Fresno State.
But that penchant for turnovers shouldn’t dissuade the Trojans from trying to stretch the field. Graham Harrell’s Air Raid offense has been at its best when it’s able to manufacture explosive plays in the passing game.
USC has 24 plays of 20-plus yards this season, tied with Stanford for ninth in the conference. But when the Trojans can conjure up explosive plays, it makes a difference. Against Utah and Stanford, its two best offensive showings, USC combined for 15 plays of 20-plus yards, compared to just nine combined in the other three.
4. Michael Pittman Jr. is USC’s midseason MVP
Look no further than his show-stopping performance against Utah, in which the senior wideout soared into the air for a deep ball, shook off a defensive back as he came down with it, then sprinted 77 yards for a touchdown. It was kind of play in a 10-catch, 232-yard performance that should draw the attention of NFL scouts next spring.
In an offense in search of consistency, Pittman has consistently been a godsend. He’s one of just 13 receivers in the nation averaging more than 100 yards per game. Even as Washington bracketed him in double coverage two weeks ago, Pittman still managed to reel in a touchdown and 64 yards.
USC has suggested it may spread out the ball more in the weeks to come, as its young wideouts find their groove. But considering what Pittman has shown over the first five weeks, it’s not the worst idea just to get him the ball as much as possible.
5. A Pac-12 championship appearance is a must, if Helton has hope of staying on as coach
For so many, this USC season has been seen only through the scope of Helton’s job status, and unless the Trojans go on a tear through the season’s second half, starting with a road win over Notre Dame this week, it’s hard to imagine the narrative shifting anytime soon.
But what if the Trojans find their way to the Pac-12 title game? What if they win? Since the start of last season, USC is just 8-9. Its fan base is despondent. Its issues on the recruiting trail are real. So would a Rose Bowl be enough to forgive and forget?
We don’t know just yet. But at this point, all signs point to it taking at least that for Helton to stay on as coach past this season.
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