As this unhappy season has lurched along and the Trojans’ injuries and disappointments have mounted, as they’ve had to dig down to the subbasement of their depth chart and experience the consequences of playing people in unfamiliar positions, coach Clay Helton adopted a mantra and has stubbornly stuck to it.
The Trojans’ fate, he said every weekend and on many days in between, is in their hands. They control their destiny. Maybe they did, but their command was never sure. And they were on the verge of letting even that tenuous hold slip away until freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis calmly ignited a late comeback against Colorado on Friday that was highlighted by two fourth-quarter touchdown passes to Michael Pittman Jr. USC left Folsom Field with a 35-31 victory and a healthy sense of accomplishment in a season that has afforded them few such jubilant or triumphant moments.
The Trojans’ first road win of the season after three away defeats had players yelling and chanting in the visitors’ locker room and made Helton’s face flush red with victory. This game, this comeback, this effort by a battered defense to hold strong in the second half when the Trojans absolutely needed stops, will resonate for them for a long time and could turn into a springboard toward better things in a season that has had an extraordinary amount of misfortune and medical mishaps.
“College football is hard and the road is hard. And Pac-12 road games are hard,” Helton said. “To be on a Friday night with that type of electricity, that type of environment, we had a bunch of fun out there, I know that. This is something that builds teams and build families and makes you stronger, to be able to overcome those situations. We may be in that same situation later on in the season, and these guys have the confidence now to go get the job done.
“To walk out of here still on top of the Pac-12 South is special.”
They very nearly didn’t walk out of there victorious. Slovis, who started the season as the backup, engineered a 12-play, 89-yard winning drive that began with 6 minutes 16 seconds left in the fourth quarter and was capped by a 37-yard pass to Pittman. “Superman,” Helton said later, patting Pittman affectionately on the shoulder.
The Trojans were banged up, thin especially on defense, and down 31-21 in the fourth quarter. Somehow, they found a way to keep intact an undefeated record at Folsom Field (7-0) and in their series against the Buffaloes (14-0).
It didn’t matter who wasn’t there and suited up Friday. It mattered more who was there and their defiance in the face of defeat. “The men that were in that locker room and dressed went out and played and found a way,” Helton said, “and that’s all you can ask for as a coach, is that type of effort, that type of resiliency.
“That was a great college football game tonight. I could not be any more proud of any man that is in that room. To walk in at halftime one score down and say, ‘Guys, all we’ve got to do is do our job, keep fighting. Take a deep breath, be poised, and you’ll walk away winners.’ Literally those kids just fought and fought and fought all the way to the last second.”
Slovis, who completed 30 of 44 passes for 406 yards and four touchdowns, said no one on the team mentioned the Trojans’ perfect record against the Buffaloes, or that it might be in jeopardy. “You never want to say never done anything, put the word ‘lose’ in their head,” he said. “We knew we could do what we wanted offensively as long as we just executed. And there’s a lot of times we didn’t execute and went three and out or didn’t complete a drive but you saw what happened at the end there.”
There were other good moments too. Former fifth-string tailback Kenan Christon excelled for the second straight week by making his first career touchdown reception and gaining 76 yards rushing in 14 carries. Only four people carried the ball for USC: Christon, wide receiver Amon-ra St. Brown (three carries for 50 yards), Slovis (four carries for minus-6 yards) and Quincy Jountti (two carries for five yards). USC’s receivers carried the main burden, led by Pittman’s seven receptions for 156 yards and two touchdowns. Colorado was battered and bruised on defense too, and USC found ways to chip away at its vulnerable spots.
Fans here didn’t get to see live mascot Ralphie the bison do her traditional run around Folsom Field — concerns for her safety and the safety of her handlers were the reasons — but they thought, until the final minutes, that they’d see something better with a victory by the Buffaloes over the Trojans.
Instead, USC found a way to win, to keep control of its destiny and keep playing for something other than a resolution of Helton’s job status when the university hires a new athletic director. It was fun for Helton and more fun to know his team still can control its short-term future.