Early last November, with his Trojans sitting at 5-4 and questions swirling over his job security, Clay Helton expressed hope that USC could “stack up little victories” in hopes of staying in a tight Pac-12 South Division race.
“You never know,” the USC coach said then. But USC proceeded to fall apart from there, losing its next three games and finishing below .500 for the first time since 2000.
USC again finds itself in strikingly familiar territory. After an embarrassing 56-24 loss to Oregon, the Trojans are 5-4 this season, on the outside of the Pac-12 race, looking in. Any chance of returning to their perch atop the South Division is going to require a serious stroke of luck.
But again, Helton is holding out hope.
“There’s a lot of football that’s left to be played, and anything can happen,” Helton said. “We have to worry about what we can control.”
What the Trojans don’t control now is their own destiny in the Pac-12 title race. The loss to Oregon gave Utah a one-game lead over USC in the South with three games remaining against UCLA, Colorado and Arizona, who are a combined 11-16 this season.
An upset of Utah by any of those teams would resurrect USC in the division race. But if Utah continues its recent tear, that might be a pipe dream. Since losing at the Coliseum at the start of October, the Utes have won five in a row, while outscoring its Pac-12 opponents 179-51.
“We’ll need a little help,” Helton said Saturday night. “But all we can focus on is doing our job.”
That means regrouping this week for a trip to Tempe, Ariz., where another Pac-12 team in similarly dire straits awaits USC. Arizona State lost two in a row before its bye, but like USC, the Sun Devils still have an outside chance to win the division.
But if last November taught USC anything, it’s that a season can take a wrong turn in an instant. With his job again in jeopardy, Helton is confident that won’t be the case this time around.
“This team has been a team that really bounced back,” Helton said. “I saw after the Notre Dame game what they were able to accomplish. Their mind-set, I thought, was terrific. They’ve done this already a couple times this year.”
USC was still within striking distance Saturday night when Helton sent out his kickoff specialist, Alex Stadthaus, to boot the ball deep with 20 seconds left in the first half.
Oregon’s Mykael Wright caught the kick at the goal line and took off. One hundred yards later, Oregon stole away the rest of USC’s momentum.
Helton explained Sunday that two players, both in the wrong spot, collided to open a lane through which to run. Wright went untouched.
“We’d really held up pretty well as far as kick coverage and not giving up the big play,” Helton said.
The Trojans rank last in the Pac-12 and 124th in the Football Bowl Subdivision in average yards allowed per kickoff return.
Asked if he still has confidence in special teams coach John Baxter, Helton didn’t hesitate.
“I am always confident in John Baxter,” Helton said.
Nickel cornerback Greg Johnson, who left Saturday’s game early, is in the concussion protocol. Johnson was diagnosed with a concussion in September but did not miss any action. … Liam Jimmons, who had impressed coaches in recent weeks with his work as USC’s swing lineman, dislocated his elbow Saturday. Helton said his recovery will “take an extended period of time.” His season is likely over. … Running back Dominic Davis is in the concussion protocol, leaving USC with only two healthy backs on the roster.