The directive came straight from the new athletic director, who would soon decide his fate.
“It’s important to win,” Mike Bohn said, when asked about his expectations for the final stretch of an uneven season of USC football. “I’m not trying to add more pressure to him or the student athletes that represent him, but we always want to finish strong. Good programs finish strong. The idea is we want to see them and his team finish strong.”
As USC heads into its regular-season finale against UCLA on Saturday, coach Clay Helton and his streaking Trojans (7-4 overall, 6-2 in Pac-12 play) certainly seem to have gotten the message.
Even as so many presumed his firing to be a foregone conclusion, Helton has kept USC within striking distance, albeit barely, of the Pac-12 South race, with a puncher’s chance of slipping into the title game with a victory over UCLA (4-6, 4-3).
Anything short of that may spell an end to Helton’s tenure as the Trojans coach. On Tuesday, Bohn told The Times that no decision on Helton would be made with a timeline “that would do anything to jeopardize momentum or opportunities that exist.”
So while those hopes in the Pac-12 are still intact, Helton plans to hold onto the moment as long as he can.
That means focusing only on what’s in front of him.
“What the future holds, that’s for smarter men than me,” Helton said. “My job is to go out there, compete like hell against UCLA, try to get the Victory Bell back on campus, and worry about the moment.”
At UCLA, the moment — and the future, for that matter — aren’t much more optimistic. Nearing the end of Chip Kelly’s second season atop the program, the Bruins have exceeded their paltry win total from a year ago, but they still need to beat USC and win next week to earn a bowl bid.
A strong finish like that would present clear evidence of progress, after the Bruins lost five of six to start the season. But Kelly, whose job is presumed safe in spite of a 7-15 record, wasn’t interested this week in discussing the big picture, either.
“There is no big picture the week of a game,” Kelly said. “That’s where I think people get screwed up in life, they start to look too big picture. ... When you look too far down the road, sometimes that can hurt you, so we don’t want to look too far down the road.”
UCLA has enough to worry about in USC quarterback Kedon Slovis, who has torched three of the past four defenses he’s faced for four touchdowns and more than 400 passing yards. The Bruins boast arguably the worst pass defense in the Pac-12, allowing more yards per attempt (9.1) and touchdowns (27) than any other team.
The Trojans will need Slovis to steady the offense, extending drives in hopes of keeping the ball away from Bruins running back Joshua Kelley, who provided them with a year’s worth of nightmare fuel in their meeting last season. Kelley ran for 289 yards in that upset, the second-most yards ever gained by a running back against the Trojans.
As he approaches what could be his final Saturday on the Coliseum sideline, Helton believes he’s seen progress since his USC tenure hit bottom in that rivalry defeat. A new offense, led by Graham Harrell, has found its stride in recent weeks. Young playmakers have begun to emerge. Inconsistencies are finally being ironed out.
But is it too late? His players hope not.
“Decision-makers are going to make the call at the end of the day,” said USC senior linebacker John Houston. “I feel like Helton is a great leader, a great coach, who focuses always on what we can do better as players. He tries to be there when we’re in our highs and lows.”
There have been plenty of highs and lows over the last five years, as Helton took USC to the Rose Bowl in his first full season, before missing a bowl last year. But amid all that uncertainty, Helton has never failed to keep focused on the moment, his players said.
“The man shows up every day ready,” wideout Michael Pittman Jr. said. “I’ve never seen him down, with all the bad stuff that’s written about him constantly, he’s just so upbeat. He never lets anything get him down. He doesn’t let the negativity bleed into what we’ve got going here. He’s always been a strong man.”
And with one more victory, he’ll have a strong finish to bolster his case. But as Helton’s potential final moment at USC approaches, it’s fair to wonder whether it’ll have any bearing on a fate that so many have long assumed to be sealed.