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USC Sports

Column: UCLA sticks it to rival USC by losing, which will delay Clay Helton’s departure

USC coach Clay Helton leads his team out of the tunnel before Saturday’s 52-35 win over UCLA at the Coliseum.
USC coach Clay Helton leads his team out of the tunnel before Saturday’s 52-35 win over UCLA at the Coliseum.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

If Clay Helton has to go, which he absolutely does, then UCLA really stuck it to USC on Saturday.

By losing.

There was nothing UCLA could have done to inconvenience USC more than to stink up the Coliseum the way it did in a 52-35 defeat.

By permitting freshman Kedon Slovis to pass for a Trojans game-record 515 yards, by allowing four of his targets to register more than 100 yards receiving and by preserving USC’s status as a Rose Bowl possibility, the Bruins delayed Helton’s departure.

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Heck, UCLA might have even nudged USC closer to retaining the under-fire Helton for another season, in which case this loss would mark the crowning achievement of Chip Kelly’s two underwhelming seasons in Westwood.

At the very least, the firing of Helton that once appeared inevitable will be an awkward exercise for new athletic director Mike Bohn.

This is what happens when a rivalry consists of two programs headed nowhere. Sometimes, the most damage one university can inflict on the other is by gifting it the curse of victory. Victories like this impede progress.

During the week, Bohn told The Times’ Ryan Kartje that he would refrain from making a decision on Helton’s future until doing so wouldn’t “do anything to jeopardize momentum or opportunities that exist.”

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The opportunities Bohn referenced presumably include a Pac-12 Conference South title, for which the Trojans remain in contention.

Barely.

For USC to win the division, No. 7 Utah will have to drop its regular-season finale to Colorado, which entered the weekend 2-5 in the Pac-12 and 4-6 overall.

And what if the unthinkable happens and the Utes are upset by the Buffaloes?

Ryan Day has checked all the boxes so far when it comes to proving Ohio State is worthy of a College Football Playoff berth.

USC would take on Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game. With Arizona State demonstrating Saturday night that Oregon isn’t unbeatable, it’s entirely conceivable that the Trojans could take down the Ducks and reach the Rose Bowl for the second time in four years under Helton.

As it is, the Trojans have won five of their last six games and are No. 23 in the College Football Playoff rankings. Voices backing Helton have started to emerge. If firing Helton would be difficult now, it would be considerably even more so if USC plays in another Rose Bowl and finishes in the top 15 nationally.

Helton, who started the season a dead man walking, wouldn’t comment on how much more difficult the Trojans made it for Bohn to dismiss him.

“I want us to all remember, it’s about our kids,” he said. “It’s not about me, it’s not about our coaching staff, it’s about our student-athletes and what they’re able to accomplish and what they’re able to do. I couldn’t be more proud of a bunch that just stayed focused, stayed consistent. We asked them to finish strong, and these kids came out and battled down the stretch and really put their best foot forward.”

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Helton made the same point his supporters are making, which is that the players continued to fight after a deflating 3-3 start.

But the team’s late-season surge didn’t change the program’s long-term outlook under Helton.

Particularly troublesome were the patches of empty seats around the Coliseum in the single-most significant event of the season, which USC literally can’t afford considering the university spent $315 million renovating the stadium.

The lack of interest reflects the inability to contend for national championships, which is what USC has to do to be a major player in this congested market. And that doesn’t look as if it will happen anytime soon, as the Trojans are in a recruiting slump.

Clay Helton provided stability when the USC football program needed it but it’s become clear he is no longer the right coach for the Trojans.

The win over UCLA won’t help. If the Trojans had lost, Bohn could have parted ways with Helton during the team’s upcoming open week.

Now it appears Helton is safe until at least Nov. 30, when Utah hosts Colorado.

None of this would have mattered a few years ago. But there is now an early signing period, which opens Dec. 18.

USC’s 2020 recruiting class is 76th in the nation, according to 247Sports’ composite rankings. The longer the Trojans take to figure out their coaching situation, the more likely they are to drop further down the recruiting rankings.

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Of course, this situation was entirely avoidable. When Dave Roberts was interim athletic director, he could have sacked Helton after an embarrassing loss to Oregon this month. Or Bohn’s predecessor, Lynn Swann, could have fired Helton after last season.

The outcome of the game Saturday eliminated the possibility of UCLA playing in a bowl game. But Kelly might have inadvertently treated Bruins fans to something better than an appearance in the Redbox Bowl. They can instead delight in watching their crosstown rivals try to squirm out of a Coliseum-sized mess.


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