When the decision was made and months of festering fan frustration came to a head at the start of December, USC tried its best to tiptoe around the fallout.
The conclusion of the Trojans’ coaching saga came largely as a relief to the players, so many of whom had been caught up in the speculative crossfire. Now, with Clay Helton set to return next season as coach, No. 22 USC was ready to move forward, to focus solely on the Holiday Bowl and finishing strong against a ranked opponent in No. 16 Iowa.
Maybe then, with a sixth win in its last seven games, the healing of a fractured football program could finally begin on its own.
As USC finishes out its season on Friday, that healing process remains in its infant stages. Frustrated fans continue to make their voices heard on social media. Discourse around the program continues to be toxic.
While Iowa fans flooded into San Diego this week, many from USC have promised to protest, refusing to make the short drive down the 5 Freeway to SDCCU Stadium.
Helton has praised those high expectations of the fans, suggesting they help propel the program forward. But at least one departing player has been less than pleased.
“It is a little frustrating,” senior wideout Michael Pittman Jr. said, “because you see your fans are saying so many negative things about you. It’s just like, ‘Wow, I thought you were our fans and supporting us,’ and they’re not doing a lot of supporting right now.”
Whether they’ll be back on board next season when USC returns almost fully intact as a possible Pac-12 favorite remains to be seen. But as fans continue to dwell on the coaching decision, players are hopeful that a year-ending bowl victory could help in convincing them to move forward.
“It would just get our fans back into it, I guess, because they’re acting a little cold toward our program right now,” Pittman Jr. said. “So it would just get more fan support, I guess. But that doesn’t really affect our football team, it doesn’t really affect us because we’re just going to keep playing anyway.”
Few teams were playing better to finish out the season than Iowa (9-3) and USC (8-4), both of whom won five of their last six.
The Hawkeyes have been the more consistent team, with their three losses, all to ranked teams, coming by a combined 14 points. USC only found its stride in the second half of the season, as its offense finally began to click behind freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis.
A bowl victory hardly guarantees that momentum will continue into next season. But with only four starters guaranteed to leave, it could help start an important offseason on the right foot.
“I really think it’s important going into next year with a lot of guys returning,” Slovis said, “just getting that confidence boost going into next year.”
A strong bowl showing against one of the nation’s strongest secondaries could be especially significant for Slovis. He finished the regular season on a tear, with four games of least 400 yards and four touchdowns over the final five weeks. That stretch helped vault Slovis to Pac-12 offensive freshman-of-the-year honors and into the early Heisman Trophy odds for 2020.
“A young guy has got to really be mentally tough,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “He’s got to be physically tough, and he’s got to be poised, and their quarterback has displayed that at a very early age in a really impressive fashion.”
But none of the defenses Slovis and USC faced over the second half of the season were quite as suffocating as that of the Hawkeyes, who haven’t allowed more than 24 points in a game. They’ve been especially stingy against the pass, with only three quarterbacks able to reach 200 yards against them.
The Trojans will be in serious trouble if they can’t reach that mark, as they’ve largely abandoned the run in recent games and will be without arguably their top back, freshman Markese Stepp, who is recovering from ankle surgery.
In a clash of conflicting styles, this matchup will largely be decided by which team imposes its will on the other.
For Iowa, that means holding onto the ball and grinding away at a defense that has struggled to live up to expectations.
For USC, it means relying on a freshman to put on a show against one of the nation’s best secondaries.
Both teams should be motivated to finish the season strong. But only one finds its program at a crossroads as this campaign comes to a close. A bowl victory, eight months out from next season, won’t totally help Helton change that.
But as USC does its best to move forward, it certainly couldn’t hurt, either.