Clay Helton bounced up the sideline pumping his fist, once, twice, three times.
This was his moment. This was his redemption.
This was the execution of the USC coach’s most brilliant decision in a baffling season, a successful onside kick early in the third quarter of Friday’s Holiday Bowl against Iowa.
The Trojans trailed by four but suddenly had the ball, had the momentum, and quarterback Kedon Slovis had it all working.
After enduring nearly a month of being mercilessly ripped amid the controversy over him not being fired, Helton was going to finally fire back.
But then, in a game that ultimately epitomized Helton’s five-year tenure, it all blew up in his face.
Slovis staggered off with an elbow injury. Matt Fink lacked the magic to effectively replace him. The turnovers returned. The carelessness came back. The defense continued to cave, and cave, and cave.
By the time the game at SDCCU Stadium ended in a deep chill, an ongoing narrative was strengthened, fan unrest was renewed, and the story was the same.
Iowa 49, USC 24, and Helton wearing every bit of it.
The Trojans football program going nowhere with nowhere to go.
Helton returning to coach a team that doesn’t respond to his coaching.
A bleak ending to the 2019 season that sets up what is expected to be an even darker 2020.
It was the Trojans’ worst bowl loss since 1948. It dropped Helton’s bowl record to 2-3. It ended this season’s record at 8-5, dropped their two-year record to 13-12, and exponentially increased the worry about next Sept. 5.
That is when USC plays its next game, the 2020 season opener against Alabama in Texas, and just the mere thought of that matchup under the current USC leadership has some folks seriously asking a not-so-outrageous question.
Is there any way Helton still can be fired?
“We’re in a situation where we have to go from good to great,” Helton said in his postgame news conference.
In reality, the program continues to go from bad to worse. Here’s guessing the only person who would agree with the “good” was leaning against a wall in the back of the press conference room, guy by the name of Mike Bohn, the new athletic director who decided to retain Helton this winter despite great booster outrage.
Bohn wasn’t here the last time the Trojans played Iowa in a bowl game, so he has no idea how special this program should be. I was there. I saw it, and will never forget it.
It was in the Orange Bowl after the 2002 season, a 38-17 Trojans victory that marked the unofficial beginning of the Pete Carroll era of greatness.
That night in Miami, the Carson Palmer-led Trojans ran to the crowd and the band to sing and chant and celebrate the rebirth of the Trojans nation.
On Friday in San Diego, the scene was ominously different. The players didn’t run to the band, they wandered aimlessly off the field. The only chants were the boos from fans hanging over the tunnel as Helton jogged underneath them and into next season.
Seventeen years ago, the victory over Iowa truly felt like the start of something special. This latest loss against Iowa felt like the beginning of the end of something awful.
“Just as a fan base might be frustrated, a coaching staff and players are frustrated,” Helton said. “We all know what we’re about.”
Ah, but that’s the problem. They have forgotten what they are about. They have lost the tradition that was once USC football.
This was a program built on the ground. They rushed for 22 yards against Iowa.
This was a program built on defense. They continually crumbled against Iowa, allowing long drives and long third-down conversions and possibly the greatest quarterback sneak in the history of football.
Late in the third quarter, with the Trojans still trailing by only four, Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley ducked his head into the scrum deep in USC territory and rushed for eight yards before he was dragged down. Three rushes later, the Hawkeyes scored to take a 35-24 lead that was never threatened.
This was also a program built on resilience. But the moment Slovis went down after having the ball ripped from his hand by Iowa giant A.J. Epenesa, the Trojans appeared to fold.
It was after that play that Michael Pittman Jr. lost a fumble, Chase McGrath missed a 39-yard field-goal attempt, and Fink threw a pick-six.
“It’s just, we got kind of shocked because our starting quarterback had gotten out, then it kind of deflected our, like, flow,” Pittman said. “Just one thing led to another.”
Eventually, like always, here and with every college program, that flow puddled directly at the feet of the coach.
“Tonight, they made more plays than we did,” Helton said.
Yeah, plays like Iowa’s Tyrone Tracy Jr. scoring untouched on a 23-yard reverse. Or Iowa’s Ihmir Smith-Marsette unbelievably hitting for the cycle in the second quarter.
He scored untouched on a six-yard jet sweep. He scored on a 98-yard kickoff return up the middle of the Trojans kicking team. He caught a screen pass from Stanley and ran a dozen yards for a touchdown between three USC defenders.
“We just tried to focus on getting off the field, which we pretty much didn’t do all game,” linebacker John Houston Jr. said. “We just had a bad game, pretty much.”
Those sorts of unchallenged scores speak to coaching, and if Helton isn’t going anywhere, then there surely will be other staffing changes.
Here’s guessing defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast and special teams coach John Baxter are both on a seriously hot seat.
If Helton isn’t going anywhere, then the coaches that surround him surely need to change.
“I’ve been tasked with looking at the program as a whole, to make any changes necessary if I feel,” Helton said. “I’m going to evaluate everything.”
Yet the most important evaluation already has been done, leading to a long night of more of the same, leading to a long night, a long season, and a USC football future filled with more of the same.