When Clay Helton learned nearly a month ago that he would be retained as USC’s football coach, he delayed a decision on whether to keep his coordinators. He wanted to keep the focus on the bowl season.
But after that focus failed the Trojans in their Friday night finale, as the defense came apart and the special teams stumbled again in a 49-24 Holiday Bowl defeat to Iowa, Helton took fewer than 24 hours to fire Clancy Pendergast, his defensive coordinator, and John Baxter, his special teams coach.
The decision to dismiss two of USC’s top assistants had been expected. Another assistant, outside linebackers coach Joe DeForest, departed for North Carolina State on Saturday to coach safeties.
“I want to thank coach Pendergast and coach Baxter for their dedicated service and efforts,” Helton said in a statement. “However, in evaluating our team’s performance this year and after consulting with [athletic director] Mike Bohn, it is evident that these changes are necessary.
“Although we did fight through adversity all season and we showed improvement over the previous year, my coaching staff and I fell short of fielding a championship team. We are taking immediate steps to improve our competitiveness and meet the winning expectations of our student-athletes and fans.”
The announcement about Pendergast and Baxter comes in the wake of USC’s worst bowl defeat since 1948. But the bowl game was only a small part of Helton’s overnight evaluation. The issues with USC’s defense and special teams began far earlier than the game Friday in San Diego.
The Trojans have steadily declined over the course of Pendergast’s four seasons as coordinator. This year, as its defense dealt with injury and inexperience, USC allowed more points (29.4) and yards (408.5) per game than at any point in the past decade.
Those issues proved especially glaring over the final two games of the season, as the Trojans allowed a season-high 540 yards in a 52-35 win against UCLA. With a healthier defense intact for the bowl game, USC gave up 49 points to Iowa, which had scored more than 27 points against a Power Five team just once this season.
Baxter, the special teams and tight ends coach, had been a fixture at USC for most of the last decade, spending nine of the last 10 seasons with Helton in Los Angeles. Over that stretch, USC’s special teams had not sunk quite as low as the unit has this year.
USC did pull off a surprise onside kick Friday, but it proved only a brief reprieve for Baxter. The Trojans had already allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown, guaranteeing their finish as the worst kickoff coverage team in college football, ranked last of 130 teams in return yards allowed. It was the third return of 90-plus yards, two of which went for touchdowns, that the Trojans allowed this season.
The Trojans’ other special teams haven’t fared much better, either. Their punt return teams ranked 11th in the Pac-12 in average yards per return, while their kickoff return and punt teams ranked in the bottom half of the conference.
As he stood in the bowels of SDCCU Stadium on Friday night, Baxter was asked how much blame he should shoulder for those issues. The longtime assistant explained he would take “extreme ownership,” before suggesting he believed he should keep his job.
“As a coach, you work to teach the players, coach the players, support the players, and do those kinds of things,” Baxter said. “I haven’t had three [returns] like that in my whole career, much less in one season. But … we really never had the same lineup a couple games in a row. There are a lot of young players.”
But while injuries and youth undoubtedly impacted USC’s defense and special teams, it wasn’t a satisfying enough explanation for a frustrated fan base that demanded some kind of penance for an inconsistent two-year stretch that saw the Trojans go 13-12, including an 8-5 mark this season.
No surgery for Slovis
When Kedon Slovis left the game Friday, clutching his right elbow, everything proceeded to fall apart for USC.
But Slovis shouldn’t miss much more than the second half of what turned out to be a disappointing bowl game. The rising sophomore quarterback will not require surgery on his strained elbow.
Slovis will “require treatment, rest, and recovery,” the school announced on Twitter. Slovis should be cleared to return in four months, when USC reconvenes for spring practice.