Column: USC wins ugly again, but Clay Helton’s sunny attitude is right perspective

USC coach Clay Helton looks on during warmups before the Trojans faced Arizona on Nov. 14, 2020.
USC coach Clay Helton said he told his players after Saturday’s win at Arizona that “we need to live in the moment. And the moment is, man, what a gorgeous day to play the game we love.”
(Christian Petersen / Getty Images)

Disaster is about to strike.

Something is bound to derail USC, whether it’s the Trojans’ propensity for self-sabotage or the pandemic that is threatening to shut down all of college football.

A 34-30 victory over Arizona failed to improve the forecast.

Many of the same infuriating mistakes that nearly cost the No. 20 Trojans their season opener against Arizona State resurfaced on Saturday, requiring quarterback Kedon Slovis to orchestrate another late scoring drive to salvage a win.


At least they played. Their next scheduled opponent, Utah, has canceled its first two games for reasons related to COVID-19. The Utes’ visit to UCLA was scrapped, one of two Pac-12 games wiped out this weekend because of outbreaks. The comically self-described “conference of champions” wasn’t alone; the Southeastern Conference called off more games than it played.

USC flirted with disaster for a second consecutive week before earning a comeback victory, this time prevailing 34-30 in the last minute at Arizona.

With a catastrophe of one kind or another closing in on the Trojans, a welcome perspective was offered by coach Clay Helton.

In a postgame video news conference, Helton recalled what he told his players about what to expect in the coming weeks.

“I told them today that we don’t know what tomorrow holds, that we need to live in the moment,” Helton said. “And the moment is, man, what a gorgeous day to play the game we love and to go out there and have a ball doing it.”


Sure, but it doesn’t make it wrong.

Indications are these bad times are about to become worse. COVID-19 infections are up. So are hospitalizations.

These games are being played so conferences and their member schools can collect the millions upon millions of dollars promised to them by their exorbitant television contracts.

The Ivy League has no such incentive, which explains why it didn’t have any hesitation in canceling its fall and winter sports.

Calling on the major conferences to do the same ignores the reality that they can’t afford to. The mistake wasn’t to start the season. The mistake happened way before that, with the creation and building of a system that made it necessary for these revenues to be collected.

Key plays from USC’s 34-30 comeback victory at Arizona on Saturday.

Viruses spread and extinguish lives without any regard to economics or football. That won’t change.

College football can very well be forced to go on recess in the coming weeks, in which case there will be plenty of time to complain about its absence. Might as well enjoy it while it’s here. Might as well appreciate the games that can be played.

Which is what Helton did.

“I think it speaks volumes to how our kids are, to walk in here for a second week and have the opportunity to play, to be perfect as far as testing goes and the discipline our kids have to follow the protocols, the sacrifices that they’re making in isolations,” he said. “I’m proud of them. They gave us an opportunity to play the game.”

Helton similarly found positives in what was an uneven performance at best.

Kedon Slovis passed for 325 yards and led USC to another comeback victory, but he admits he wasn’t at his best and vows to fix his throwing mechanics.

The Trojans committed 11 penalties, which cost them 110 yards. They started slowly on offense, as they rushed for only 65 yards in the first half. They gave up big plays.

With the game tied in the third quarter, 20-20, they moved the ball into the Arizona one-yard line, only to be penalized for a false start and delay of game on consecutive plays. The drive ended with a missed field-goal attempt.

Their next drive was equally frustrating. Once again, they reached the red zone. Once again, they committed an unnecessary penalty, this time offensive pass interference. Once again, they didn’t score.

Arizona went ahead 30-27 with 1 minute 35 seconds remaining in the game. The Wildcats’ drive started on the 35-yard line because USC’s kickoff sailed out of bounds.

A massive celebration after the Notre Dame-Clemson game was a potential super-spreader event, but experts say it could shed light on the coronavirus.

Rather than criticize his players for the mistakes they made, Helton complimented them for the errors they avoided. A week earlier against ASU, they had four turnovers. In this game, they had none.

“I think that’s an improvement,” Helton said. “That was one of those games, to be honest with you, if we turn it over one time, we may lose that game.”

In normal times, that would sound like an appalling abdication of responsibility. But the Trojans are now 2-0, however unconvincing their record looks. They managed to stay relevant for at least another week. Beats the alternative.