Column: This season has been anything but normal. That’s working out well for USC’s Clay Helton

USC coach Clay Helton looks up from the sideline during a game against Washington State with USC players behind him.
USC coach Clay Helton is one win away from taking the Trojans to the Pac-12 Conference title game, after their 38-13 win over Washington State on Sunday night.
(Alex Gallardo / Associated Press)
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We’ll never know what would have happened if there had been a “normal” college football season and USC had played its original schedule.

Would Clay Helton still be the coach if the Trojans had to open against No. 1 Alabama, finish the regular season with No. 2 Notre Dame, and in the middle face Oregon and Washington? Where would they and Helton have found themselves if the COVID-19 pandemic hadn’t reshaped their schedule to make it more compact but less challenging?

We’ll never know. We can only know where they are now — and that Helton is one win away from taking USC to the Pac-12 Conference title game, which has sometimes seemed unlikely during an improbable season that began belatedly Nov. 7.


Despite netting only five rushing yards against Washington State in a rare Sunday night game at the Coliseum, USC assumed control at the top of the Pac-12 South with its 38-13 victory. “Impressive win by the Trojans,” USC athletic director Mike Bohn tweeted afterward, apparently ignoring the rushing failures in the flush of the team’s biggest margin of victory this season.

The Trojans got by against Washington State (1-2) with no running game. They can’t expect to get away with a similarly unbalanced plan against UCLA on Saturday at the Rose Bowl.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of bright spots in the game and there’s a lot of things you wish were a little bit better,” Helton said in a postgame video conference Sunday. “I look forward to watching the film in the second half, where I thought we could have run it a little bit better, especially toward the end. We’ll see what happens.”

USC is 4-0 and Colorado is 4-0 overall but 3-0 in conference play. A win by the Trojans against UCLA would put them in the Pac-12 championship game and make it harder for Bohn to justify buying out Helton — which could cost $20 million — before Helton’s contract expires after the 2023 season. In addition, paying Helton to not coach would strike an ugly and sour note while people are struggling day to day in a pandemic-flattened economy.

With some of USC’s offensive linemen unable to play because of COVID-19 quarantine, Courtland Ford and a couple of other freshmen received playing time Sunday.

Dec. 6, 2020

Helton’s teams haven’t been the dominant Trojans of fans’ fondest memories, but no one in the Pac-12 looks to be head-and-shoulder pads above the rest. Whether USC is the best team in the conference will become apparent in the next few weeks. The season that could have led to Helton’s undoing instead might give him a stronger hold on the job, to the dismay of fans who still see any success as a reflection of players’ talent and believe the Trojans win despite Helton, not because of him.


USC’s first two wins, against Arizona State and at Arizona, resulted from last-minute dramatics; at Utah on Nov. 21 the defense produced five takeaways, and Sunday against a depleted and out-of-step Washington State the combination of quarterback Kedon Slovis (25 for 32 for 287 yards and five touchdowns) and receiver Amon-ra St. Brown clicked for four touchdowns in the first quarter, building enough of a cushion for the Trojans’ offense to snooze in the second half.

USC quarterback Kedon Slovis throws a touchdown pass.
USC quarterback Kedon Slovis throws one of his five touchdown passes against Washington State on Sunday at the Coliseum.
(Alex Gallardo / Los Angeles Times)

Slovis’ sharpness was striking. He appeared more assured than he had been in a while and was refreshed by an unexpected week off gained when coronavirus-related issues left USC without enough eligible players on the offensive line to play Colorado on Nov. 28. His performance Sunday should boost his confidence, but Helton should have pulled him sooner to protect him from injury.

“I thought Kedon was extremely accurate in this game,” Helton said. “Didn’t play our best ball in the second half so there’s always some stuff that we can correct offensively, but to get a 25-point win — 16 [two weeks ago], 25 this week — this team is making progress each and every week. . . .

“We’ve got a short week coming up against a really good team that’s hot right now and a crosstown rival, in UCLA just really doing a good job. We’ve got a lot to play for, and that’s what you want in December.”

Pressed about the factors that led to the feeble running game — the Trojans had no rushing first downs and netted five yards only after redshirt senior and depth running back Quincy Jountti gained four yards on the last two plays — Helton showed an almost imperceptible hint of annoyance. He doesn’t allow himself to become emotional in public, blocking out the constant and not unreasonable criticism that he hasn’t improved the offensive line or recruited well beyond the skill positions.


In addition to a 37-yard interception return, USC safety Talanoa Hufanga finished with a team-high nine tackles and a sack in the Trojans’ win.

Dec. 6, 2020

“Wanna be able to have that run game go along with it and take some pressure off of Kedon. I know it will. I know it will,” he said, adding that offensive coordinator Graham Harrell took what the Cougars’ defense gave the Trojans on Sunday, which meant merely 20 rushing attempts.

“Again, let me watch the tape and I get to talk to y’all again on Tuesday, so I look forward to, I’ll answer every question you got,” Helton said. “But I don’t want to guess. I did think we had some advantageous looks in the second half that should have got a little bit more out of the run game, but we’re going to celebrate all wins right now and that 25-point victory is a good one. Obviously, there’s some things that we can continue to correct, but as you see, I think this team is improving with each and every game.

“I know we’ll find something to talk about that you’ll bring to the table, so I look forward to talking about it more on Tuesday. Thank you.”

With that, he politely but firmly closed the door on the topic. He kept his cool and, so far, has kept his job.