Column: Soul-crushing defeats have become the norm for once-mighty Trojans program
The college football powers were right. I was wrong.
The conventional college football wisdom was deftly accurate. I was terribly mistaken.
Last week I wrote that, despite their disrespectfully low No. 13 ranking, if USC defeated overmatched Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship game Friday night, the unbeaten Trojans would be worthy of a spot in college football’s final four.
Well, the Trojans are no longer unbeaten, they are again worthy of only utter disappointment, and that No. 13 ranking now seems disrespectfully high.
The 31-24 loss to the Ducks wiped out the impact of the three previous comeback wins and the national credibility they so desperately sought. Instead of providing validation, it was nothing more than another soul-crushing defeat at the end of a promising season, one more gut punch in a Clay Helton era filled with them.
USC signed 19 players and added a transfer, which placed its class at No. 11 in the national rankings. Two other top prospects are also considering the Trojans.
The Trojans looked unprepared, undisciplined, unfocused and totally familiar.
This was their debacle against Iowa in the 2019 Holiday Bowl. This was their crumble against Ohio State in the 2017 Cotton Bowl. This was their dives against Stanford in the 2015 Pac-12 championship game and Wisconsin in the 2015 Holiday Bowl.
With the exception of that 2016 Rose Bowl win over Penn State, this is the state of USC football since the beginning of Helton’s tenure six years ago.
The college football world doesn’t consider them elite, because they’re not. They’re never included in the same conversation as Alabama and Clemson and Ohio State, because they don’t belong there.
The Trojan program is one based in mediocrity. The Trojan image is one bordering on irrelevancy. In big games, the Trojan tradition has been trashed. Under the brightest of lights, the Trojan swagger has been suffocated. Despite going 45-23, Helton has basically led this team nowhere, with no end in sight.
This is not a column calling for Helton’s firing. How is USC going to fire someone whose team went 5-1 in the middle of a pandemic? Even if the Trojans went winless, it’s hard to imagine USC paying the millions it would cost to buy out his contract in these economically difficult times.
This is, instead, a column bemoaning the continuing loss of something special, the prolonged absence of a USC program that once rose to the biggest of occasions, the extended void in a Trojan culture that once thrived in the most pressurized of moments.
Many USC fans have begrudgingly endured these truths while raging that nothing will change until the program is completely gutted. Over the last six years those folks have occasionally sounded radical, but in the wake of Friday’s unthinkable loss, they make total sense.
Highlights from No. 13 USC’s 31-24 loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game Friday night at the Coliseum.
If this isn’t rock bottom, you can feel the chill from here.
An unbeaten USC team does not carelessly fall on its face at home against a two-loss, last-minute-substitute Oregon team with a conference championship and Fiesta Bowl bid on the line.
An unbeaten USC team does not attack a title game by aimlessly wandering around the field on offense, committing countless reckless penalties on defense, blowing coverages and occasionally not even lining up properly.
An unbeaten USC team does not impose its will in the biggest game of the season by rushing for 38 yards.
An unbeaten USC team’s most important battle is not epitomized by a frantic downfield sprint by its head coach to gain the attention of the officials to call a timeout because the Trojans were in an illegal formation.
“I’ve never been associated with a group of kids that fight harder or have more heart,” Helton said afterward. “There’s a lot of hurt souls in our locker room right now.”
Those kids deserve better. They’re not improving. They’re not learning. It’s not working.
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Kedon Slovis, who should have been a Heisman candidate, was harassed all night and threw three interceptions, including the game-clincher in the final minutes on a throwaway pass that was nabbed by lunging Oregon cornerback Jamal Hill.
The athletic Trojans, who should know better, committed nine penalties for 98 yards, including defensive leader Talanoa Hufanga actually tackling Oregon punter Tom Snee.
Said safety Isaiah Pola-Mao: “Coach always says, when emotions go up, intelligence goes down.”
Said Helton: “I thought Isaiah hit the nail on the head. Our kids had so much emotion and played so damn hard, it was one of those games that you look up, you try to block a punt … and you run into the kicker.”
He added, “We had what we call self-inflicted wounds … it’s something that we have to learn from in championship games that can cost you a championship, and it did tonight.”
None of which explains why the Trojans did not show up ready to play. Yes, they had only four days to prepare while the Ducks — subbing for the coronavirus-plagued Washington — had two weeks to plan. That is still no excuse for taking the field as if it were a spring practice.
First possession, Slovis threw a terrible pass that was picked off by Deommodore Lenoir and made worse by a Trojan face-mask penalty.
Second possession, another USC personal foul penalty followed by a third-down sack. (The Trojans also called a timeout before the punt because they didn’t have enough players on the field.)
Third possession, another wildly thrown interception, this one to a diving Hill.
Fourth possession, Markese Stepp was nailed in the backfield on fourth and inches by a completely unblocked Kayvon Thibodeaux.
Two possessions later, a foolish USC fair catch at the eight-yard line was followed by a tipped punt from the end zone.
Moments later, Oregon scored on a 16-yard screen pass from Tyler Shough to DJ Johnson to take a 21-7 lead barely into the second quarter, and it never really felt close again.
They can still go to a secondary bowl game. But if the pandemic restrictions make it more hassle than fun, for the sake of the kids and their families, here’s hoping they just stay home.
“We’re judged on championships here, that’s the beauty of this place … the fact of the matter is, we’re really close,” Helton said.
That beauty has slowly turned ugly, and the fact of the matter is, they’ve never seemed further away.
Go beyond the scoreboard
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