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Amid a chorus of boos, No. 14 USC sputters to 42-28 loss to Stanford

USC quarterback Kedon Slovis throws during the second quarter.
USC quarterback Kedon Slovis throws during the second quarter of the Trojans’ loss to the Stanford at the Coliseum on Saturday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The sun went down, and USC’s worst nightmares came to life.

The defense that looked dominant last week was coming apart at the seams, shredded by a first-time starter at quarterback in Stanford’s Tanner McKee. The problematic penalties returned, the discipline diminished, the force field inside the red zone remained. Even the kicker was kicked out.

In its first taste of #Pac12AfterDark, USC fell asleep at the wheel in a 42-28 thrashing by Stanford on Saturday.

The heat has turned up on USC coach Clay Helton after the Trojans could not find their footing throughout a sobering blowout loss to Stanford on Saturday night at the Coliseum.

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Standing again amid the wreckage was Clay Helton, the Trojans’ embattled coach, reassuring at the start of his sixth season that he’d steer USC away from its skid. As Helton listened to the now-painfully familiar questions about his uncertain future, he promised USC was on the right track. He didn’t need to make any major changes, Helton said. He just needed time.

“Let’s see at the end of the year,” Helton said. “Let’s see. It’s Game 2. It’s Game 2. I have total faith in this staff. I have total faith in the men that are in there, players, coaches. We didn’t play our best tonight. But I know this. At the end of the season, see where we’re at.”

After a nightmarish night, it’s not at all clear Helton will get that chance — or even make it to the end of the month — not after its most lopsided loss to an unranked opponent since October 2018. Where the coach stands after the disastrous defeat in the eyes of USC’s athletic leadership remains to be seen. But the Trojans’ disillusioned fans made their frustrations clear with cascading boos echoing throughout the half-empty Coliseum from Helton’s halftime interview through the fourth quarter, when many fans started streaming early for the exits.

“It’s early in the season. We lost our first conference game,” Helton said, when asked how he’d reassure USC’s fanbase. “We’ll come back out and we’ll continue to get wins and add them up, and we’ll see where we are at the end of the season. I know it’ll be a successful season at the end.”

There weren’t many signs pointing toward that on Saturday. USC struggled with penalties (9 for 109 yards), struggled with the passing game (223 yards, its lowest total since September 2019), and struggled in just about every other aspect on defense, which just a week ago seemed like its strength.

“When you look at it across the board, they beat us in every phase,” Helton said. “When you look up, we did not do what we did in the first game.”

The Trojans’ long night began in bizarre fashion, with kicker Parker Lewis ejected for targeting. Things got only worse.

After holding San Jose State to 68 yards on the ground, USC gave up 87 on a single, first-quarter rush, as Stanford’s Nathaniel Peat found a crease, slipped a shoestring tackle and sprinted to pay dirt. The big play more than doubled the Cardinal’s rushing total from the previous week, when they didn’t manage to score until late in the fourth quarter.

USC wide receiver Drake London can't come up with a catch as Stanford cornerback Kyu Blu Kelly defends.
USC wide receiver Drake London can’t come up with a catch as Stanford cornerback Kyu Blu Kelly defends in the first quarter Saturday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

This time it was USC slogging its way through possessions, its offense unable to conjure more than a few yards. Kedon Slovis couldn’t find a rhythm, managing just 223 yards passing.

“Obviously, we made a lot of mistakes,” wideout Gary Bryant Jr. said.

It would take a 15-play, 95-yard drive for USC to punch in its first touchdown, and even then, it wasn’t easy, as Keaontay Ingram pushed his way into the end zone for a hard-earned two-yard score.

Nothing was easy, as USC wandered up and down the field, unable to find the end zone again until six minutes remained and the game was well in hand. On two other occasions, USC made it inside the 20, only to be turned away.

Stanford running back Nathaniel Peat runs between USC's Drake Jackson and Nick Figueroa for a touchdown.
Stanford running back Nathaniel Peat runs between USC’s Drake Jackson (99) and Nick Figueroa (50) for a touchdown in the first quarter.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Its defense, fresh off a strong debut, seemed determined to make matters worse, extending drive after drive with ill-timed penalties. Even when Stanford seemed content to settle for a field goal, USC offered up an extra four points on a platter, lining up in the neutral zone at the end of one second-quarter drive and giving Stanford another chance on fourth down. The Cardinal obliged, scoring a touchdown as McKee rolled out and threw a touchdown.

The comedy of errors continued from there. A pass that slipped through Drake London’s hands was intercepted and returned for a score. Two more penalties spurred another Stanford touchdown drive.

The boos rained down soon after. With a full quarter left, some fans began to leave.

The game was long over. The questions about USC’s future were only just beginning.


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