USC’s Clay Helton urges unity, praises Graham Harrell after Stanford loss

USC coach Clay Helton watches the Trojans warm up before losing to Stanford on Saturday at the Coliseum.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Inside USC’s locker room, the embattled coach surveyed the aftermath. The disappointment ran deep — Clay Helton could see that plainly on his players’ faces. The frustration was still fresh in the moments after USC had fallen apart in a disastrous 42-28 defeat to Stanford on Saturday. But as calls for his firing erupted into a cross-country chorus and the pitchforks of exasperated boosters were sharpened once again, Helton urged his team to stick close.

“It’s going to be one of those weeks where we have to stay extremely close together,” Helton said. “We have to focus on our job and not let any distractions or noise affect us and what we need to accomplish. That’s going 1-0 on the week. A lot of times that’s hard for 18-21-year-olds. But I’ll tell you this, this group is extremely tough-minded, and this group is extremely bonded.”

Helton would understandably prefer to insulate his team from any of the speculation that his days could be numbered at USC. But Saturday, there was no escaping the boos cascading again through a half-filled Coliseum or the taunts from fans in the tunnel. There was no missing the stands emptying ahead of the start of the fourth quarter, piling onto an already demoralizing performance. Any energy on the sideline was already sapped by then, with USC, a 17-point favorite, trailing by three touchdowns.


USC president Carol Folt and athletic director Mike Bohn can no longer delay firing football coach Clay Helton, a good man who is a bad fit to lead the Trojans.

Sept. 12, 2021

“I feel like we’re one of the most hated teams in college football,” cornerback Chris Steele said after the game.

So Steele, who was called for two crucial penalties in the loss, counseled his teammates to embrace their place as villains. Maybe then they’d find the motivation some were clearly missing Saturday. Steele said it was evident in practice the previous week that USC didn’t have the energy it needed.

“Everybody needs to find out what motivates them,” Steele said. “I feel like we come out with a lot of energy throughout the week, and once we get closer to game time, it’s like a shift of energy. We gotta stay consistent with the people that we are. If we’re going to be a big hoo-rah team, we need to play like that every single week. We can’t have low energy on the sideline when we have the most energy in practice. It shouldn’t be like that, it’s supposed to be vice versa.”

Helton said he didn’t see a problem with how USC practiced ahead of the loss. He even noted in his opening remarks that it was USC’s “best week of practice since the start of training camp.”

But even his offensive coordinator commented Saturday night that he thought Stanford “wanted to make the tackle more than we wanted to make some blocks a couple times.”

USC athletic director Mike Bohn and President Carol Folt have to accept Clay Helton has proved he cannot win when it counts and need to change coaches.

Sept. 12, 2021

It’s up to Helton to disentangle that dissonance in the coming days, all the while keeping his team from coming apart. Helton, in his seventh season, said Saturday there was no reason to make any major changes after just two games. He pointed to poor field position and a handful of big plays as primary reasons for why USC lost its way.


“It is early in the season,” Helton said. “We have a good team. It’s a team that I believe in, and it’s a team that cares. It’s a team that cares for each other, and they care for our team’s success. And now it’s our job as coaches to identify the mistakes from last night, which we’ve done today.”

When it comes to Graham Harrell, Helton has so far been unwilling to offer any sort of criticism of his coordinator, whose passing offense has clearly regressed so far this season.

Informed Saturday night that USC’s offense hadn’t scored in the third quarter in seven of its last eight games, Helton said he thought Harrell “does a wonderful job of being able to diagnose what’s going on, and it’s really not even at halftime. It’s after each and every series.”

Asked again Sunday if there were any changes he discussed with Harrell, Helton praised him for putting players in the positions to make plays against Stanford. USC just failed to take advantage, he said.

USC’s starting kicker and stout defense picked up costly penalties Saturday, extending Stanford scoring drives and helping seal a loss to the Cardinal.

Sept. 12, 2021

“I know our kids are going to look back on and say ‘Gosh darn, we missed some opportunities there,’” Helton said.

But as he stood in front of the team Saturday night, Helton tried to assure players that there was plenty of opportunity ahead. Whether the coach will be there to see it remains to be seen.


“I hope that people will see us all the way through the season and see our total product and our total resume at the end of the year,” Helton said. “I’m disappointed right now, but I believe we’ll be happy at the end of the year.”

USC’s defense broke down in a loss to Stanford that once again raises questions about coach Clay Helton’s future with the program.

Sept. 12, 2021