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Clay Helton says spike in penalties that fueled USC’s loss to Stanford ‘really sticks’

Chris Steele, in uniform, holds out both hands as he walks on the football field.
USC cornerback Chris Steele reacts after being flagged for pass interference against Stanford in the third quarter at the Coliseum on Saturday night.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times )

Accomplishment soon turned into embarrassment once Chris Steele turned around. The little yellow flag lying in the end zone showed the USC defensive back who had just swiped his arms to signal an incomplete pass had no reason to gloat.

Flags marred No. 14 USC’s 42-28 loss to Stanford on Saturday at the Coliseum, costing the Trojans 111 yards on nine penalties. The yellow handkerchiefs haunted USC defensive backs on long throws, gave Stanford extra fourth-down life and even cost the Trojans (1-1) their starting kicker.

Parker Lewis was ejected for targeting on the opening kickoff after the sophomore lowered his head while tackling Stanford return man Nathaniel Peat. A review confirmed the infraction, forcing Lewis to sit for the rest of the game. But with backup Alex Stadthaus coming off the bench to make both of his field goal attempts and two extra points, that inexplicable start to the game proved to be the least of USC’s penalty worries.

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Instead, the defense that shined during a season-opening win against San Jose State quickly lost its luster as defensive backs were called for four fouls that resulted in automatic first downs. Steele drew two such penalties, both happening on drives that ended in Stanford touchdowns.

“To be honest, I feel like a few of them were bad calls,” said Steele, who said he didn’t agree with the third-quarter pass interference call that negated a pass breakup and his ensuing celebration. “But at the end of the day, we just gotta go back and watch the film and understand what the ref saw and go ahead and correct them.”

Steele also drew an unnecessary-roughness penalty in the second quarter that was one of three penalties during a nine-play, 75-yard touchdown drive from Stanford. Steele and Isaac Taylor-Stewart were both called for 15-yard infractions that helped move the Cardinal (1-1) into the red zone, but with the game tied 7-7, the USC defense recovered enough to force a field goal on fourth-and-goal from the seven-yard line.

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

Then the special teams unit lined up offsides.

With a second chance from the three-yard line, Stanford scored on a touchdown pass from Tanner McKee to Elijah Higgins. The Trojans never came closer than three points after the drive.

Although he admitted USC was thoroughly outplayed Saturday, Trojans coach Clay Helton said the penalties were the biggest area of concern.

“After coming off a game that was so clean, then going back and having a night where you have nine penalties, that’s something that … really sticks,” Helton said, alluding to USC’s four penalties for a loss of 35 yards against San Jose State.

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.

Even the most unlikely suspect found himself on the wrong end of a penalty. Although he knows Lewis to be an eager playmaker, Stadthaus was shocked to see it was actually the sophomore kicker who was involved in the play.

“I told him, ‘Let’s switch places for a day,’” Stadthaus said. “I get to be you and you get to be me.”

Isaac Taylor-Stuart grapples with Elijah Higgins. USC cheerleaders stand in the background.
USC defensive back Isaac Taylor-Stuart interferes with Stanford receiver Elijah Higgins in the second quarter at the Coliseum on Saturday night.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times )

Lewis hit all 23 of his extra point attempts as a freshman last year and made 9-of-13 field goals with a long of 48 yards. He earned All-Pac-12 honorable mention honors.

Stadthaus, a three-sport athlete at Austin Vandegrift High in Texas who started kicking as a sophomore in high school after winning a fan halftime contest, handled kickoffs as a freshman and sophomore at USC. He sent 60 of his 123 kickoffs for touchbacks before Lewis won the starting job last year. The former walk-on had never attempted a field goal or extra point in a game for USC but coolly drilled all of his attempts Saturday.

“You gotta be nails,” Stadthaus said. “This isn’t a sport for the weak.”


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