Now that we’ve had a couple of days to digest a furiously frustrating loss to Utah this past weekend, I’d like to throw in one more perspective on what happened before fans shift their focus to ASU. Yes, USC blew it. Yes, this is one the Trojans really needed in divisional play, and is one they really should have had.
But there’s one thing I won’t concede, and that Trojan fans need to quit saying for the rest of the season: head coach Clay Helton did not throw the game away by calling for a punt on USC’s last full drive.
Maybe the Trojans would have hung on if they had gone for it. Hindsight, as always, is 20/20. But it was a perfectly rational decision in an unpredictable scenario.
We all remember the final result. Helton calls for a punt, Utah goes 93 yards and scores with 16 seconds left in the game to win. Cue the dozens of tweeters I follow calling it an inexplicable decision, with some already calling for Helton’s head. But let’s look at the actual decision again.
Fourth down, three yards to go. From Utah’s 37-yard line. Up 27-24. About 5:30 left in the game.
A field goal attempt would be 54 yards, out of redshirt junior kicker Matt Boermeester’s range. Redshirt sophomore punter Chris Tilbey has yet to be used in the game, but has been reasonably effective at pinning opponents deep — of his three punts inside Stanford territory the week before, two were downed within Stanford’s 10-yard line and one went for a touchback.
The offense has three turnovers, two touchdowns and two field goals on seven drives. The defense has recorded three stops and one turnover but surrendered three touchdowns and one field goal on eight full drives.
There’s enough time left for Utah to complete a full drive. Giving the ball back to Utah on downs from its own 35 would still require a long drive to take the lead.
But the defense has looked good so far. Tilbey looks like a very solid bet to pin the Utes within their own 10. That’s a long way to go for evenly matched opponents. One full stop is likely all the defense needs to seal the victory with the amount of time left on the clock.
Three yards certainly wouldn’t fall under any classification as a long conversion, but it is by no means a safe bet short yard situation. In fact, the most thorough statistical analysis I found on the probability of a fourth down conversion — from the analytics website Football Outsiders, looking at NFL data from 2010-2012 — only included fourth down situations of two yards or shorter in its analysis.
A fourth-and-one or fourth-and-inches sets up a very safe quarterback sneak scenario, usually successful even when the defense undoubtedly sees it coming. Two yards is still a long way for a running back to go when a defense is expecting a run. By three yards, the odds are almost as good that an offense will go away from a power run and instead for a play action rollout, which can easily end with an incomplete pass.
This is a key distinction that almost everyone left out when comparing Helton’s playcalling to that of Utah’s Kyle Whittingham. Utah went for it on four fourth downs, and converted on all four tries. But all of them were fourth-and-one attempts, and Whittingham simply called for a rush play on each attempt. These decisions simply do not belong in the same category.
The other noteworthy criticism thrown around Twitter by USC fans is how eerily similar this defensive collapse by the Trojans was, given that the Utes scored a game-winning touchdown on their last drive when the Trojans were at Utah in 2014. It was almost déjà vu, with the Trojans being too conservative and letting Utah back in.
Except the last time the Trojans gave away a late lead at Utah, the coaching staff went for the exact opposite fourth-down approach on its final drive. Up 21-17 with just over 2:00 left in the game, from Utah’s 28-yard line, with veteran kicker Andre Heidari certainly in his field goal range, the Trojans went for the dagger on a fourth-and-two. They went for it, opting to try to bleed the rest of the clock out instead of give Utah the ball back with a 7-point lead. Sure enough, the Trojans were stopped short of the first down, and the Utes marched 73 yards to score the game-winning touchdown with only eight seconds to spare.
There’s only one reasonable conclusion I can come to after looking at this fourth-and-three decision at length: it’s a complete toss-up. Sure, maybe the staff made the wrong decision in both 2014 and 2016. Maybe a stats guru could calculate the exact likelihood of winning under each scenario, and the results aren’t completely unpredictable.
The important thing is that Trojan fans absolutely need to abandon these Monday Morning Quarterback assessments of Helton’s coaching abilities six games into his permanent role.
The Trojans have hit two opponents they were not supposed to compete with. They are 0-1 on the road against evenly matched opponents. The struggles of LSU, Oregon and Notre Dame show that rough opening months are possible with even the most storied programs — and that at least two of the Trojans’ big remaining challengers might be much more beatable than anticipated.
“Helton coaches not to lose; he needs to coach to win!” is the most unintelligent comment a fan can possibly utter. Football coaches may occasionally be irrationally risk averse, but fans and commentators will always have a hindsight bias. Punting inside an opponent’s territory with a one-possession lead is not inherently stupid. Refusing to do so is.
The more important questions Helton has to address is team discipline. The turnovers, and especially the penalties, have been killer. Questions about his personnel usage are also more legitimate — we shall see if senior tailback Justin Davis’ performance Saturday was a flash in the pan or a sign of his emergence as an elite go-to back. Utah is definitely now in the driver’s seat in the division, but the Trojans are not out of that race. Helton and the Trojans deserve the chance to show what they can do during the rest of the conference battle.
Luke Holthouse is a senior majoring in policy, planning and development and print and digital journalism. His column, “Holthouse Party,” runs on Wednesday.