In his postgame radio interview on 710 ESPN on Saturday after USC hung on to beat Arizona 24-20 in Tucson, it didn’t take long for head coach Clay Helton to utter the words, “control our destiny.”
He did it last season ad nauseam, to the point that writers placed bets in the press box as to how many times Helton would use that phrase in his postgame interview — which means that no matter how bad things may seem, USC is still in position to win the Pac-12 South. It’s one of the many cliches that clutter Helton’s press conferences, and it would be accurate to characterize him as a coach who sees the glass as half full, no matter the circumstances.
To be fair, Helton admitted to not being satisfied with how the Trojans finished Saturday’s contest. With a 24-0 second half lead, USC shot itself in the foot with turnovers, penalties and poor decision-making, allowing Arizona and its hobbled quarterback, Khalil Tate, to come dangerously close to making a comeback.
Nobody in the locker room seemed particularly happy, like freshman quarterback JT Daniels: “You can’t be too mad when you get a win, but I’m pretty mad. We can do better. And I guess that’s a positive, [because] we’re nowhere near our potential.”
Or redshirt sophomore wide receiver Tyler Vaughns: “I’m not happy for [the win] because I know we should’ve done better.”
Or senior linebacker Cam Smith: “I think we just haven’t put a complete game together, and we’re due.”
But still — “control our destiny.” Mhmm.
The thing is, though, his words actually ring true. With a 2-1 conference record, the Trojans do control their own destiny. They can play exactly like they did on Saturday — exceptional at times, terribly at others — and roll through a weak Pac-12 South. Of its six remaining conference games, USC is projected by ESPN’s Football Power Index to win all but one of them, with Oct. 20’s road game at Utah the only toss up.
The Trojans get Colorado, Arizona State and Cal at home. They’ll play Utah, Oregon State and UCLA on the road. None of these teams match USC’s talent. None of them have USC’s playmakers. If the Trojans show up to these games with a half-decent game plan, they can finish 8-1 in the Pac-12 and undefeated in the South. Whether or not playoff contender Notre Dame blows them out in the regular season finale has no impact on a potential Pac-12 Championship berth.
This is why this football program is as promising as it is infuriating. The Trojans can be so much more than a team that merely beats up on inferior competition, so much better than a team that escapes Tucson with a win that should have never been in doubt, yet was in jeopardy up until they recovered an onside kick late in regulation.
Nobody questions the skill. Look at how composed Daniels seemed, as an 18-year-old starting quarterback. Look at how explosive senior running back Aca’Cedric Ware was on the ground, rushing for two touchdowns and 173 yards. Look at how the defense shut down the dynamic Tate and Arizona’s rushing attack, which entered the game leading the Pac-12 with an average of 247.2 yards per game but was held to 98 yards on Saturday.
And yet, the Trojans barely clawed out the win to inch a game above .500 on the season, and they remain unranked for the third straight week.
This can be better. It should be better. Being able to “control our destiny” shouldn’t be the goal; it should be a given. If USC wins the rest of its conference games but is blown out by Notre Dame to end the regular season, all that means is the Trojans won the games they should have won only to lose a game that would have actually meant something bigger than just controlling their destiny.
Instead of measuring USC against Pac-12 competition, Helton should be looking at the non-conference results. Since 2016, the Trojans have suffered blowout losses to Alabama, Texas and Ohio State, with the 2017 Rose Bowl win over Penn State the lone statement out-of-conference victory in the Helton era.
But USC might reach the Rose Bowl this season anyway without having to prove itself. All the Trojans have to do is beat mediocre competition the next six games, and then come up on top against presumably Stanford or Washington in the Pac-12 Championship.
So yes, Helton is right: USC does control its own destiny, and it could be enough to keep everyone happy this season. But that is frustrating in itself.
Eric He is a senior majoring in journalism. He is also the managing editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Grinding Gears,” runs Mondays.