At a certain point, there’s no sugarcoating what kind of program USC has become.
Saturday’s 38-35 loss to Arizona State at the Coliseum that all but ended any hopes of USC repeating as Pac-12 champions was an indication of how far this program has slipped since the Pete Carroll era, how lowered expectations have turned into the norm and how much hotter head coach Clay Helton’s seat is becoming, game by game.
Here are three things that Saturday’s loss added to the accumulating list of horrors this season has produced thus far.
Home win streak snapped
No matter how disappointing USC has played this season, the one thing supporters have hung their hats on has been the win streak at the Coliseum. That was snapped on Saturday at 19 games, the second longest in college football. It was the first time Helton has lost in the Coliseum since taking over in 2015, the first time anyone on the team aside from the seniors has experienced a home defeat.
There were tears flowing in the locker room.
“When I see a grown man like [redshirt freshman defensive lineman] Jay Tufele being emotional because he gave everything he had and I see guys absolutely saddened by a loss, that’s what you want as a coach,” Helton said.
It eliminates a crutch for Helton and his backers. Despite the numerous lopsided road losses USC has experienced the past few seasons — including last week at Utah — they could always point to Helton’s success at the Coliseum, how this team has been unbeatable on home turf.
But the streak was almost like a mirage, an easy excuse that did not atone for the problems that have become apparent. Perhaps it is fitting that it ended in the midst of a season that has put Helton’s job security increasingly at risk: He can no longer use the streak to prop himself up.
One game is hardly enough a sample size, but one could make the case that USC could have started redshirt freshman Jack Sears instead of true freshman JT Daniels at quarterback in Week 1 and have a better record.
Sears looked rusty out of the gate, probably because he hadn’t played in a real game since high school. But he showed his skillset and flashes of Sam Darnold-esque greatness in the second half, helping USC rattle off 21 straight points to flip a 24-7 deficit.
He completed 20-of-28 passes for two touchdowns and 235 yards, didn’t throw a pick and looked more comfortable than Daniels has all season.
Sears has a stronger arm than Daniels, more athletic ability and — unlike the true freshman — the wherewithal to extend plays with his feet, to make something out of nothing. That is a valuable asset, especially in an offense run by Helton and offensive coordinator Tee Martin that is too often stagnant and predictable.
Let’s not forget that for the hype surrounding Daniels this season, Sears was the sixth-ranked dual threat quarterback recruit in the country before he committed to USC, according to Rivals — one spot below Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger.
And yet, not only did Helton choose an 18-year-old to lead the program, but he also dropped Sears to third in the depth chart behind redshirt sophomore Matt Fink despite the fact that Sears clearly has more talent.
Whether it was seniority, giving into the hype or a combination of both, Helton did not make the right call regarding Sears, who looks like starter material to me — and, apparently, to Helton.
“[He] practices like a starter, and today he played like a starter,” Helton said after Saturday’s game.
The head honcho will have a decision to make next week, should Daniels heal from his concussion. Two seasons ago, Helton essentially admitted he made the wrong decision to start Max Browne over Darnold when he made the switch following a 1-3 start. Will this season make it 0-for-2 in quarterback decisions?
The only thing worse than a home win streak being snapped and a potential quarterback decision brewing is having nobody care about either, and that’s the direction this season appears to be turning in.
USC drew just 47,406 fans on Saturday at the Coliseum, the lowest for a home game since 2001, and it is on pace to draw the fewest fans per game since 1987.
Camera shots from above the Coliseum on Saturday revealed many patches of empty seats. Nobody wants to watch a .500 team, especially in Los Angeles, when the weekend weather is picture perfect and there are better sports teams in the immediate vicinity.
But that is what USC has become, a “meh” program when the expectations and history demand so much more. It has become a program that is not worth spending a Saturday to watch anymore. It has become just another mediocre Pac-12 team when it should have the talent and resources to compete for a national championship. To not even be surprised in the slightest after a home loss to Arizona State shows you all you need to know about the state of this program.
And as the losses continue to pile up, as the home-win streak becomes a thing of the past and as the coaching staff faces mounting criticism, the pressure to make a change at the top may reach a boiling point sooner rather than later.
Eric He is a senior majoring in journalism. He is also the managing editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Grinding Gears,” runs Mondays.