Grinding Gears: Trojans, Helton get much needed win

It started with an 8-yard touchdown run by sophomore running back Stephen Carr. Then came a 57-yard dash by senior running back Aca’Cedric Ware, and finally a 41-yard strike from freshman quarterback JT Daniels to freshman receiver Devon Williams.

Three drives, three touchdowns and a lifeline for USC that it needed badly. The 38-21 road win over Oregon State on Saturday not only kept the Trojans alive in the Pac-12 South, but it also provided temporarily relief for a program that went through a major coaching overhaul last week.

Gone was offensive line coach Neil Callaway. Head coach Clay Helton finally had enough of Tee Martin calling plays and took the offensive coordinator’s primary duties for himself. The moves were as surprising as they were necessary — the fiercely loyal Helton fired a family friend in Callaway and essentially relegated Martin to being a spotter up in the box. Athletic Director Lynn Swan had to publicly defend Helton, who faced heavy backlash from critics calling for Helton’s termination.

“That’s about as hard a week as you can possibly have,” Helton said.

The tough decisions paid off — for now, at least. If flipping the offensive coaching duties was meant to provide a midseason jolt, then it passed on Saturday. With Helton calling plays for the first time since he was the interim head coach in 2015, the offense had its best all-around performance this season, recording a season-high 509 yards of total offense, as did the run game with 332 yards.

Ware, who waited four years for a breakout game, finally had his moment with a career-high 205 yards on the ground. He looked like a No. 1 back as he gashed through holes, eluded tackles and turned on the burners. Ware’s dancing exhibition after his third touchdown of the night drew a penalty for excessive celebration, but it was worth it.

In a season that has been as frustrating as the 5-4 record indicates, this was an enjoyable game for the Trojans. The run game was explosive and the defense had a party in the backfield with six sacks, tying a season-high. During a timeout in the second half, the entire USC sideline erupted as AC/DC’s “T.N.T.” blasted over the loudspeakers at Reser Stadium, waving their arms and jumping up and down.

Considering the criticism and tension that has enveloped the program this season, a never-ending hailstorm that perhaps reached its peak last week, Corvallis, Oregon was exactly what the doctor ordered for some stress relief.

“In that locker room, we all let out a huge scream, all together, just let out a bunch of frustration,” Helton said.

If you can imagine a group of large, grown men in a locker room all screaming at once, that’s the point we have reached for USC football this season. But this is good. Sports are supposed to be fun, and for the first time this season, it looked like this team was genuinely having fun, playing the game, letting it out.

It’s entirely fair to say this team is heavily underperforming this season, and to rip on each of its mistakes (and there were still plenty on Saturday). But it would be unfair to ignore the human element of it all, the immense pressure the coaches and players face just by donning the Cardinal and Gold and, more specifically, the toll that it must take on Helton to coach week after week like his job is on the line — which, make no mistake, it still very much is.

What Helton did last week was a good first step. He did what a good leader does, prioritizing winning over loyalty by firing a close friend and taking responsibility for an offense that was going nowhere.

Now, this offense — and this team — is at least going somewhere. USC needs help in addition to winning the rest of its conference games, but a Rose Bowl appearance, as incredulous as it sounds, is in play and by no means a stretch considering the mess that is the Pac-12.

Setting aside the lofty, ubiquitous expectations for the moment and that the opponent was Oregon State, Saturday’s result was just about all you could have asked for. So Ware can dance all he wants, the sideline can jump around all it wants and the entire locker room can scream its lungs out. Positive vibes, at long last, may have arrived in the nick of time for the Trojans.