Football is a fickle business. Head coach Clay Helton knows this better than almost anyone. At a football program like USC — with so much history and prestige — if you’re not winning, your seat grows hotter and hotter by the week. One day you’re the hero who turned a season around after a disastrous start; the next, your leadership is questioned after a loss to a ranked team on the road during a short week.
In the 28 games Helton has led the Trojans, he has experienced it all. Last season, after a 1-3 start that led everyone to press the panic button, people questioned whether Helton was fit to lead the Trojans. But after rattling off nine straight wins, USC celebrated underneath confetti in the Rose Bowl. The criticism was nowhere to be found.
As the Trojans enter their sixth game of the season, the pressure is back on the head coach and his team. Entering the season, you would’ve been hard-pressed to hear a conversation about the College Football Playoff without USC in the discussion. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold was Vegas’ favorite to win the Heisman Trophy. But following the Trojans’ loss against Washington State, the hype train has stalled. After two bad games, Darnold is behind in the Heisman race. USC is 4-1, but they slipped down to 14th in the AP Poll.
“As a coach you kind of take a step back,” Helton said. “You’re hurting inside, but you also view your team and see how much they care. There were grown men crying in that locker room [against Washington State]. There was not one word that was said on the 45-minute bus ride from the stadium to the airport. I looked at their faces on the plane, and they were hurt.”
With seven games remaining on their regular season schedule, the Trojans will now be forced to battle for their playoff lives on a weekly basis. On his conference call following the tough road loss, Helton emphasized that USC still remains in the driver’s seat.
“The message to our team is that one game doesn’t define our season,” Helton said. “We had a hard-fought game on the road against a very good opponent. We just finished September. We’re 4-1, and we control our own destiny. We could not say that a year ago.”
But even if USC’s position has improved from this point last season, the team’s approach remains the same.
“We’re not hoping for a game to go one way or another,” Helton said. “We just have to go out there and do our job, and every goal that we have out there is there. We control our own destiny.”
“Control your own destiny.” It’s a phrase that Helton has preached to his team and repeated over and over again to the media. Drawing from his experience last year, Helton realized his team had fought through worse. During his tenure, Helton has instilled a sense of resiliency in the program. Whether that means that the Trojans can come back from any deficit or bouncing back from a tough loss, it doesn’t matter.
“As a head coach, you can do one of two things,” Helton said. “Because you have a failure or a loss, you can panic and try to scrap everything. Or you can believe in the men that surround you. I choose to believe in the players that surround me as well as our coaches. I really, truly believe they’re gonna get the job done.
“It’s not what happens to you,” he continued. “But how you react.”
While he wasn’t seen as a sexy hire, Helton has brought a Southern flair to Southern California. By combining the traditional West Coast offense with an SEC-inspired toughness, Helton’s philosophy can be summed up as a desire to have the best of both worlds. In their game against Stanford, a program that prides itself on physicality, the Trojans dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Against Texas, USC aired it out more and won on the shoulders of Darnold. But for the past two weeks, USC’s offense has struggled. While injuries have decimated the offensive line and tested the depth of the receivers, the Trojans will need more out of their offensive unit, Darnold included.
Following their game over the weekend, Helton and his squad participated in “Tell the Truth Monday.” The Trojans sat down and assessed where they were as a team upon reviewing the film from their last game. USC hasn’t had a “Tell the Truth Monday” following a loss since their defeat at Utah last September. After going over a full calendar year without losing a game, the Trojans now find themselves in a do-or-die situation when it comes to the College Football Playoff. With a focus on accountability, hard work and resilience, Helton and the Trojans will try to move USC back to where the storied program is used to being: the championship conversation.