Grinding Gears: Losing to UCLA crosses the line

The remnants of what USC’s season has been reduced to were ubiquitous after an embarrassing 34-27 loss to UCLA the Rose Bowl on Saturday. Above the tunnel that head coach Clay Helton walked through, USC fans waved him goodbye, yelled obscenities and held up signs calling for his firing. In the concourse, where Bruins fans — rejuvenated from a rivalry win despite a 3-8 record — chanted “Stay Clay Helton!” On Twitter, where a number of alumni voiced their displeasure — former Heisman trophy winner Matt Leinart simply tweeted, “Embarrassing.” During Helton’s postgame press conference, he was questioned repeatedly about his job security.

What was supposed to be a season of promise to follow up a Rose Bowl win and Pac-12 Championship title has instead turned into a crusade to fire Helton. And if Saturday’s game, a crosstown matchup against a very beatable UCLA squad, was USC’s last stand to convince the powers that be to retain the head coach, then it failed. Miserably.

One could argue that regardless of Saturday’s result, Helton’s job was already in danger. But losing to UCLA in that fashion has to cross the proverbial red line. USC checked off all of the boxes on Saturday.

Sloppy execution? Try watching freshman quarterback JT Daniels’ two interceptions — which were more pinpoint passes to UCLA cornerbacks than they were attempts to target a USC receiver — without gagging a little bit.

Questionable play-calling? Ask Helton why, when USC had 2nd-and-1 from the UCLA 23-yard line, he dialed up consecutive end zone shots that fell incomplete, forcing a 42-yard field goal try that redshirt sophomore placekicker Michael Brown missed.

Bonehead decisions? Someone explain what sophomore defensive lineman Brandon Pili was thinking when, on a third-and-goal play, he reared back and landed a full-throated, right hand punch to the helmet of UCLA’s Christaphany Murray. Instead of facing fourth-and-goal, the Bruins scored a touchdown with a fresh set of downs and went ahead 7-3 in the first quarter.

Check, check and check.

Three points on the missed field goal, plus 4 points on Pili’s unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, totals 7 points. The final score: UCLA 34, USC 27. That, right there, is how you lose winnable games because of coaching, because of poor decisions, because somehow, someway, we are in the final week of the season and this team — loaded with talent up and down the roster — hasn’t figured out how to not shoot itself in the foot.

USC will more than likely end the season by taking a drubbing from undefeated Notre Dame on Saturday. It will not make a bowl game. It will finish at 5-7, below .500 for the first time since 2000, the year Daniels was born. Think about that.

By now, we’ve seen enough evidence: If Athletic Director Lynn Swann were to fire Helton, nobody would complain. The only question that remains is whether Swann and the rest of the administration want to undergo another coaching change. This is not a Steve Sarkisian-type situation. There is no doubt Helton is a good person, a players’ coach who has the support of the locker room and a strong relationship with his bosses. When asked if he had talked to Swann after Saturday’s loss, Helton responded confidently.

“He just hugged my neck in there and said, ‘Coach, I’ll see you Monday. I’m looking forward to it,’” Helton said.

But one person did not make himself available to the media: Swann. After USC defeated Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship game last season, Swann held an impromptu session with reporters on the Levi’s Stadium field, expressing his confidence in Helton.

On Saturday, he did no such thing. Even when Swann went on Trojans Live a few weeks ago — after Helton fired offensive line coach Neil Callaway and usurped play-calling duties from offensive coordinator Tee Martin — and threw his support behind Helton, vouching for stability over starting anew, he did not confirm that Helton would be the head coach beyond 2018.

Helton, when asked on Saturday if he knows he’ll return, didn’t really answer.

“Out of honor and respect to [Swann], I’ll let you ask him that,” Helton said. “As I said earlier this week, I feel tremendous support from Mr. Swann and what we are doing him, and thank him for it because he’s been with me every step.”

There’s a strong likelihood that the administration does not want to make a change. For three years, Helton has provided a semblance of stability by cleaning up the mess that Sarkisian left. And the last thing the administration wants, as it deals with a number of non-athletics scandals and searches for a new University president, is to hire a new football coach.

But a 5-7 season, in the eyes of USC supporters, is unacceptable. A loss to a 2-8 UCLA team is mind-boggling. The football program, right now, is an embarrassment. As much as the administration does not want to make a change — after Saturday’s performance — it is left with no choice.

Eric He is a senior majoring in journalism. He is also the managing editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Grinding Gears,” ran Mondays.