USC’s 56-24 loss to No. 7 Oregon Saturday night at the Coliseum was a bad look for some of the program’s highest-profile members.
Let’s start with head coach Clay Helton, who can practically kiss his job goodbye. There has obviously been a lot of speculation about Helton’s job security in the last year or so, but his seat only got hotter in the days leading up to the game. The University’s hiring of Mike Bohn, the former Cincinnati athletic director who brought on former Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell as the school’s new head coach in 2017, suggests USC has keyed in on former Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer as its future leading man.
The team’s performance Saturday night probably put the final nail in the coffin for Helton. After jumping out to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter, the Trojans fell apart and allowed Oregon to go on a 56-14 run the rest of the game. In a flashback to the 2018 season (and, let’s be real, most games this season), USC repeatedly shot itself in the foot with mental errors, from dumb conduct penalties to turnovers. The defense, which did so well to limit star senior quarterback Justin Herbert in the first quarter, had no answers once the Ducks got rolling, allowing Oregon to score on its final six legitimate offensive possessions.
The combination of the lack of discipline and the inability to respond to Oregon’s adjustments showed Helton’s unsolvable issues as a head coach. He has never been able to outthink the opposition or get his guys to play clean football. Saturday night was just the latest example, and I can’t imagine it gave Bohn a very good impression of Helton in Bohn’s first game after being hired.
Oregon freshman cornerback Mykael Wright’s 100-yard kickoff return touchdown just before halftime was a microcosm of the last few years under Helton. Senior wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. had just scored to make it 21-17 and gave USC a little bit of life. Instead of squibbing the kick with 20 seconds left, sophomore Alex Stadthaus kicked off, giving Wright the opportunity for a runback.
Helton said after the game that he had confidence in Stadthaus to kick it out of the back of the end zone. This is simply a lack of foresight; why even risk a return? It was a bad decision in the moment, and Helton’s comment did nothing to reduce its head-scratching nature.
The loss also had long-term implications that seal Helton’s fate. USC now sits a game behind No. 8 Utah in the Pac-12 South standings, and it seems unlikely the Trojans will get to make use of the tiebreaker they earned by beating the Utes earlier this season. Utah finishes the season home for UCLA, at Arizona and home for Colorado, and it seems unlikely the Utes will lose to any of the three worst teams in the conference. And that’s assuming USC wins out, which also seems doubtful after that performance.
Helton’s only chance of remaining head coach was to win the South and go to the Pac-12 Championship Game. Since that goal seems out of reach, it’s hard to see how Helton will end up back in cardinal and gold in 2020.
It was also a sobering game for freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis, who completed 32 of 57 passes for 264 yards, three touchdowns (one of which came in garbage time), three interceptions and added a lost fumble. Oregon scored a touchdown following each of his turnovers, including a pick-six by junior safety Brady Breeze to put the Ducks up two possessions in the second quarter.
Slovis’ performance wasn’t entirely his fault. He was forced to throw 57 times, a school record and a burden no freshman quarterback should have to carry. He was under pressure all night.
USC did enter the games with a lot of injuries at running back, but offensive coordinator Graham Harrell deserves some blame for not conjuring an adjustment as he did by inserting sophomore wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown in the backfield. Harrell is another main character for USC that didn’t put himself in the best light.
However, Slovis’ struggles are scary to the many fans who had him pegged as the team’s clear answer at quarterback for the next three seasons. Whereat one point next year’s starter seemed decided, there is a hint of a question. Perhaps sophomore JT Daniels hasn’t started his last game at USC.
But in the end, it all comes back to Helton. He’s the one responsible for the whole team and the one who will definitely not be returning next year. Here’s an idea of the extent to which USC beat itself: At one point in the third quarter, the Ducks had 281 total yards and 42 points. That is not a typical yards-points balance. So much of Oregon’s scoring came because of USC mistakes, and at this point in Helton’s tenure, that is unacceptable.
All of Helton’s players say they love him and play hard for him, and I honestly do believe that. But what is that love worth if it doesn’t translate to wins? USC needs to find someone who will not only inspire devotion but also establish a culture of discipline and accountability. There needs to be a healthy fear among the players that they can’t screw up or there will be consequences, and Helton has proven time and again that he’s not that guy.
Is it Meyer? I hope not (I tend to not support people who covered up domestic abuse). I’m not sure who the coach will be, but I do know one thing: USC needs a fresh start.
Aidan Berg is a junior writing about sports. He is also an associate managing editor for Daily Trojan. His column, “Berg is the Word,” runs every Monday.