USC football’s 31-26 victory over Arizona State in Tempe, Ariz. Saturday displayed two truths of the soon-to-end tenure of head coach Clay Helton. As has been the case for a few years, the Trojans showcased elite individual talent that allowed the team to gain an advantage over ASU, but the team’s inability to put it all together for an extended period of time resulted in a lackluster performance.
USC provided a vision of that ideal team with a nearly perfect first quarter. Freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis was absolutely dominant, throwing four touchdowns and breaking the team record for passing yards in a first quarter with 297. This included what is likely Slovis’ best throw of the season, a frozen rope that traveled 35 yards between three defenders before finding sophomore wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown’s hands en route to a 95-yard touchdown and a 28-7 lead.
Slovis and co. had so many plays where the sheer level of talent made me say “whoa.” The defense wasn’t far behind, forcing two Sun Devil punts and only allowing a touchdown because of a 97-yard kickoff return. But that lapse in discipline — or execution, whatever you want to call it — kept the Trojans from putting this game away in the early going.
Things really started to go wrong in the second quarter, when the offense was unable to punish Arizona State for two turnovers. It was an all-or-nothing half for the defense, which allowed a 62-yard touchdown to redshirt junior wide receiver Frank Darby.
Here are the results of the Trojans’ second-half drives: turnover on downs, field goal, fumble, punt, punt, punt. Only the field goal drive took up more than six plays, and the second-to-last possession would’ve ended in a Slovis pick-six if not for a holding call on ASU. Granted, Slovis departed the game with a leg cramp and redshirt junior Matt Fink took over on a few of those possessions, but it was startling just how incapable the offense was after appearing unstoppable for the first 15 minutes.
The defense, on the other hand, at times appeared unable to do anything to stop backup freshman quarterback Joey Yellen, who threw four touchdowns on the afternoon. It was alarming that a defense with as much talent as the Trojans’ wasn’t able to bottle up a signal-caller making his first collegiate start.
Yellen played in place of injured freshman starter Jayden Daniels, and it’s hard not to think that this would’ve been a Sun Devils victory had Daniels been able to go. Not that Helton has much of a chance to retain his position, but a loss to the team that fell to Colorado at home and which didn’t have its starting quarterback would have left a real sour taste at the end of Helton’s reign.
However, in the end, Helton was bailed out by his team’s talent. Redshirt senior defensive lineman Christian Rector, who has struggled with nagging injuries all year, made his first huge play of the season by deflecting a pass in front of him before laying out to cradle it for the game-sealing interception. It was a miraculous play, and, judging from the progress ASU was making on its final drive, a necessary one for the Trojans to emerge victorious.
Before you keep reading, try to think of a game during the Helton era in which the whole team fired on all cylinders from beginning to end. It’s pretty difficult to name one that USC has dominated until the final whistle, a truly satisfying win in every facet. Victories over Stanford and Arizona earlier this season come to mind, but those were home matchups with pretty bad teams. The best teams — a level the Trojans aspire to reach — beat down on inferior competition but also take care of business against stronger foes by executing in every area for 60 minutes.
Take No. 2 LSU’s 46-41 win over No. 3 Alabama Saturday. It was fitting that these two games ran in the same time slot because it gave USC fans a glimpse of what they missed out on. Tigers head coach Ed Orgeron filled the same position for USC on an interim basis in 2013 before then-athletic director Pat Haden passed him over for the permanent role in favor of Steve Sarkisian.
Since then, USC has had four athletic directors, Sarkisian was fired in no small part due to alcohol-related incidents, Helton’s teams have regressed and Orgeron has built one of college football’s best programs in Baton Rouge. It must have hurt USC fans who, like me, had a second screen up to watch Orgeron go toe-to-toe with Alabama head coach Nick Saban and come out on top. A guy like that might be useful next year when the Trojans kick off their season against the Crimson Tide in Arlington, Texas.
LSU is successful because its offense, defense and special teams deliver for four quarters game in and game out. It’s not easy to put it all together, but it’s what a program of USC’s caliber deserves.
For now, Trojan fans can only look longingly to the past and wonder about the future because there’s no chance at reaching that level with the present staff.
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.