While head coach Clay Helton and his future have dominated the headlines for the last several months, he was far from the only Trojan coach operating with an uncertain fate this season.
Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s leash has arguably been shorter all year. After No. 22 USC’s 49-24 loss to No. 16 Iowa in the San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl Friday, it’s easy to imagine that already-scalding seat turning into a heaping pile of ashes before long.
The Hawkeyes’ modest 328 yards of total offense don’t tell the story of a unit that dominated a healthy Trojan defense in San Diego. USC allowed touchdowns on each of Iowa’s first four offensive possessions — not including a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown — and didn’t pick up a stop until there was 1:20 remaining in the third quarter.
Iowa’s methodical offense put together touchdown drives of 8:15, 7:19 and 6:35 and presented a puzzle that Pendergast and the Trojans could not solve.
The Hawkeyes ended the game converting eight of 13 third downs.
“That’s their MO,” Helton said. “If you are not successful with them on third down, it can be long drives. There were some 15-, 14-play drives that really took the wind out of our sails.”
Junior wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette was the star for the Hawkeyes, compiling 203 all-purpose yards. He scored rushing, receiving and kick return touchdowns and nearly added a passing score when he slightly overled an open receiver in the end zone.
“We knew we were facing a good team with some dynamic athletes. He’s one of them,” Helton said of Smith-Marsette. “We got to see it firsthand tonight. We know [it was] probably game-changing as far as the kickoff return goes. All of a sudden you blink your eyes, you’re right back down 7.”
USC entered halftime down 11 points after a 32-yard field goal by redshirt sophomore kicker Chase McGrath to end the half. After coming out of the break with a touchdown drive, Helton called for an onside kick, and the Trojans recovered it down by just 4.
But they failed to pick up multiple first downs on the following drive, while freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis went down with an elbow injury on a strip sack by junior defensive lineman and possible top-10 pick A.J. Epenesa.
Under redshirt junior quarterback Matt Fink, USC’s offense hardly made a peep the rest of the game, and the Hawkeyes pulled away with a 21-0 run to close out the victory.
“I thought we put ourselves right in that position after the onside kick,” Helton said. “It was exciting. It was really neat to see our fans when Matty took the field, the support that was around him, around the guys. We just didn’t get it done.”
Fink completed his first three passes but finished a meager 12-of-18 with 74 yards and an interception.
“Kedon obviously gets a lot more reps with the ones during practice, so I think he just feels more comfortable, obviously,” sophomore wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown said. “Fink doesn’t get as many reps, so I think that plays a big part in the chemistry and everything.”
The Trojans’ last six drives featured two punts, a lost fumble by senior wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr., an errant snap that Iowa recovered at USC’s 6-yard line, a missed field goal by McGrath and a pick-6 by junior linebacker Nick Niemann.
“These types of experiences for our freshmen and sophomore group I think are important for them to dive into and understand that you can’t make the critical error. You can’t make the critical error on the minus side of the field,” Helton said. “… Those lessons will be invaluable as we move forward. Every experience, whether it’s a success or failure, will help this young team.”
For the Trojans, it was a disappointing way to end a season marred by inconsistency. Still, USC will be returning most of its top talent in 2020 and figures to compete in a Pac-12 that features many schools losing key players.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow, but it really don’t mean nothing going into the offseason, because our offseason, it doesn’t and can’t have anything to do with the 2019 bowl game,” redshirt sophomore offensive tackle Jalen McKenzie said. “We still gotta come back, win the Pac-12 South, beat Bama first game, win all of our games. All of that is still ahead of us.”