Clay Helton’s Sweet Revenge

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Living well is the best revenge, or so the saying goes. If that’s true, first-year USC head coach Clay Helton, his entire coaching staff and this 2016 Trojan football team are proving it, all right.

Allow me to be the first to admit I was dead wrong in underestimating Helton this season — and I wasn’t alone. I was wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong.

There are few moments in life where it feels good to be wrong. This certainly is one of them.

Back in September when the earth seemed to crumble and the wheels seemed to fall off the USC wagon as the Trojans posted a 1-3 record, it seemed inevitable that new Athletic Director Lynn Swann would be looking elsewhere for a new head coach, and soon.

Losing to Alabama was one thing. But posting back-to-back, completely abysmal losses to Stanford and Utah to open Pac-12 play 0-2 sent the Trojan faithful spiraling. #FireHelton seemed to be trending every week, and fans and sports analysts alike speculated openly about Helton’s future in Troy. And the critiques of Helton really ratcheted up in Week 4 when he benched quarterback Max Browne for Sam Darold.

At the time, that decision felt like a temporary, cosmetic fix to a much bigger problem.

Fast forward to Week 12, where the Trojans are 6-1 with Darnold and are undefeated since October.

Welp. We were wrong about that too.

It’s no secret that coaching at USC is a challenge. It’s sink-or-swim from day one, with a fanbase that fondly remembers the Glory Days from a decade ago anxious to ascend the college football throne once more. While the natives were certainly restless in Troy back in September, the only people who weren’t worried about the Trojans’ fate were the USC coaches and players themselves.

Instead, they hunkered down, rallied around each other and slowly but surely, the benefits of that began to show.

An offense that was stagnant and frustrating under Browne has become a (mostly) well-oiled, exciting machine under Darnold. The redshirt freshman quarterback is fearless in the pocket, which has really allowed the Trojans to get loose on offense, both in the air and on the ground. And some of that credit goes to first-time offensive coordinator Tee Martin, whose offense now looks nothing like the sputtering one that was wholly inept against Alabama.

Going into their contest against Washington, it wasn’t inconceivable that the Trojans would triumph over an undefeated Huskies team that had been regularly dropping 40 points on opponents. A few weeks ago, though? Just a pipe dream.

And the Trojan defense is finally living up to its potential. Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast had some growing pains of his own to deal with in his return to Troy, but his defense – which held Washington to just one touchdown and five other high-scoring offensives under 30 points since September – is looking like it can contend with the upper echelon of college football once again.

The Trojans still have two major rivalry games on their season to get through, and if they do so unscathed, Helton and company deserve an apology from eeeeeeverybody. And furthermore, they deserve much more respect.

To be sure: this team is not perfect. As great as Darnold has been in seven games, he has also thrown some pretty easy interceptions. The offensive line is still racking up penalties like they’re going out of style. If USC wants to hang with the big dogs, it needs to iron out a few more kinks.

But for the first time in what seems like forever, hanging with the big dogs seems possible. The Trojans no longer look like a team loaded with talent but lacking direction. They look like a team on the cusp of something great.

And to think, that all came from a coaching staff that isn’t flashy, that speaks softly but commands respect from its players and that didn’t even crack a sweat while the seats underneath them sizzled.

Well played, Helton and company. Well played.