Clay Helton Goes The Distance: USC is Headed to the Pac-12 Championship

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On a brisk Saturday afternoon in Boulder, the No. 11 USC Trojans beat Colorado 38-24. With the win, clinched their second Pac-12 South title in three seasons.

But in true USC fashion, the Trojans couldn’t just win and be done with it. Oh no, they had to let things get interesting.

USC had kept Colorado completely scoreless through two and a half quarters, blocking 47 and 39-yard field goal attempts before Colorado capitalized on busted coverage and ripped off a 79-yard touchdown pass. From there, the Buffs blocked a punt and returned it to the 1-yard line. Colorado running back Phillip Lindsay then walked into the end zone, cutting the score to 27-14.

But even with those heart-attack antics – and those in the fourth quarter, where Colorado drove to the USC 3-yard line with less than two minutes to play and threatened to make it a one-possession game – USC prevailed and for their efforts, a conference championship awaits them. And whether they like it or not, Trojan fans have to admit to themselves that Clay Helton and Company may just know what they’re doing after all, even if each game didn’t yield a perfect result.

While many in the Trojan family would have you believe it’s Playoffs or Bust every season, that absurd expectation simply is not where the bar lies. More realistically, the standard for any USC coach is making it to the Pac-12 Championship. Coach Helton can now add that to his resume, and that goes right next to his 2017 Rose Bowl victory on his list of accomplishments in two seasons at the helm.

That’s not to say USC fans can’t be frustrated with the way the team has played through 2017. Please.

Sam Darold leads the FBS with the most lost fumbles (7) and USC has 21 turnovers overall on the season. An offense led by electrifying running back Ronald Jones II is somehow only averaging 35.2 points per game (28th overall in FBS). Even beyond the stat lines, USC has just flat out looked average this season more times than it has impressed.

And what’s more, because SC struggles so often to close games out – including against Colorado – it forces the starters to stay on the field, which keeps younger players from building valuable experience.

Yes, there has been much to be frustrated about from the Trojans this season. But those frustrations aren’t enough to call for a coach’s head just two years in. Especially when that coach has a shot at USC’s first Pac-12 championship win in nearly a decade.

Because at the end of the day, USC is winning. And a win is a win, even when it’s ugly and stupid and gives you a coronary.

I touched on this a week ago, but USC fans struggle to appreciate Helton because they are still reveling in the glory days of Pete Carroll. And I get it – Petey C was the man. He was everything. If he wanted to come back to Troy tomorrow, the Trojan family would throw him a parade.  Under Carroll, USC won and won handily, making slight work of pretty much every opponent they faced.

But guess what, SC fans? Carroll ain’t coming back. And playing musical coaches every few seasons isn’t going to make it any easier to begin the next dynasty. No coach would want to head up a program where the expectations are as unreasonable as win it all or GTFO.  

For Helton, he struggles more from a perception problem than an actual production problem. USC fans perceive him to be less capable than he is, and so even when he wins, the natives have a tendency to react as if USC has a losing record.

But the reality is this – until Helton plateaus, it is nonsensical to suggest he should be on the hot season.

Take, for example, Mark Richt, the former head coach at Georgia. Richt – who had led the Bulldogs to six SEC East titles and two SEC Conference Championships – didn’t get fired simply because the Bulldogs didn’t win national titles. He got fired because in 15 seasons, getting to his conference championship was all he could do. Georgia gave him time to clear that bar, and when it was evident he could not do so, the powers that be took the program in a different direction.

USC fans need to have that same attitude when evaluating Helton. Sure, USC could and should play better on a weekly basis. Yes, the team is still plagued by an unforgivable lack of discipline that undermines their greatness. And yes again, baffling play-calling decisions in critical situations – like being gifted an interception from Ajene Harris in the 4th quarter against Colorado and, with 5:55 to play, opting to pass instead of running the ball and running out the clock – have made it difficult to give this coaching staff the benefit of the doubt.

At the same time, though, when the game has been on the line, Helton and Company – and behind the efforts of Darnold – have delivered more times than they have fallen short. They have dazzled and delighted more times than they have disappointed. No matter how unsatisfying a win feels, it’s far better than actually taking an L. Because of Helton and his staff, USC fans have only had to experience that twice this year.

So I say all that to say – live it up, Trojan fans! USC is headed to its second-ever conference championship, and a rivalry tilt against a limping UCLA squad is on the horizon. It really doesn’t get much better than this, when you consider just two years ago, the Trojans were embroiled in a mess of a season.

I think it’s fair to say that USC wasn’t the team we thought they would be this season. Hell, I am still trying to figure out how to define this season. But if nothing else, Helton has shown that he can adjust, that he can develop players (just look at the growth and maturation of all wide receivers not named Deontay Burnett this season) and that he can improve. His record and the team’s ability to bend but not break are worthy of respect from even the most stubborn of USC fans.

So, have a little patience and faith in Helton, Trojan Family. For the time being, he’s all you got.