Dear USC Fans: You Owe Clay Helton an Apology

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“He’s not good enough.”

“USC could be so much better if they had a different coach.”

“Lynn Swann should really just fire everyone and start from scratch.”

Ahem. USC fans, I think you owe a certain coaching staff an apology.

In his second full season as the head coach at USC, Clay Helton guided the Trojans to the Pac-12 Championship and won it all Friday night. He becomes the first Pac-12 South coach to claim such an honor, and brings the Trojan Family its first conference championship since 2008. If that weren’t enough, Helton also now holds the distinction of being the first coach since 1913 to beat Stanford twice in the same season. On Friday night, Helton delivered a thrilling 31-28 victory over the Cardinal.

That resume doesn’t sound like one of a coach you should fire, if you ask me.

In a game where many USC fans (foolishly) felt that it was win-or-GTFO for coach Helton, the second-year head coach showed once again that there is more to winning than looking flawless while you do it. Sometimes, you have to slug it out in the trenches, rack up fifty-leven penalties and dominate your opponent to bring home the W.

And you know what? Sure, it wasn’t the prettiest championship win. But it had EVERYTHING.

From jump, the Trojans came onto the field with every intention to control the line of scrimmage. And control it they did – running back phenomenon Ronald Jones took his first handoff 12 yards, and with it he gained not only a first down, but a new place on USC’s all-time rushing list:

The Trojans would go on to punish Stanford for 501 yards, while limiting Stanford to 343. This is especially impressive when you consider Stanford’s dynamic running back Bryce Love only ripped off one long run of 52 yards, and only found the end zone once.

We also had one of the most incredible stiff arms of the season.

It was ultimately called back on a penalty, but LOOK AT THAT BEAUTIFUL THING.

My sentiments exactly. You take that penalty, Imatorbhebhe. You take that penalty and you OWN IT.

That penalty was one of 16 the Trojans and Cardinal amassed in this game, nine of which went against USC. In total, both teams generated 149 yards of penalties, and many of them were incredibly stupid. For example, USC linebacker John Houston drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against Stanford quarterback KJ Costello on 2nd-and-goal in the 4th quarter that turned an incomplete pass into a free set of downs. Those kinds of careless, boneheaded mistakes have cost the Trojans all season, and they are one of the many reasons fans have been so frustrated with USC this year.

But even a handful of dumb penalties weren’t enough to stop the Trojans’ shine on this Pac-12 Championship night.

On the aforementioned drive, Stanford was gifted a new set of downs at the USC five-yard line. With 9:56 left in the 4th quarter and USC clinging to a 24-21 lead, it looked as if Stanford would take its first lead of the game.

But the Trojan defense said, “Not today.”

On first down, Love got completely enveloped by the Trojan D-line for a loss of one yard. One the next down, USC defensive back Chris Hawkins made a game-saving tackle, bringing Love down at the 2-yard line. On 3rd and 1, Costello handed it off to running back Cameron Scarlett, who was stood up trying to leap into the end zone. So, it all came down to this. 4th and 1. For the Stanford lead. The USC fans had their Twitter fingers locked and loaded, ready to scream about firing everyone if Stanford had found the end zone.

But they didn’t. Because this happened instead:

And you know what Helton and the Trojan offense did next? Behind the arm of Darnold, the men of Troy marched 99 yards down the field – aided by some Scramblin’ Sam magic when he connected with wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. for 54 yards on 2nd-and-9 from the USC 2-yrd line – and scored on an 8-yard RoJo run, extending their lead to 31-21.

If you thought that you could breathe a little easier after USC went up 10 on Stanford with less than five minutes to play, it’s because you haven’t watched either team play all season. USC can absolutely let any lead slip away, and Stanford has the skill and the size to turn any game in its favor. They demonstrated this ability on the very next drive, when Costello methodically orchestrated an 8-play, 90-yard scoring drive in less than two and a half minutes.

But it wouldn’t be enough for the Cardinal, who failed to convert the following onside kick in their favor. And with it came the victory, the conference championship, and most importantly, vindication for Helton.

As a head coach, Helton is 27-9 and he’s a perfect 19-0 when USC is wearing home jerseys. And yeah, a bunch of those wins were ugly. And unsatisfying. And asked more questions than they answered. But good teams don’t concern themselves with how they win.

As Helton said, they just find a way to do it. With no bye week and with one of the nation’s toughest schedules, the Trojans found a way to go 11-2.

Because the wins haven’t always been sexy, the individual development of many of Helton’s players has gone unnoticed. For example:

Penn State’s running back Saquon Barkley? He only has four 100-yard rushing games on the whole season.

(Granted, there is in argument to be made that Jones could have had even more 100-yard games if he had been featured more, but that’s a conversation for another day.)

There’s also been the growth of all wide receivers not named Deontay Burnett – while he only had one catch for nine yards against Stanford, Darnold looked to Pittman Jr., Tyler Vaughns and Steven Mitchell, who combined for 116 yards and a 19-yard, leaping touchdown from Vaughns.

And Friday night, this incredible feat from Hawkins, in the final conference game of his collegiate career:

These are not the kind of results you get from players who are led by a bad coach. They’re the results you get from a coach who is more than capable, and who has earned the right to have more time to really get things clicking on all cylinders.

The Trojans will now wait to receive their postseason fate, but whatever bowl game they end up in, they’ll enter it as Pac-12 Champions. And they’ll enter it with a coach who has defied the naysayers, has won big games and won them often and who has demonstrated through two season that not only can he be the head coach of the Trojans, but that he can own the conference, too.

And in the words of the cast of Hamilton, it’s “something they can never take away. No matter what they tell you.”