Opinion: Perpetual underperformance and underpreparation leaves USC with one option: a head coaching change

Saturday’s loss epitomized everything wrong with USC football, and everything that has been wrong for the last several years. Clay Helton must be held accountable.

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At the conclusion of the first quarter Saturday against Stanford, USC’s resume looked as such: Its kicker had been ejected for targeting. It had wasted a timeout on third-and-21. It had allowed an 87-yard touchdown. It had a pair of three-and-outs. It had a delay of game penalty. And it had a 7-0 deficit.

It was only 15 minutes of play, but it told you all you needed to know about the rest of the evening.

And the last three years.

And, if you squint hard enough, the two before that.

USC’s Week 2 showing — if you can be so bold as to argue that it was, indeed, a showing — was perhaps the most unprepared, undisciplined and undercoached the team has looked in a long, long time. It was ugly. It was embarrassing. It was, if you can muster it, laughable. And it was so predictable.

Granted, not even the most attuned college football experts could have predicted the type of demolition they were so unfortunate as to behold with their eyes on Saturday night. This was, after all, Stanford — which had lost to Kansas State by 17 points last week, a performance so unsightly it forced a quarterback change before they’d completed Week 1 — and it was at the Coliseum.

It was the Trojans’ Pac-12 opener. It was in a stadium that had to host overflow seating in the upper levels because its student section exceeded capacity. It was played under the lights, days after the tragic loss of a Trojan legend whose memory alone was worth some added motivation.

But as poor as Stanford looked in Week 1, the overriding factor, which ended up playing the role of determinant, was this: USC is built for this moment. Specifically, the USC team we’ve come to know in recent years is built for collapse in this moment. And, damn, they came through.

The offense was anemic, the play-calling abhorrent (5.3 yards per pass attempt is one hell of an Air Raid). The penalties were aplenty (nine for 109 yards by the time the night came to a merciful close, including several that extended Cardinal drives and turned three points into seven, or zero points into some). To put things in perspective, USC conceded as many points to Stanford in this football game as it did to the Cardinal in the two schools’ last men’s basketball matchup.

By the time halftime rolled around and many fans headed for the Coliseum concourse — where they could now, thank God, purchase alcohol — the Trojans’ fate was worrisome, but not yet dire. They would start the second half with the ball. They were — and I will stick to this claim despite the contradictory outcome — the more talented team. A bit of a spark and ascension to the mean were all they really needed.

As it turned out, the fireworks during the pregame national anthem would be the only sparks at the Coliseum that didn’t emanate from the Stanford sideline. The lack of energy remained apparent coming out of the locker room. You could sense the fear, or at least the trepidation — this wasn’t a team that believed it would right the ship.

That team, if that speculative conclusion checks out, was right. USC got a field goal, then forced a punt; only down eight, the momentum had shifted, then boom: A pick six. From there, it was all Stanford.

When is enough enough?

Clay Helton has benefited from some extremely fortunate timing in his USC tenure. His first full season as head coach was the first year in the college career of Sam Darnold, and he rode the quarterback’s coattails to a conference championship, a Rose Bowl victory and a Cotton Bowl appearance.

Then, when the vehicle of success amid masked inadequacy began to decelerate in Darnold’s wake, Helton had the necessary safety nets. In 2018, abominable play-calling sunk his five-star quarterback recruit (now a Heisman hopeful elsewhere) and the offense he was supposed to lead. The 5-7 record, USC’s first losing season since 2000, didn’t sink Helton with it. Offensive coordinator Tee Martin was gone instead. Besides, did you look at that buyout?

In 2019, the Trojans put forth another disappointment, but it was a step forward from the previous year’s disaster. They went 8-4, good enough for a trip to the Holiday Bowl. Never mind that there, they got thrashed and utterly outcoached by a clearly superior Iowa team in a game that demonstrated the gap between the “elite” and the merely “good” of college football — that was Mike Bohn’s first year as athletic director. You don’t come in as the new guy and fire the top dog in month two or three, especially after he won five of six to end the regular season. Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast and special teams coordinator John Baxter fell on the sword instead. Survive and advance.

2020 was a COVID year. None of that counts. Ignore the fact that USC’s 5-0 regular season could have easily been a 2-3 one, and the fact that the Trojans faltered on the big stage once again in the Pac-12 Championship Game, against their most competitive conference rival, one which also faced the same pandemic. It was a COVID year. But don’t let the door hit you on the way out, offensive line coach Tim Drevno.

Now, in 2021, the excuses are gone. The talent is there. His staff has been set. Fans are back. The season is full.

And there is still something to be gained this year. Who cares about midseason turnover? Why not hand over the reins to someone like cornerbacks coach, associate head coach and vaunted recruiter Donte Williams, give him a lengthy trial run and see what happens? There is no more reasonable leash for Helton. You can kiss the College Football Playoff (always a pipe dream) goodbye, but the Rose Bowl remains a distant possibility, at the very least a Pac-12 Championship. Helton even said it after the game: “All their dreams are still out there.” Well, almost all, but the gist stands: There are still games to be won.

Put simply, there’s no more justification. Before, the excuses were lame, cowardly and forced, respectively. Now, the excuses are none.

I try to refrain from calling for someone else’s job, especially when that person is an objectively good person like Helton is. But there comes a point when no other move can remedy the wounds, a point when there simply is no other solution. We’ve arrived at that point.

“Let’s see at the end of the year,” Helton said Saturday in a postgame comment addressed to a reporter but perhaps directed more as a plea toward the higher-ups at Heritage Hall. “Let’s see — it’s Game 2. It’s Game 2.”

He’s right — it is Game 2.

It is also Season 6.

And the boos that rained down in the Coliseum from halftime on — but not after the game; all the fans were gone by then — those were not about Game 2. Nor were the chants of Helton’s name preceded by one of two four-letter F-words: One that was over-the-top and obscene especially given Helton’s commendable character, and one that simply proposed an update to his job status, both of which conveyed the same general dissatisfaction.

No, those displeasurements were not borne from Game 2. They were borne from the themes that Game 2 highlighted — themes that date back far longer, themes that have been the numerator above one common denominator during a 19-14 record since 2018, themes that have previously been swept beneath the rug under the guise of intended stability, themes that USC can no longer afford to tolerate given its stated lofty goals for the future of the program and the vastness that separates it from realizing them.