Football

The dates that defined USC football’s 2021 season

USC just posted its worst record in 30 years. How did it get here, and what’s next?

A photo of the USC football team in cardinal helmets, cardinal jerseys and gold pants grouped together at the Coliseum, with fans in the background.

Something felt off on Sept. 4.

USC — which entered that day’s season-opener ranked No. 15 in the country, a reality that hindsight deems stunning — took down San José State 30-7, but it was hardly that convincing. The Trojans only led by six at the start of the fourth quarter and never looked quite in sync. Maybe it was just Week 1. Maybe it was a sign of things to come.

Sept. 11 proved it was the latter.

In reality, no type of win — regardless how close — could have foreshadowed what took place on that fateful evening. USC entered that day with a No. 14 ranking and left with a stunning defeat that would forever change the program’s trajectory.

But not immediately. That had to wait 39 hours, for Sept. 13, shortly after 2 p.m.

That was when athletic director Mike Bohn fired Clay Helton. It stemmed from the Stanford loss, but it had been years in the making. (More on that later.) Donte Williams would finish out the season as the interim head coach.

The Williams era hit the ground running on Sept. 18. That day’s blowout of Washington State was decided by the quarter that had become notorious as USC’s kryptonite over the previous two seasons — the third. After being outscored the first two weeks 21-3 in that period, USC did a complete 180 and topped the Cougars 28-0 in the third, en route to a 45-14 victory.

Perhaps Williams’ halftime speech was a cause for that turnaround — a speech whose details the vaunted recruiter said he “just can’t release.” Most likely, it was a combination of that and the brilliance of freshman quarterback Jaxson Dart, who lit the world on fire after junior Kedon Slovis exited early.

That Dart was in that position dates back to Aug. 26, when Helton named the four-star prospect the backup to open the season. And that dates back to April 17, the day of the Spring Showcase in which Dart continued to demonstrate his dual-threat ability that ultimately won him the job over fellow freshman Miller Moss. And that dates back to Dec. 16, 2020, when the Utah native announced his commitment to USC, becoming the second four-star quarterback recruit in the Class of 2021, months after Moss’ June 1 commitment.

It was seen as the start of two new eras: WIlliams’ and Dart’s, although the latter was better classified as the “Dart of a new era.”

Any enthusiasm emanating from that blowout came to an abrupt end on Sept. 25.

USC walked into the Coliseum that day on a high and walked out on a new low: its first loss to Oregon State at the Coliseum since 1960.

Junior cornerback Chris Steele described it as a “punch in the mouth.” Slovis remarked that a program’s culture can’t turn around in one week. However Sept. 18 lifted USC fans into a state of euphoria, Sept. 25 sent them crashing back down to Earth’s harsh realities.

Then passed Oct. 2, when USC continued its bizarre stretch of alternating home disappointments and road blowouts, handling Colorado 37-14 in Boulder. Then, a continuation of the same theme. In an Oct. 9 game redshirt senior center Brett Neilon later called “deja vu,” Utah handed the Trojans their third straight blowout loss at home — and their first loss to the Utes in Los Angeles since 1916, before the Coliseum was built.

It was then that optimism conceded to reality: USC’s season was all but lost. Not only did it sit at 3-3 with a loss to a division contender — one that would eventually win the conference — but it had gotten there in perhaps the most disheartening fashion imaginable.

The team had a chance to salvage some goodwill among the fanbase on Oct. 23. It didn’t happen. In a game USC fans entered with sea-level expectations, the Trojans actually had a chance to beat No. 13 Notre Dame, even coming within one possession with eight minutes to go. That’s what made the eventual 31-16 defeat sting a little extra.

A win the following week, Oct. 30, wouldn’t lessen the blow — especially considering it came by just seven points over an Arizona team that hadn’t won a game since Oct. 5, 2019. But the win wasn’t the story of the evening, nor was its margin.

Now’s a good time to talk about Drake London.

Through the first seven games of USC’s season, the junior receiver led the FBS with 143.3 receiving yards per game. He’d set an NCAA record for the most receptions through seven games with 79. He was a 2021 Midseason All-American and Pro Football Focus’ top-ranked receiver.

He’d done it with the highlight-reel plays; a one-handed touchdown grab against Colorado stands out. He’d threatened the record books, coming up one and two receptions shy of USC’s single-game receptions record (17) on two different occasions. He had been held under 130 yards — an average that would’ve led the nation — just once.

He was the brightest bright spot from what had turned into a bummer of a 2021 season. But on Oct. 30, the list of bummers grew one longer. As he fell into the end zone (fittingly) in the second quarter for his seventh touchdown of the season, London fractured his ankle. Out for the year.

Naturally, the Trojans struggled to fill his void. That’s largely because no one can, and partially because of July 24. That was the day Bru McCoy, the redshirt sophomore receiver expected to be USC’s No. 2 option behind the NFL-bound London, was arrested for an incident that led to charges of intimate partner violence with injury. The L.A. District Attorney’s Office ultimately decided not to press charges, but McCoy’s suspension from the team remained, and he never saw the field in the 2021 season.

USC’s suddenly thin receiving corps was on display Nov. 6 in Tempe. There, the Trojans threw for just 220 yards through the air on 45 attempts — not aided, in fairness, by a two-quarterback system between Slovis and Dart that stole the headlines and confused everyone for a span of about 10 days.

Something else worth mentioning — on an entirely different note — happened a few days earlier. Remember Helton? On the day his unemployment period reached 50 days, it ended with his hiring by Georgia Southern. After seven seasons as USC’s head coach, Helton found his next home in the Sun Belt Conference.

Forgive the sidetracking. There was Nov. 9, when the postponement of the upcoming Weekender with Cal was arguably less newsworthy than the decision subsequently facing USC: to play or not to play. The Trojans could have accepted the forfeit and moved one win closer to bowl eligibility, but Williams deemed that the wrong way to earn a postseason appearance, and USC decided to play the game a week after the originally scheduled season finale. The decision had a mixed reception, in part because it meant USC might have to travel for an extra game that could ultimately be meaningless. More on that later.

The extra bye week proved useless on Nov. 20, when the season arguably hit rock bottom. That’s when UCLA temporarily took back the city of Los Angeles by trouncing USC 62-33 in the Trojans’ own building. It’s when, following his fourth of six total touchdowns, quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson signed an autograph for a young USC fan, summing up everything there was to know about the standing of Trojan football among the fanbase at that point.

It was the most points UCLA had scored in the history of the crosstown rivalry. Thompson-Robinson had previously promised to “beat the everliving s**t” out of USC, and he did just that.

However many inside and outside the program were, at that point, ready for the season to end, there were still two games to go. The first of those two was Nov. 27, when USC showed signs of life but nonetheless guaranteed its second bowl ineligibility in the last four seasons, a rather inglorious page etched into the program’s history book. That loss to No. 13 BYU wasn’t supposed to sting, but when the Trojans found themselves a yard shy of a first down, trailing by just four in the red zone with under a minute to go, it was hard for it not to.

But arguably the more important development on Nov. 27 came 1,398 miles away, in Stillwater, Okla., a few hours prior. That was when No. 10 Oklahoma lost to No. 7 Oklahoma State, knocking the Sooners out of the Big 12 Championship Game and setting the stage for Nov. 28.

Just past noon on that day, rumors emerged that USC might make an attempt at Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley, a candidate once seen as too unlikely to even be on USC’s radar for its head coaching vacancy. Just minutes later, the rumors were given validation: The deal was done. The college football world was subsequently lit ablaze by a move that would have ripple effects across the nation and upend the entire college football landscape.

It was a shot in the arm to a program that had lost plenty of standing over the last few years among not just college football and the Pac-12, but its own fanbase. Suddenly, USC was nationally relevant again, and its fans believed again.

The week that followed in recruiting commitments demonstrated why. Five-star Oklahoma flip, quarterback Malachi Nelson on Tuesday, Nov. 30. Five-star Oklahoma flip, running back Raleek Brown on Thursday, Dec. 1. Five-star Oklahoma flip, receiver Makai Lemon on Friday, Dec. 2. Likely more on the way.

Finally, of course, the Inconsequential Bowl. USC capped off its 2021 season with a loss against the 4-7 Cal Golden Bears, a game that began at 8 p.m. and quite possibly featured as many viewers and spectators as players.

USC’s worst season since 1991 — all the ups and (mainly) downs that came along with it — was, mercifully, over.

But perhaps the most consequential date of the 2021 season was one that didn’t even come in the 2021 season. Rather, it came every single day in the offseason that preceded it.

Helton’s Sept. 13 firing was met with a mix of jubilation and confusion: If his leash was so short that one bad Week 2 loss would do him in, why keep him around that long?

The immediate takeaway, probably an accurate one, was that things could have been different this year. Slovis was right on Sept. 25: You can’t change a program’s culture in one week, especially a culture that needed changing as much as USC’s did. Had that process begun in the offseason, maybe USC wouldn’t have found itself 4-8 by the end of the night Dec. 4.

But Nov. 28 brought things into perspective.

Sure, USC may have had a semi-decent season if Sept. 13 had instead come last December or January. Whoever would have taken over as head coach under those circumstances is anyone’s guess. One thing is for sure: It would not have been Lincoln Riley. For an athletic department that had frequently been questioned as to its plan — or, specifically, the existence of a plan in the first place — maybe this was it all along.

USC’s 2021 season is over. Now, there’s one date that matters more than any of the aforementioned, and it’s a date that USC fans haven’t anticipated this much in quite some time:

The future.

“The season’s behind us,” redshirt senior defensive lineman Nick Figueroa said after Saturday’s loss. “We’re starting tomorrow with coach Riley.

“We’re excited about it.”