The USC Trojans got the monkey off their back on Saturday, winning their first ever Pac-12 South crown with a 19-point win over arch-rival UCLA.
Say what you want about the Clay Helton era at USC. Whether or not he’s the right guy for the full-time job or whether the Trojans are worthy of possibly being named Pac-12 Champions.
You can argue about how inconsistent the offense is. Or about how frustrating USC can be when they struggle to rush the passer.
But what you absolutely cannot say about Helton’s Trojans is that they gave up, caved or fled from adversity in 2015.
This USC team had dozens of reasons and several disappointing outings to hang their head about or call it a day on, after the firing of Steve Sarkisian, a demoralizing loss to Washington and a beat down at the hands of Oregon.
They could have mailed it in when starting center Max Tuerk went down. Or his backup Toa Lobendahn. Or even his backup Khaliel Rodgers.
Like a bitter ex, the Trojans have been a train-wrecking roller coaster, all while being determined to get revenge on the heartbreaks of 2014.
They didn’t do it. And somehow, they sit here as winners of one of the toughest divisions in college football, the Pac-12 South.
“I think about the seniors and the roller coaster ride they have gone through,” Helton said. “For them to be able to call themselves Pac-12 South champions is a victory.”
It’s a road that’s included four head coaches, sanctions and for some like Lamar Dawson and Tre Madden, an unsatisfying 10-2 season due to a bowl ban. Saturday, that bunch, along with the rest of the team played like the iconic Trojans of old.
“I went in [the locker room] at halftime and they were rocking,” former USC great LenDale White said. “It was kind of a team that I was used to seeing.”
They needed to channel that swagger to make a statement and achieve a goal that had been made the primary focus since the start of the Sarkisian era: winning the South.
It was such an emphasis that at times, it seemed as though it was a subconscious coping-mechanism for losses to the Pac-12 North.
“[Stanford] is in the North and we’re in the South,” linebacker Anthony Sarao said after losing to the Cardinal in September. “In the grand scheme of things [the loss] is not acceptable, but we’re going to get back and win the South.”
He was right. They won the division a year after being a poorly defended Hail Mary from doing so. They took it personally and made it their mission.
Nov 28, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans running back Justin Davis (22) is defended by UCLA Bruins linebacker Kenny Young (42) during an NCAA football game at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. USC defeated UCLA 40-21. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Like a bitter ex, the 2015 Trojans have been a train-wrecking roller coaster, all while being determined to get revenge on the heartbreaking losses of 2014 with redemption-filled blowouts on their road to Santa Clara.
They thrashed Arizona State 42-14 in Tempe to ensure a Jael Mary II wouldn’t be in the cards. Then they halted No. 3 Utah’s perfect season with a convincing 42-24 win. Saturday, they took out three years of frustration on UCLA with a 40-21 romp to slay their nemesis Jim Mora.
Altogether, USC completed one of the wackiest regular seasons ever, winning the South with a perfect 5-0 record against teams within the division despite three losses to North.
SEE ALSO: Studs & Duds in USC’s Win vs. UCLA
It was all about their righting of wrongs and making the most of the awkward situation of having yet another interim head coach. And coming off a week in which the Trojans were dismantled by Oregon, it says a lot about the power of focus the team has when they buy into themselves.
“We made a decision either Monday or Tuesday this week that we weren’t losing this game [to UCLA],” Cody Kessler said. “We rallied behind Coach Helton, he always gets us going.”
After weeks of half-showings and flashes of brilliance juxtaposed along with frustrating stretches of inconsistency, USC played to their potential and deployed the game plan every Trojan fan had been clamoring for.
USC ran the ball a season-high 59 times, used a rejuvenated pass rush to rattle true freshman quarterback Josh Rosen and killed off the game with a dominant fourth quarter that saw the Bruins gain just 11 yards of total offense on 75 seconds of possession.
Nov 28, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans head coach Clay Helton walks off the field after an NCAA football game against the UCLA Bruins at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. USC defeated UCLA 40-21. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
It was the physical, smash-mouth football brand of football that has long led the cardinal and gold to big victories.
“I told them that this is Trojan football,” Helton said of his postgame speech. “This was a total team victory.”
Keeping with the theme of righting wrongs, it was a team win that saw everyone get involved, even the doubted.
Maligned linebacker Scott Felix had the highlight of his career with a momentum-fueling 14-yard sack.
True freshman Iman Marshall, who was burned to a crisp by Oregon receivers a week ago, had the game of his life to make up for it, with a pair of pass break-ups and two game-sealing interceptions in the second half.
“I just did my job,” Marshall said. “I understand I made a lot of mistakes last week and made sure I prepared myself this week.”
And so after completing a regular season highlighted by redemption, the Trojans now find themselves with their biggest task. In order to achieve their ultimate goal of going to the Rose Bowl, they’ll have to re-sharpen the sword for one last swing at revenge.
USC plays Stanford on Saturday night in their first ever Pac-12 Championship game, less than three months after the Cardinal embarrassed the Trojan defense on their way to a 41-31 win in the Coliseum.
It’ll be a fitting end to the season. Does the bitter ex have enough in the tank for one more tire slashing?