USC Football’s loss to Cal was rock bottom for the Clay Helton Era

Harry How/Getty Images
Harry How/Getty Images /

It took awhile, but Clay Helton’s 5-5 USC football team finally reached rock bottom Saturday night, losing to the Cal Bears, 15-14.

Studs & Duds. More USC-CAL

It wasn’t 46 points to Alabama. It wasn’t 35 on the road to Notre Dame. It wasn’t the 17 to Ohio State, 23 to Texas or 13 to Utah. Yet USC’s one-point loss to the Cal Bears on Saturday night in the Coliseum is still the biggest, darkest stain on the Clay Helton Era to date.

It was an amalgamation of the Trojans’ failures in 2018. Their greatest hits. The restating of wrongdoings and all the reasons they’ve put together one of the most frustrating seasons in school history.

There was a blown 14-0 lead, despite USC having multiple opportunities to score more points in the first half to put away an inferior opponent.

There was a bad snap that resulted in a safety, highlighting Helton’s unconscionable loyalty to Toa Lobendahn’s quest to be a center.

There was a putrid second half performance on offense, featuring the Trojans gaining just 41 yards of total offense on 31 plays despite an objectively great second quarter that had Cal’s defense on the ropes.

There was a mismanagement of timeouts, including Helton stopping the clock to re-think a fourth down attempt on his own side of the field and then again with 6:30 left in the game.

There was a back-breaking unsportsmanlike penalty on a should-know-better senior, when cornerback Iman Marshall was flagged to bail out the Bears on a failed third down that would’ve given USC the ball back one final time in the dying minutes.

Every knock on the Trojans was present.

Everything they’ve promised to fix on a weekly basis was still there.

Every indictment on Helton rung true.

And most importantly, the first-time third-year head coach was eliminated from the Pac-12 title race, besmirched by the guy he threw under the bus for USC’s failures in the 2015 Pac-12 Championship Game, Justin Wilcox.

Cal’s second-year gaffer —along with his two critically acclaimed and experienced coordinator hires— put on a clinic. DC Tim DeRuyter and company held the Trojans to seven rushing yards and zero points in the second half, while OC Beau Baldwin overcame a 69-yard first half by relying on his best playmaker, quarterback Chase Garbers.

After all of the writing on the wall, all of the learning curves, all the injuries and all of the benefits of doubt, there’s no excuse, explanation or rationalizing that can freshen up the foulness of the Trojans’ putrid performance Saturday night.

There’s no more midseason coaching changes to bank on. There’s no one else to blame, justified or not.

This is it. This is Helton’s offense. This is Helton’s team.

The only question is for how much longer.

USC is without a university president and as of last week, athletic director Lynn Swann made it clear he’s all-in on Clay Helton as his guy, making a 2019 return more than in play.

“I’m sorry for the 5-5 season right now,” Helton said after the game. “But better days are to come. Programs I’ve seen across the country, win a Rose Bowl, win a Pac-12 Championship and then have an off season and then come right back.”

He’s not wrong. But Saturday night sure made a case for why he just might not be included.