USC Football: What stood out in one last letdown vs. Notre Dame

ARLINGTON, TX - DECEMBER 29: Head coach Clay Helton and Austin Applebee
ARLINGTON, TX - DECEMBER 29: Head coach Clay Helton and Austin Applebee /

USC football let everyone down one last time in the 2018 regular season finale, losing 24-17 against the No. 3 Notre Dame Fighting Irish.

USC vs. Notre Dame. Studs and Duds

USC football once again blew a lead and lost to a team they matched up with well physically on Saturday night in Los Angeles. Which is pretty much the tagline for the 2018 season.

The team is clearly loaded with talent, so much so that true freshmen and walk ons who shouldn’t even be seeing the field were holding their own on defense. Yet, the Trojans have consistently underachieved and disappointed any and all who have seen them play.

The embarrassment for 2018 has come to an end, so for one last time let’s look at what stood out from USC’s loss:

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Clay Helton

Believe it or not, I learned something about Clay Helton tonight watching USC’s offense.

I had suspicions that Helton might be a decent Xs and Os guy based on how well the offense would start in games in 2017, since he and his brother, Tyson, would assist Tee Martin in scripting the opening plays for USC.

Against Notre Dame, that hunch was confirmed. Helton is a decent offensive game planner.

USC knew just how to attack the Irish on those opening drives. If not for some costly turnovers and JT Daniels missing a throw or two, the Trojans would have had a 14-point lead.

It’s an absolute shame we had to wait until the final game of the season to really confirm this, but that is USC’s reality.

What really stood out about Helton is something we have all noticed, but mostly attributed to Tee Martin: USC doesn’t know how to adjust offensively, or pay off a setup.


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USC was brilliant with screens, motions and using the formations to, finally, scheme some of their receivers open. However, when Notre Dame started to recognize the screens, or that the Amon-Ra St. Brown is the only person Daniels goes to on third down, they tightened up on defense. USC had no counter, no double move on the out-and-up, no stutter-and-go off of play action to simulate an RPO look. And, most frustrating of all, no middle screen when Notre Dame started bringing pressure.

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Being a good game planner is one thing. Being able to adjust on the fly is what makes a coach valuable. Just look at Brian Kelly and his staff. Their jet motion misdirection play was a total kill shot based on what USC had been doing to their run game on the night. Then they came back later in the game and caught the Trojans multiple times in a blitz with screens and hitting the RB in the flat.

It’s a shame that USC put itself in a position to be outcoached on a weekly basis.

Bad TV

We called USC football a bad television show earlier in the season. Well, I’m sure you are all familiar with that feeling you get when you finish a bad TV show, that feeling that you wasted a certain amount of time of your life. Especially when you knew since the second episode how the story was going to end. Yet, you kept watching hoping that you were just being a snob and that they would prove you wrong with a surprise twist ending. But they didn’t.

Well, that’s how I feel after Saturday.

Early in the season, there was the small glimpse of seeing how USC’s offense worked without Daniels in the game at Stanford and then the realization it would never be run-first with him in the game, which would make Jack Sears or Matt Fink a better fit for the offense. That was a tell that USC was going to struggle this entire season. Yet, I tuned in every week hoping either Daniels or Tee Martin would surprise me. Neither did. Nor did Helton when he took over play-calling duties.

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That is why I said we couldn’t count on USC being bowl eligible after the ASU loss. And why I am the furthest thing from surprised that the Trojans won’t be going to a bowl this season.

What is utterly surprising is that anyone from USC, whether it’s the coaches, former players or most importantly the athletic director, could watch this team blow games this season and still have the gall to look people in the face and say the program is on the right track.

I wish I could end this by saying that what also stood out is the amount of talent this team has, so the future will be bright. However, without wholesale changes on the coaching staff, there is literally nothing to look forward to next season. Because USC has the talent now, and this whole season has been an experiment to find out how many games superior talent alone can win you. It’s five, for the record.

So I can only hope that some major changes are made and we get the marriage of talent and coaching that the majority of us have come to expect from USC.

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If not, we better hope USC gets a lucky bounce next season and goes 6-6. At least then we can go to the Cheez-It Bowl.