Clay Helton’s shortcomings magnified in USC’s upset bid vs. Notre Dame

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images /

Clay Helton entered USC football’s season finale against Notre Dame given no chance to win. He finished with one more strike against him.

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The 2018 USC football team was never going to beat Notre Dame. Given how they’ve played for long stretches this season under head coach Clay Helton, they probably didn’t deserve to be on the same field.

But the Trojans wouldn’t let you off the hook that easy.

Saturday night had to not only follow the same script as every other nightmare loss, but do so in a way that gave Troy hope, adding salt in the wounds of the disaster that was this season, all with the future of Clay Helton hanging in the balance.

USC looked undoubtedly the best they have all season in the first half.

They nickel-and-dimed the vaunted Irish defense up and down the field, and JT Daniels put together perhaps his best performance of the year, helping USC go up 10-0.

At halftime, the true freshman quarterback had completed 26-of-31 passing for 244 yards. Against Notre Dame. The same Notre Dame team that ranked 2nd nationally in first half defensive passing efficiency.

Yes, Daniels had driven USC to leads throughout the season. But this wasn’t like the other ones. It wasn’t an undeserved 14-0 lead like at Utah or the expected 14-0 score against Cal.

This was the Trojans seemingly playing for an embattled coach, while outwitting one of the best-coached teams in America, playoff-bound Notre Dame.

They forced Notre Dame to abandon the run on defense and used the scheme to help the quarterback on offense.

They didn’t look like a 5-6 team or one fresh off a loss to a previously 2-8 UCLA. For 29 minutes, there were reasons to believe in USC.

They were on pace for nearly 600 total yards at a 7.4-yard clip. At least for those first 29 minutes.

Because with exactly one minute left in the half, freshman wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown fumbled at almost the same spot of the field he did against Cal, at just about the same time in the game.

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images /

And poof.

The air was out of the balloon, almost as quickly as St. Brown and company had inflated.

You knew then what would happen. Which was ironically what you were probably already expecting, period.

Notre Dame would make the adjustments in the second half, you thought. They did.

The Trojans would continue to make back-breaking mistakes, you assumed. They did.

Helton’s team would get outrageously outcoached in the final two quarters, giving up a long scoring run along the way, you were sure of. They were. And the Irish obliged.

This time with a stretch of the 24-0 variety, leading to the seventh USC loss of the season, ensuring there wouldn’t be a bowl game based on record for the first time since 2000.

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Missed opportunities. Unmade adjustments. Scoreless third quarters. Killer penalties on Toa Lobendahn. Infuriating third down runs by the opposing quarterback, Ian Book in this case.

It was all there.

Rinse. Wash. Repeat. Been there. Done that.

But for as bad as all those things sound, against a Notre Dame team as good as this one, they weren’t unexpected. And not even that egregious. A team with a 5-6 record was supposed to lose to an 11-0 team.

What’s damning is that the team who put the Irish on the ropes in the first half was 5-6 in the first place.

What’s damning is that it took until the 12th game of the season for USC to develop a quick air raid attack predicated on scheming receivers open to help out JT Daniels.

What’s damning is that it took a week for defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast to be able to trust five-star Palaie Gaoteote at John Houston’s injury-vacated weakside inside linebacker spot, instead of walk-on former fullback Reuben Peters.

What’s damning is that the team who put the Irish on the ropes in the first half was 5-6 in the first place.

What’s damning is that the Trojans could look that competent for 29 minutes against one of the best teams in the country, coached by one of the top coaches in the nation, and yet Clay Helton and his staff could only muster five wins with them in the 11 games against easier competition.

What’s damning is that the season was such a disaster that 29 minutes against a rival is worth applauding.

That is why USC needs to make a change and move on from Clay Helton. Not just because of their failures. But because their brief successes highlight the scope of their of failures.

No Trojan team should ever be 5-7. Certainly not one with this much talent and that nerve-wracking for an undefeated playoff team.