USC football’s road losses, Clay Helton’s explanations are formulaic, tired

Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy
Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy /

USC football fans should be familiar by now with the formula as the Trojans lost another road game and Clay Helton offered uninspiring explanations.

USC-UW. Studs and Duds

Let’s play a game. It’s simple. Match the quote with the USC football road loss:

  1. Stanford 17, USC 3 in 2018
  2. Texas 37, USC 14 in 2018
  3. Utah 41, USC 28 in 2018
  4. UCLA 34, USC 27 in 2018
  5. BYU 30, USC 27 in 2019
  6. Washington 28, USC 14 in 2019

A: “Very proud of our kids and how they competed tonight. I thought they competed like warriors. Obviously it was not the outcome that we hoped for, but I was very enthusiastic about how they fought to the bitter end. Obviously there were some mistakes that we will clean up over the next week. This is an early game in the season…and all our hopes and aspirations and dreams are still out there.”

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B: “Obviously not our night tonight. Any time you get on the road in this type of environment and thought we had a good plan, good preparation, but just didn’t execute to what we needed to be able to come out with a victory tonight.”

C: “Obviously not our best night. All the credit goes to [team], thought they put a good plan together and the fact of the matter is they played better than us. We made mistakes on both sides of the ball. We get the opportunity to go back home, watch this tape, get the corrections made and get ready for [team] as fast as possible.”

D: “Good college football game. I thought both sides fought extremely hard. At the end of the day they made a couple more plays than we did, especially in the second half of the game.”

E: “Great college football game credit to [team], I thought they played a hell of a football game under [coach]. Anytime you have three turnovers to the other team’s none, and you’re on the road, that’s going to put you in a hole. And tonight, we came up one play off getting out of that hole. I love how the kids keep fighting and keep competing. This is one game early in the season, we’ll correct it. And we’ll move on to the next one.”

F: “Well played game by [team], credit [coach and staff] for the job that they did. I thought our week of preparation was very good. Thought we came in with the right mindset. We made enough mistakes to lose the game…So for us it’s about getting back on this plane and correcting…We had an opportunity to really come away with a win today. We let that go today. So we’ll get that cleaned up.”

The answers:

  1. A
  2. B
  3. C
  4. D
  5. E
  6. F

Told you it was simple.

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There’s a formula to USC’s road losses under Clay Helton, just as there is a formula to Helton’s post-game pressers. They’re intertwined.

First, credit the opposing team and coaches.

It’s a classy thing for a losing coach to do, but it’s also the kind of thing a losing coach has to do to when he legitimately was outcoached. Specifically, when his gameplan and adjustments were deficient compared to the opposition.

Take the Washington game, wherein the Huskies took BYU’s defensive strategy and their better athletes and figured out how to hold USC’s Air Raid attack to just 14 points. The Trojans answers to that strategy were found lacking.

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Next, credit the Trojan players for playing hard.

This one is easy, because USC’s players do indeed play hard. That’s one of the consistent themes of the Helton era. His teams genuinely don’t give up, even when they’re beaten.

Down by 14 for most of the game, the Trojans could have let Washington run rampant. Instead, the defense buckled down despite being put in bad position after bad position. That’s without their best player in the secondary, Talanoa Hufanga, and without their most-likely playmaker at cornerback, Olaijah Griffin.

Even the offense, which couldn’t finish a drive to save their life, kept pushing to move down the field to create the redzone opportunities they ultimately squandered. Michael Pittman, Tyler Vaughns and Amon-Ra St. Brown played hard. Vavae Malepeai, Stephen Carr and Markese Stepp ran hard. Matt Fink struggled with poor decision making, but efforted nonetheless.

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It’s the ultimate moral victory for USC these days, one that is unsatisfying but also makes it difficult to truly quit on the team.

“I love the way these guys competed it. Love their heart,” Helton said after the Washington loss. “As far as competing and heart and how hard they play, there’s nothing wrong. It’s the corrections that we’ll make and that’s my job, nobody else’s.”

Which brings us to the next step: Acknowledge mistakes (obviously) which will be corrected (allegedly).

Under different circumstances and bathed in different light, there would be nothing wrong with saying things like “they made one more play than us.” In a lot of instances it’s true. Football is a game of moments and inches. Sometimes the bounce doesn’t go your way.

Nor is it invalid to point out the cost of turnovers. Three interceptions, including two on the UW side of the field, are objectively devastating. Even great teams lose games when their quarterback tosses the ball to the other team three times.

But USC isn’t a great team and those kinds of mistakes have been a staple of Trojan road performances. It’s one thing to shake off occasional bad luck, but if your luck is consistently bad, then you’re probably need to change the way you throw the dice.

Finally, there’s the look forward to what can still be.

And here, again, Helton is wrong for being right.

Yes, USC’s hopes of winning the Pac-12 South remain intact despite losing to Washington. A North loss can be overcome, especially since the Trojans have a key tiebreaker in hand over Utah.

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But hopes of winning the Pac-12 South are also built on sand when it comes to Helton’s Trojans. Because winning the Pac-12 South (by posting at least a neutral record against the likes of Cal and Oregon, while not slipping up on the road against Colorado or ASU and taking care of business at home against Arizona and UCLA) would require USC to avoid the same pitfalls that damned them against BYU and Washington. Not coincidentally, the same ones that sank them against Stanford, Texas, Utah and UCLA in 2018.

At this point, having heard Helton and company talk about correcting the same little mistakes over and over again without actually seeing those corrections take hold, how can you bet on the Trojans?

Just as [being outcoached]+[playing hard]+[making mistakes]=USC road losses.

So does [crediting opposing coaches]+[praising heart]+[acknowledging mistakes that need correction]+[looking ahead to future potential]=Rightful skepticism.

We’ve seen this all before. And chances are we’ll see it again.

Next. Four Takeaways from the UW Loss