USC football set out to follow the Notre Dame model in attempting a turnaround from 2018’s 5-7 record. Are they succeeding or falling short?
As the clock struck zero at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on November 26, 2016, two storied football programs found themselves in vastly different positions at the close of the regular season.
Following a 1-3 start to the campaign (including a 52-6 beat down at the hands of Alabama), USC extended an improbable win streak to eight games due to a roster loaded with NFL talent and the emergence of Sam Darnold as one of the best college football players in America.
On that night, the 45-27 victory over intersectional rival Notre Dame was the crown jewel of Clay Helton’s first season as the head coach of the Trojans. The victory meant an outside chance at the College Football Playoff and a guaranteed appearance in a New Year’s Six bowl.
Across the field, Brian Kelly stared down the barrel of a 4-8 season that included seven losses by one score or less.
Notre Dame wasn’t a stranger to losing seasons—Charlie Weis went 3-9 in 2007 and Tyrone Willingham posted a 5-7 record in 2004—but this result was disastrous for a team that appeared in the Fiesta Bowl just a year earlier.
With no bowl game to worry about, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick and Kelly met to devise a plan to return to prominence.
The first step was to shake up the coaching staff around Kelly. The Irish added five new position coaches to go along with an overhaul of the strength and condition staff.
As left tackle Mike McGlinchey, now with the San Francisco 49ers, noted, “We didn’t have the mindset or ability to keep our foot on the gas pedal.”
After spending the offseason restructuring his entire program, Kelly reaped the benefits of trusting change. His team responded to the culture shift in 2017, winning nine games during the regular season.
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The highlight? A 49-14 trouncing of Clay Helton and the Trojans in mid-October.
For USC, the loss was one of only two during the regular season. However, that night in South Bend revealed that the two programs had reversed trajectories in the year since they last met.
Following a futile performance in the Cotton Bowl against Urban Meyer and the Ohio State Buckeyes, many USC supporters questioned whether Helton could prepare his team to compete for national titles.
Those who don’t believe in Helton cite lopsided losses to Alabama, Notre Dame and Ohio State. They note how USC began the 2016 season 1-3 and only caught fire when Darnold seized the —quarterback job.
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Now, the mindset is: show us you can do this without Darnold. Without Juju Smith-Schuster. Without Adoree Jackson.
Let’s take a step back to November 24, 2018.
A pregame banner flies over the USC campus imploring athletic director Lynn Swann to fire Helton. Despite a valiant effort, the Trojans fall to the Irish and one thing is clear—USC is at its lowest point in the 21st century.
Helton’s seat is boiling at the close of a 5-7 season, apathy is pervasive in the Trojan fanbase and the naysayers want blood.
Meanwhile, the Fighting Irish, led by Kelly and quarterback Ian Book, have just clinched an undefeated regular season and a playoff berth with the 24-17 victory over the Trojans.
The following day, just a week before Notre Dame is selected to the college football playoff, Swann issues a statement in support of Helton. He acknowledges deficiencies in USC football’s culture, discipline, schemes, personnel and staff. He goes as far as explicitly declaring the Trojans will attempt to follow the Notre Dame model to reinvigorate the program.
So, there it is. The bar is the Notre Dame turnaround.
Is USC living up to that standard?
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Of the 11 coaching positions on the USC staff, there are four new faces. Offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Graham Harrell, secondary coach Greg Burns and running backs coach Mike Jinks are successes, while defensive line coach Chad Kauha’aha’a’s impact appears to be negligible.
The other seven positions didn’t change or saw a staff member promoted, which does not check out against Notre Dame’s model.
The Irish had two new coordinators in 2017. USC only has one. Kelly was forced to make “gut-wrenching” changes. Helton was not.
To his credit, he brought in Aaron Ausmus to coordinate strength and conditioning at USC, and by all accounts, Ausmus implemented a similar program to Notre Dame’s in terms of encouraging competition and enforcing accountability.
But the moves haven’t been enough.
The first indicator is USC’s win-loss total. Following a 30-27 loss at the hands of the Fighting Irish, the Trojans are now 3-3.
Yes, the first half schedule was daunting at the season’s outset but looking back there aren’t any excuses. The Trojans lost to a BYU team that has two wins, a Washington team that lost to Stanford and does not feature a prolific offense, and a Notre Dame squad that isn’t a national title contender.
While the most difficult stretch of the schedule is behind them, the men of Troy must win out to match Notre Dame’s 2017 record of 9-3. A showdown with Oregon in the Coliseum and trips to Tempe and Berkeley loom large over USC’s quest to run the table and clinch a spot in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
The question is, are they on track to do it?
One of the best ways to measure change over two years is to compare the statistical performance of each team the year after they made their staff changes.
In 2016, Notre Dame finished 18th overall in SP+ despite a 4-8 record. On offense, that iteration of the Irish finished 18th in SP+ and its defense ranked 34th.
So how does a team that performed at an adequate level on both sides of the ball only win four games? Kelly speculated, “We were missing that component, that mental performance component.”
There is little doubt that the shakeup of the staff assisted players in performing consistently. The Irish finished 2017 ranked 19th in SP+ offense, 15th on defense and 12th overall en route to a 9-3 record and an eventual bowl victory against LSU.
The five-win swing directly resulted from advancements in several key areas.
In 2016, Notre Dame only scored a touchdown 62.5 percent of the time in the red zone but improved that mark to 76.09 percent with Chip Long coordinating the offense. They rushed for 6.25 yards a carry, a vast jump from the 4.47 ypc the year prior, and converted more often on third down, gained more yards per play and won the turnover battle on the season.
In fact, Notre Dame got better despite lesser play from the quarterback spot.
Regardless of the offense’s performance, it would have been for naught if Mike Elko didn’t turn around the Irish defense in his first (and only) year as defensive coordinator. In 2017, the defense only allowed 4.95 yards per play and gave up 6.3 fewer points per game, moving from 27.8 to 21.5 ppg.
In under a year, Brian Kelly and his revamped staff improved their program in nearly every way and earned a Fiesta Bowl berth.
Clearly, Kelly’s team addressed their critical flaws to escape irrelevance. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that USC has done the same.
On the surface, the Trojans are a better team than last year on offense. They average 29 points per game instead of 26.1. Their yards per play have increased by just over a half a yard to 6.32 (a notable improvement), they convert on third down 41.9 percent of the time rather than an abysmal 37.1 percent in 2018 and the team’s passer rating jumped from 132.95 to 151.33 while using three quarterbacks in six games.
Throw those statistics together and you get a team that has jumped from 46th to 11th overall in SP+ offense. Harrell provides clarity to his players after years of the “gumbo” offense.
HOWEVER! Those improvements don’t mean that USC will right the ship in the back half of the schedule. This team fails to capitalize on opportunities, such as the embarrassing number of failed red zone trips.
In 2018, the abysmal Trojan offense only scored a touchdown in the red zone 54.29 percent of the time. In 2019, they punch it in 56.5 percent of the time.
Call it inexperience. Call it unimaginative play calling. Call it an unreliable offensive line. The reality is that USC could have five to six wins if they capitalized on their opportunities at the goal line. Look back and think of how many turnovers or negative plays the Trojans have had down there.
Last Saturday, the offense settled for field goals multiple times inside the 20. Against Washington, USC might as well have knelt instead of throwing interceptions or turning the ball over on downs with an ill-advised corner route to a true freshman receiver deep in Husky territory.
Honestly, the red zone issue doesn’t solely fall on the players.
Clancy Pendergast’s players are giving up more yards per play, more yards per carry, and only holding opponents to 25.7 points per game.
For all the yards the “Air Raid” racks up when facing an open field with space, the system tends to falter more often than other schemes inside the opponent’s 20. Just look at the Arizona Cardinals’ 37.5 percent touchdown conversion rate this season under Kliff Kingsbury.
If the tepid offensive improvement wasn’t disheartening enough, it is obvious that the defense has regressed. After ranking 34th in the nation last season in SP+, the Trojans are currently 56th due to an underachieving defensive line and a forgettable linebacking corps. Truthfully, the anticipated vulnerable area, the secondary, has been USC’s best defensive unit by far.
Clancy Pendergast’s players are giving up more yards per play, more yards per carry, and only holding opponents to 25.7 points per game, 1.3 fewer points than 2018.
The lack of production from the defense is damning because Helton had the opportunity to make a change on that side of the ball, and his inaction isn’t rewarding him.
The entire USC football experience is like watching someone die a slow, painful death.
At first, there was hope, but everyone has known for three years now that it’s over and the chances of recovery are near zero. The fight is there from the staff and players but there is no happy ending.
Every week, intelligent people like Jon Wilner, Alicia de Artola, Michael Castillo, Ryan Abraham, and countless others proclaim they lack faith in Helton’s ability to turn USC into a national title contender. If that many thoughtful, measured individuals consider a situation dead in the water, it’s only a matter of time until the administration at USC makes its move.
They say familiarity breeds contempt and there is simply no better description for the feelings towards Clay Helton as USC’s head coach.
This isn’t the “Notre Dame model,” it’s a debacle.
Fans are livid, or worse yet, apathetic towards the Trojans this season and that won’t change until there is new leadership in Troy.