Huber reviews USC's season and final games
As I write this, to my utter surprise Clay Helton is still our coach. I know Lynn Swann came of age in the era of John McKay at USC and Chuck Noll at Pittsburgh. Both coaches had rocky starts, but continued to improve every year, eventually becoming legendary coaches and champions in the sport of football. I can appreciate what Lynn I trying to do, but there is a big difference between riding it out with a dynamic coach who is putting all his pieces in place and tying your program to sinking ship. A program on the rise should look like UCLA under Chip Kelly, taking their lumps early on but finishing strong and showing great improvement along the way. What’s going on now at USC with Helton feels less like Chip Kelly and more like Lane Kiffin circa 2012/2013.
After taking a talent laden pre-season #1 USC team and woefully underperforming in 2012. Pat Haden elected to stay the course and keep Lane on board for 2013. 2013 started the same way 2012 ended, Kiffin was fired on the tarmac and that was it. The same arguments people made for keeping Kiffin they are now making for Helton. “He won 10 games just a year ago” “the team is young, give him some time”. The problems are the same too, undisciplined sloppy play, historically bad offensive line play, great recruiting with no player development, getting physically dominated, and an inability to beat high caliber opponents. I see too many parallels to ignore, and mark my words, the ending will be the same. Another coach out, another year wasted.
In order to keep his job, Helton had to agree to make sweeping changes to his staff. This is just a shell game Lynn is playing to appease a very angry fan base. I can’t think of a time when a lame duck coach like Helton, at any program, changed his staff and turned the program around. Brian Kelly at Notre Dame doesn’t count. Before going 4-8 in 2016 Kelly had already established himself as a top-flight coach at Cincinnati and had already led the Fighting Irish to the National Championship playoff in his 25 year of head coaching, so besides being head coaches, the comparisons should stop there. Not that a staff change can’t help a program, it can, but it can’t save a program as far gone as USC. There are just a handful of great assistant football coaches at the college level, very few of them are actually available, and competition for them is tough. If I were a super talented assistant football coach, with a ton of job offers, would I want to go to work for a coach in Clay Helton’s situation? The answer is NO, unless I wanted his job when he get fired
I’ve listened to so many conversations that try to draw parallels between Helton and McKay. They all revolved around the fact that Helton went 10-3 with a Rose Bowl victory in 2016, won the PAC-12 in 2017 at 11-3, and that McKay was 4-6 his first 2 seasons.
This frustrates me to no end. John McKay, took over a program decimated by probation, and devoid of any talent or speed (his words). He struggled out of the gate and complied 8 wins in his first 2 season. Losing games, but improving, and perfecting his student body right/student body left offense in the process. Focused his recruiting efforts on building his team from the linemen out. McKay knew that success begins and ends with your line play. This was in the era, of freshman and JV squads, where underclassmen rarely played. In McKay’s 3rd season, with a varsity roster full of his players for the first time he went 11-0 and won a National Championship.
Helton on the other hand benefited from an extreme talented roster and was saved early in his career by Sam Darnold. It’s my firm belief that Sam Darnold saved Clay Helton’s job that first season and carried him through those two successful, yet disappointing seasons. Even with the best QB in the country Helton couldn’t put up much of a fight against national powers. Without Darnold, USC would have had 5 or 6 loss seasons in 2016 and2017. Everyone knew that the true test would be 2018, Helton’s 3rd season, his recruits, and no Darnold to float the ship. Instead of steady improvement or a breakout year like McKay had in his 3rd season, Helton’s Trojans fell apart. Recording the worst season since 2001. Even with all this disappointment, we still had a chance to salvage some respect by beating an 11-0 Notre Dame.
Watching USC’s offense is like watching a boring movie over and over again. It seems like every week, with maybe one or two exceptions, we come out firing on all cylinders. Notre Dame week was no different. JT Daniels came out slinging the ball, picking ND apart with short and intermediate routes. He was getting rid of the ball quickly, before Notre Dame’s pass rush could get to him. Velus Jones, Amon-Ra St. Brown, and Tyler Vaughns were all running crisp routes, getting open and catching the football. We went up 7-0 early. Our offense looked unstoppable. I was praying we could keep it up, but then that sinking feeling hit me. I had seen this same movie 20 times over the last 3 years. The next two drives look great, but the end in a red zone fumble and a field goal. Instead of being up 21-0, like we should be, we are up 10-0. Against a good team like Notre Dame you cannot leave points on the field. Those two possession were the different in the game. Instead of losing 24-17, we would have won 28-24. In typical Helton fashion our offense stalled in the second half. Helton and his staff have shown a total inability to make effective half time adjustment. It one of the biggest problems I have with him and his staff. Great coaches are the best at adjusting on the fly, Pete Carroll was the best I’ve ever seen at this. Notre Dame made some very basic adjustments to their defense, they started dropping the wide side defensive end or SAM backer into coverage, which took away the short slant and out routes that had killed them in the first half. With an extra man in coverage Notre Dame went to rushing only three defensive lineman, effectively daring us to run the football. We didn’t, we stuck to the short route combos and predictably our offense stalled. This would have been a great time to put Sears in the game, his legs could have really hurt Notre Dame and forced them back into a 4 or 5 man front. Unfortunately, Helton’s offense uses the passing game to set up the run, instead of the other way around. Alabama and Ohio State are both run first offenses. If all else fails they can still line up, grind out four yards a carry, and burn the clock. We don’t have the ability to do that and it’s lost us a bunch of game including this one.
After being routed by UCLA last week, USC’s defensive front really stepped it up against the Fighting Irish. Notre Dame had a potent offense and we held them to just 24 points. Really, it was 17, our offense hand delivered Notre Dame a touchdown. Our defensive secondary, especially Iman Marshall, played with more physicality then they had all season long. Midway through the season I called for a Cam Smith and Palaie Gaoteote pairing at the LB position and I finally got it. It was a good look for our linebacking core. Too bad Cam is a Senior, they could have been great duo. Unlike our offense, I think our defense may be salvageable. If we can get a better strength staff in place and recruit some taller DB’s I think we may be pretty good going forward.