Clay Helton’s Last Stand? No. 7 Oregon Wallops USC, 56-24, at the Coliseum

on Nov3
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Here’s a history lesson for you:

The Battle of Little Bighorn was fought on the plains of southeastern Montana on June 25, 1876. General George Armstrong Custer led the U.S. Army Seventh Cavalry comprised of 647 men against renowned war chiefs Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse’s legion of nearly 2,000 warriors.

Vastly outnumbered, the underdogs were overwhelmed by the Indians. There were hundreds of casualties as the U.S. army was left trampled and defeated. General Custer was killed in the battle, as were two of his brothers. The battle would go down in history as “Custer’s Last Stand.”

The reason I bring this up is because Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019 might go down in history as Clay Helton’s Last Stand. The night that the highly criticized head coach of the USC Trojans was finally given the proverbial nail in the coffin in what could have been his final game coaching at the Coliseum.

Heisman candidate Justin Herbert and the Oregon Ducks entered the game as the No. 7 ranked team in the country. They were the heavy favorites of course, but USC has upset other top-10 teams in the country inside the confines of the Coliseum already this season. Helton has been on the hot seat for over a year, but a win over the Ducks, and perhaps a Pac-12 South Title, could have gone a long way to win over a new athletic director.

Unfortunately for Helton, much like Custer, his strategic errors cost him the battle, and he once again found himself on the wrong side of history, after a lopsided loss to the Ducks, 56-24.

“Credit to Oregon. They’re a good football team,” Helton predictably said after the loss. “We made enough mistakes against a top-10 team that you can’t win a ballgame.”

Herbert threw for 225 yards and three touchdowns, as Oregon won their eighth straight game since an Opening Day loss to Auburn, 21-27. With the victory, Oregon remains in the pole position for the Pac-12 North crown, and still has an outside shot at the College Football Playoff.

Early on, USC looked poised to pull off the upset. Kedon Slovis opened the game with an impressive touchdown pass. The freshman quarterback broke multiple tackles and was evasive enough to keep the play alive, eventually finding receiver Drake London in the end zone for the game’s first score.

The Trojans led 10-0 after the first quarter, and were on the precipice of taking a 17-7 lead midway through the second quarter before Slovis kept another play alive with his feet, only to get hit from behind and fumble on the doorstep of the goal line.

“In the first half, we got up 10-0, and got the opportunity to really jump ahead, and instead we ended up getting a red zone turnover,” said Helton. “You can’t do those things against that [Oregon] football team.”

Oregon took the ball 92 yards and capped off a nine-play drive with a Jaylon Redd rushing touchdown to take a 14-10 lead. Two plays later, Slovis was intercepted by Brady Breeze for a 32-yard, pick-six, and the Ducks had turned a potential 10-point second quarter deficit into an 11-point lead with a wild 21-point swing.

“Those two plays were huge, they provided all the momentum,” said Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal.

The Trojans responded with a touchdown pass from Slovis to Michael Pittman 20 seconds before the half, but Mykael Wright returned the ensuing kickoff straight into the stomach of the Trojans’ coverage and went 100 yards for the Ducks first touchdown on a kickoff return since the first game of the 2017 season.

“That sent us into the locker room with a lot of juice and a lot of energy,” said Cristobal of the kickoff return touchdown. “For them [USC] to come down and score, and for us to come right back with the kickoff return, that was huge.”

The gut-punch right before the half was all the momentum Oregon needed, as they outscored the Trojans, 28-7, in the second half, and cruised to the blowout victory.

Slovis threw for 264 yards and three touchdowns on a USC record 57 pass attempts in the loss, but it was his three interceptions that were cause for concern. Slovis was responsible for four turnovers in total, and it was just one example of the multitude of mistakes made by the Helton-led team throughout the game.

“You can’t commit turnovers like that,” said Slovis. “Sometimes it happens. You just have to move on and play the next play.”

The Trojans looked tough to start the game, but were anything but from the second quarter onward. They were hit by an offensive avalanche from Oregon in the second quarter and appeared anemic and vulnerable for the remainder of the game.

USC was flagged an exasperating 12 times for a whopping 157 yards in penalties in the loss, and made many mental mistakes as well. Standout safety Isaiah Pola-Mao was ejected for targeting in the second quarter, a huge loss for the Trojans defense, after Pola-Mao already had one game-changing interception earlier in the game, ending Herbert’s streak of 133 passes without an interception, the second-longest such streak in the country.

“You can’t turn it over four times and have the penalties we had,” said Helton. “You can’t play that not-clean a football game and expect to beat that team.”

USC’s defense and special teams, normally stout, were weak and feeble throughout the contest. They allowed one big play after another from the second quarter onward, and handed Oregon multiple extra possessions for late-hits on the quarterback penalties.

The lack of toughness, perseverance, and discipline have been the trademarks of Helton’s five-year tenure as head coach of the Trojans in addition to the penalties, turnovers, and mental mistakes. Talent, desire, and fight have never been the issue with Helton or USC, despite his refence to them when asked about his job status after the game.

“I’ll continue doing the only I know, which is to fight,” said Helton when asked if he was the right coach for USC. “I’ve been here 10 years and I believe in being a servant to this university and to the young men that are here… I’ll fight like hell for the next win with the people that believe in me and the people that I love until they ask me not to do it anymore.”

If this was indeed Clay Helton’s Last Stand, it will have ended as hellishly and ugly as Custer’s. At the end of the third quarter, with the Trojans trailing, 42-17, the USC faithful headed to the exits in droves, a mass exodus that certainly got the attention of current USC President Carol Folt who was standing nearby on the side lines.

By the start of the fourth quarter, the announced attendance of over 63,000 was reduced to rubble. Only a few thousand Oregon Ducks fans remained, devoted in green and yellow, cheering their team and chanting “We Want Bama!” in reference to their desire to play Nick Saban’s Alabama Tide in a potential National Championship Game in January.

USC is expected to announce Mike Bohn as their new athletic director as early as next week, and with the Trojans falling to 5-4, and out of first-place in the Pac-12 South, it’s only a matter of time until Helton is handed his walking papers.

The Trojans have just three games remaining, but already the winds of change have hit the Coliseum. USC will return to Los Angeles in three weeks for their highly anticipated inner-city rivalry with UCLA. The fans will be there, the only question left to answer now, is will Helton?



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