Trojans risk finishing below .500 and out of the postseason with a loss to the Fighting Irish
PASADENA, Calif. — Rose Bowl Stadium's south end zone provided the scene for what can be considered the high point of the Clay Helton era in USC football. Less than two years later, the same location served as the backdrop for the era's lowest point.
UCLA scored 13 fourth-quarter points in that south end zone en route to a 34-27 win, including two field goals through the same uprights Chase McGrath booted the game-winner of the 2017 Rose Bowl Game.
Amid the celebration that early January night, newly named USC athletic director Lynn Swann said winning the Granddaddy of 'Em All for the first time in eight years wasn't a final destination, but rather a building block in restoring the program to national championship levels.
Two years later, Swann will have another conversation coming out of Rose Bowl Stadium.
"He just hugged my neck and said, 'Coach, I'll see you Monday,'" Helton said of his postgame interaction with the athletic director on Saturday.
"I've got great support from USC, from Lynn Swann, and from these kids. I'll continue to work hard for them," he added.
Still, the future of USC football under Helton has had a lingering pall cast over it almost from the pairing's inception. The Trojans lost their first three, and five of the first six games after then-athletic director Pat Haden removed Helton's interim label in November 2015.
Winning a Rose Bowl Game and Pac-12 championship only temporarily quelled the questions about job security posed by outside entities, whether in the fan base or media. The overarching question for Swann — who inherited, but didn't hire Helton — is if the aberration was the book-ending struggles, or the successes in between.
Coaching regimes can endure temporary dips before returning strong; a tenure like Nick Saban's at Alabama is an anomaly. Even USC legend John McKay, for whom Swann played, oversaw four consecutive seven-win seasons with multiple losses after winning his first Rose Bowl Game in 1962.
But there's also the possibility, and thus concern, Helton's initial successes are more comparable to those of Larry Smith. Smith's teams appeared in three straight Rose Bowls from 1987-89. His next three seasons produced diminishing returns, ending with a 6-5-1 finish in 1992 after he was retained from a 3-8 '91 campaign.
For Helton, the 5-6 record is problematic enough. The way in which the Trojans have limped to that mark compounds their struggles.
USC already saw streaks of 19 straight games at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and 14 straight against Cal snapped in the past four weeks. Saturday's loss marked rock-bottom in certain ways, not the least of which was the 47-year worst 2-8 record the Bruins carried into the contest.
UCLA may have broken two Trojans streaks in one maneuver, ending their three-year monopoly on the Victory Bell, awarded to the winner of the annual rivalry game; and dooming USC to its first losing record since the 2000 season.
Avoiding such dubious distinction means beating an undefeated Notre Dame in the regular-season finale at the Coliseum.
"Last home game for the seniors: We're going to come out, and do it for them," said wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown.
That's an admirable sentiment from the freshman St. Brown, who's played an outstanding individual campaign with 656 receiving yards and caught his third touchdown of 2018 against UCLA. And the notion of a struggling USC denying an unbeaten Notre Dame a shot at the national championship is the kind of moment that would live prominently in the annals of this historic rivalry.
However, the Fighting Irish spent their Week 12 on the polar opposite end of the college football spectrum than USC, steamrolling No. 12-ranked Syracuse and continuing to look like the most complete team of Brian Kelly's tenure.
Any solace that USC might extract from a rivalry week in which it will be a considerable underdog is that Notre Dame escaped a similar abyss not long ago. In the Trojans' last game before their epic win over Penn State in the Granddaddy of 'Em All, they trounced a Notre Dame team that finished 4-8.
Kelly fielded questions very much like those Helton took Saturday, focused on his future with the program, if he anticipated being fired in the coming days, and so on. Helton himself offered Notre Dame's turnaround under Kelly following the Nov. 10 loss to Cal as an example of programs grinding through momentary setback without dramatically changing course.
The nucleus of young talent, like St. Brown and quarterback JT Daniels, lay the foundation for USC's rebuild efforts beyond 2018 — whether that's with or without Helton. In Daniels, the head coach has a vehement supporter.
"Nobody wants to see him go. Everybody who knows him, loves him," Daniels said. "If you blame Clay Helton for that loss, then you have no idea what football is. Players aren't executing. That's it."