Undefeated at home under Clay Helton, USC seeks similar consistency on the road
LOS ANGELES — Freeway traffic in Southern California can be burdensome, especially in Friday rush hour. So, you'll have to forgive much of the crowd at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for arriving late to USC's 39-36 win on Sept. 21 over Washington State; even if they weren't there for opening kickoff, they were present for Jay Tufele's game-winning blocked field goal.
"Another thing that helps us is those fans," said USC head coach Clay Helton. "I can't thank them enough. To be able to come home, and have the support of our Trojan family, was huge."
The venerable stadium is undergoing a facelift this season, with a makeshift press box and cranes visible throughout the venue. Seating capacity is lower as a result. Meanwhile, the wholly different look of the Coliseum now compared to seasons past has been reflected in 2018 by the play of its home team when there and on the road.
USC improved to 18-0 at the Coliseum since Helton replaced Steve Sarkisian as head coach in October 2015. Friday's outcome matched some of the most hard-fought victories scored there during this unbeaten run, including last season's double-overtime defeat of Texas, and the two-point conversion stop of Utah that preserved a crucial South division win last October.
"Every time we walk out there, there's a sense of more pride," said linebacker Cameron Smith. "Walking through the tunnel, we see the guys painted on that wall that have played there before us, and I know for me, it just hits me right in the heart."
Echoes of USC greatness past resonate throughout the Coliseum. There are oftentimes living embodiments — like Mark Sanchez, the last Trojans quarterback to win a conference title before last year, and the guest to lead USC out of the tunnel against Washington State.
Recreating past glory is indeed the omnipresent expectation held for USC football. Three games into the season, the 2018 Trojans were falling shy of those benchmarks.
To assign any more gravity to last Friday than any other win over this streak would be something of a misrepresentation. The streak's played an integral role in USC winning the division twice, the conference once, and reaching the Rose Bowl Game.
Still, with back-to-back multiple-score losses Week 2 at Stanford and Week 3 at Texas, the Trojans needed a slump-buster to avoid a 1-3 start for the two time in three years, and to stave off an 0-2 hole in Pac-12 Conference play.
Helton noted that "usually, 8-1 or 7-2 wins the South." While the seemingly dire state of the division through four weeks suggests more margin for error than 2016 or '17 — when Colorado and USC advanced to Levi's stadium at 8-1 in conference — 0-2 may have eliminated that margin altogether for the rest of the way with still a majority of USC's Pac-12 game away from home.
"[Beating Washington State] was critical for us," Helton said. "I think it was critical for our confidence and our psyche, too. To be able to fight back like that in the second half, to be able to finish a game like that in the fourth quarter, it can only build confidence."
Building confidence would be a huge positive for the Trojans, whose offense appeared uncertain and out-of-sorts in the two losses. And as misfires mounted those two weeks, so too did social media buzz questioning the future of the program. Not relegated to disgruntled fans, some national media stoked the flames possibly warming Helton's seat.
That background noise leading up to Week 4 made the emptiness of the Coliseum at kickoff all the more noticeable. Blame the veritable parking lots that are the 405 and 110. As fans made their way in by the late first quarter, and after the Trojans rallied from a 30-17 deficit in the early third, the pitch of the background noise changed.
It reached a crescendo with Tufele's block. The veteran linebacker Smith spotted on a previous field goal kick that Washington State's guard lunged inward, and sensing the Trojans might be able to exploit that, directed lineman Brandon Pili to position himself accordingly.
"They tend to leave a big hole in the B gap," Pili said. "Coach John Baxter, he's a great special teams coach, and he prepared us for this."
Following on a series of special teams miscues at both Stanford and Texas, Helton fielded a variety of questions on the performance of Baxter's unit. USC improved in all phases of special teams against Washington State, culminating in the block. Coupled with a balanced offensive effort — JT Daniels threw three touchdown passes and running backs Stephen Carr and Vavae Malepeai both surpassed 75 rushing yards — the Trojans seemed to have ironed out their most vexing issues from the previous two weeks.
The next major hurdle facing them is doing the same on the road. Winning at the Coliseum has become the standard. But over the same stretch as its current 18-0 run at the Coliseum, USC is 10-12 away from it. The Trojans embark on their next road trip this week at Arizona, their first divisional opponent of the season.
The Wildcats rebounded from an ugly start to the Kevin Sumlin era with two blowout wins, including last week in their Pac-12 opener at Oregon State. Quarterback Khalil Tate led Arizona in a rally last year at the Coliseum that forced a 35-35 tie in the fourth quarter, until a pair of Trojans touchdowns put the game away down the stretch.
Arizona's the first of four road Pac-12 games still remaining on the docket, three of which come against South competition.
"We treat every house like it's our house," Pili said of attempting to recreate the Coliseum energy on the road.
To repeat as Pac-12 champion, USC must make its safe at home beyond the Coliseum's gates.