USC vs. the Power Five under Clay Helton: An R-rated show

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Given the opponent and environment, USC’s performance in the third and fourth quarters at Notre Dame qualify as its best half of the 36 played since Sam Darnold took his last snap.

On the road against a top-10 opponent and trailing by 17 points, the Trojans responded in unfamiliar fashion:

With grit and resolve; with leadership, aggressiveness and playmaking on both sides of the ball; and with no major gaffes on the sideline. (But a big whiff by the officials.)

Final judgment, however, depends entirely on distance.

The more narrow your scope, the better the performance appears.

Step back a decade — or half a century — and resignation sets in.

So low is the current standard for a program with seven poll-era national championships that a close loss under Touchdown Jesus seems like an encouraging sign from above.

It’s time, in other words, for perspective.

It’s time, once again, for The Hotline Helton Tracker (THHT) — our running tally of USC’s results under coach Clay Helton without Darnold on the field to mask systemic flaws and clean up errant execution.

Since Helton was named permanent coach late in the 2015 season, the Trojans have played 21 games against Power Five competition without Darnold.

In those games, USC is 8-13, with seven losses by 10+ points.

Here’s the list:

2015
Lost to Stanford 41-22
Lost to Wisconsin 23-21

2016
Lost to Alabama 52-6
Beat Utah State 45-7
Lost to Stanford 27-10

2017
No games played without Darnold

2018
Beat UNLV 43-21
Lost to Stanford 17-3
Lost to Texas 37-14
Beat Washington State 39-36
Beat Arizona 24-20
Beat Colorado 31-20
Lost to Utah 41-28
Lost to Arizona State 38-35
Beat Oregon State 38-21
Lost to Cal 15-14
Lost to UCLA 34-27
Lost to Notre Dame 24-17

2019
Beat Stanford 45-20
Beat Utah 30-23
Lost to Washington 28-14
Lost to Notre Dame 30-27

The most significant number, from this vantage point, is 21 — the number of games played without Darnold.

That’s not a small sample size, folks.

That’s almost two seasons of competition with a roster that at no time had sub-.500 talent.

In fact, we’d argue the Trojans consistently have possessed above-.750 talent.

At this point, it seems unlikely the school will make an in-season move on Helton:

USC has a new president and an interim athletic director, with a permanent selection perhaps weeks away. And the quality of play under Helton is clearly a level better than we saw last year.

By the end of the regular season, the sample size against Power Five opponents will have reached 27 games.

The only way for Helton to claim a winning record against that subset of competition, we should note, is for the Trojans to win out.

1. Oregon (5-1/3-0)
Last week: 1
Result: Beat Colorado 45-3
Next up: at Washington
Comment: If Ducks sweep the Washington schools the next two Saturdays, the North race will be over before Halloween.

2. Arizona State (5-1/2-1)
Last week: 2
Result: Beat Washington State 38-34
Next up: at Utah
Comment: Of the 14 games against Power Five opponents in the Herm Edwards era, 12 have been decided by a touchdown or less — a simply phenomenhermal stat. (ASU is 7-5.)

3. Utah (5-1/2-1)
Last week: 3
Result: Won at Oregon State 52-7
Next up: vs. Arizona State
Comment: Utes scored 90 points the past two games against bottom-tier defenses from Pullman and Corvallis. The next three weeks, they will face several of the best (ASU, Cal and Washington).

4. Washington (5-2/2-2)
Last week: 4
Result: Won at Arizona 51-27
Next up: vs. Oregon
Comment: Touchdown conversion rate in the red zone now 53.13 percent. That’s good for 102nd nationally and behind such juggernauts as Western Kentucky, South Alabama and Akron … but ahead of Colorado, ASU and Stanford.

5. USC (3-3/2-1)
Last week: 5
Result: Lost at Notre Dame 30-27
Next up: vs. Arizona
Comment: Considered moving the Trojans ahead of Washington after the performance in South Bend, but the head-to-head result and scores against BYU give the Huskies the edge.

6. Stanford (3-3/2-2)
Last week: 8
Result: DNP
Next up: vs. UCLA (Thursday)
Comment: Yep, the Cardinal moved up two spots. Better to be idle than blown out.

7. Cal (4-2/1-2)
Last week: 9
Result: DNP
Next up: vs. Oregon State
Comment: Combination of the extra week and Oregon State’s turnstile defense should give Devon Modster the reps and confidence necessary to perform at a functional level (loosely defined).

8. Arizona (4-2/1-2)
Last week: 6
Result: Lost to Washington 51-27
Next up: at USC
Comment: Not exactly an ideal start to a difficult three-game stretch, which moves to the Coliseum and then heads to Stanford Stadium. All signs point to a bowl berth at stake in the Territorial Cup.



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