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Helton goes old-school in bid to be USC coach

by Steve Bisheff

In music, rap and hip-hop are all the current rage, but there are still plenty of people out there who love their old-time rock n’ roll.

In football, spread offenses and gaudy passing stats are hot, new trends, but at USC, lots of fans and boosters still prefer old-time Trojan football.

Clay Helton is giving them that now. He passed the latest round of the USC head coaching survivor test when the kids who swear by him went out and physically manhandled UCLA, 40-21, on a cool, sun-splashed November Saturday.

“Hire him now,” some columnists pleaded in Sunday’s newspapers. “We want him to get the job,” chimed in many of the players. Scores of happy fans leaving the Coliseum were chirping the same thing.

It sounds good, but in reality it’s not that easy. There are still more than a few influential donors, not to mention some in the Trojans’ hierarchy, who are holding out for a big, proven, marquee coach.

You hear the same names . . .Jon Gruden, Brian Kelly, Chip Kelly . . .and even a new one that was being whispered about – Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio. Much of it is still speculation, of course, but clearly some discussions are being held behind closed doors.

And as much as Helton, and the folksy style he mixes with a steely resolve, helped his status with the impressive victory over the crosstown Bruins, the feeling persists that his immediate future could ride on next Saturday’s Pac-12 championship game against Stanford.

Beat the Cardinal and he captures the conference title and takes the Trojans to their first Rose Bowl since 2008. Those kind of heady credentials would make it extremely difficult for Athletic Director Pat Haden and Co. to choose anyone else.

But lose the game in which USC likely will be the underdog, and suddenly an 8-5 season ends with defeats in two of the last three weeks. And the clamor for a more glamorous, big-time coach only will grow louder.

If nothing else, the manner in which the Trojans dispatched Jim Mora’s team gives the growing Helton supporters some renewed hope.

USC played its finest defensive game of the season against the Bruins, showcasing the sort of aggressive, attacking style that had been missing for too long. The Trojans played UCLA’s gifted receivers man-to-man, allowing the front seven to blitz and stunt their way into rattling Josh Rosen, the freshman quarterback with an NFL arm.

Instead of the old read and react scheme, USC was bringing the house. Safety Chris Hawkins was coming from all different angles, racing in to block one of Rosen’s passes and pressuring others.

The two biggest moments of this game were on defense, not offense. There was Claude Pelon’s momentous sack that produced the fumble Rasheem Green scooped up and ran for a touchdown and the 14-yard sack of Rosen by Scott Felix that set up Adoree’ Jackson’s ensuing 42-yard TD on a punt return.

It is no coincidence that USC’s renewed vigor on defense coincides with Helton’s new approach as interim head coach. Unlike the two offensively obsessed head coaches before him, Helton has become deeply involved in the defense.

“He spends all day Tuesdays (at practice) on the defensive side of the field,” said Su’a Cravens, the team’s best defensive player. “That makes a big difference. When the head coach spends that kind of time with you, it makes you want to play harder.”

It seems just as obvious that Helton’s input has altered defensive game plans as well. Unless you believe much-maligned defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox just decided to drastically change the blueprint for Saturday all by himself.

Offensively, too, Helton has left his imprint. Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian seemed intent on passing to set up the run. Helton believes just the opposite. He wants to run first and mix in the play-action passes later.

His signature drive came in the late shadows of the fourth quarter, with Helton ordering nine tough, between-the-tackle, Justin Davis runs before Cody Kessler’s play-action 7-yard pass found a wide open Taylor McNamara in the end zone.

That was the old Trojan way. The John McKay, John Robinson way. It was pure, physical, knock you off the line of scrimmage football.

The old-timers in the audience must have been swooning. Somebody should have cued the music in the midst of that final touchdown celebration.

A little Elvis or the Beatles would have been perfect.

Garry Paskwietz

A 1988 graduate of USC with a degree in Sports Information. Worked in sports marketing for LA Lakers and Miller Brewing Company. Began covering the Trojans in 1996 with the Trojan Football Fax. Founded WeAreSC in November 1998 with stints at Scout and ESPN. Emmy-winner while covering high school football at Fox Sports West.

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