by Steve Bisheff
It was a bowl game that felt less like a heartwarming holiday and more like a cold reminder.
For all the things many at USC and those of us in the media like about Clay Helton, this is a coach who will head into his first full season on the job in 2016 as a relative unproven commodity.
We know the players love him. We understand he comes off much more genuine than either of his predecessors. He says all the right things and promises everything Pat Haden and the Trojans’ hierarchy want to hear.
But the only way he can show he was the right choice to be the next head coach is to get his players to perform better than they did on a chilled December night in San Diego’s Mission Valley.
Helton wants to run the ball, but he couldn’t do it against a bruising Wisconsin front seven that spent more time in the USC backfield than Justin Davis and Ronald Jones III.
He desires his offensive line to be overpowering, but it didn’t come close to happening on Thursday night with a fourth string center and two tackles playing out of position. And he hopes to build a dominant defense, yet his current one was anything but trying to stop a conservative yet physical Badgers’ offense that played like a Xerox version of Stanford on the way to that 23-21 Holiday Bowl victory.
In many ways, it was a fitting end to a chaotic, disjointed Trojans season. Another head coach fired in the middle of the year. Four assistants dismissed heading into a bowl game. An administrative assistant and an assistant strength coach trying to fill in amid the pressure of a nationally televised match.
And, of course, Cody Kessler, the plucky USC quarterback, once again taking his team to the precipice but not quite able to get it to make that final leap.
The one lasting image of this team should be that desperation Kessler heave in the waning seconds, the one that fell just out of the diving reach of JuJu Smith-Schuster, who, by the way, was the Trojans’ real MVP of 2015.
Well before that ball landed, plenty of USC boosters were once again second-guessing Haden, wondering if he’d been too quick to hire Helton and wishing he would have waited now that Chip Kelly is out of work in Philadelphia.
That refrain won’t go away, even though Haden had no way of knowing Kelly would be fired by the NFL Eagles. Not that Kelly’s style, on and off the field, necessarily would have fit at USC. As someone who has been around the program as long as anybody, I don’t think it would. But that won’t stop the critics.
It doesn’t help, either, that Helton opens 2016 playing Alabama, then traveling to Stanford and Utah in weeks three and four, meaning there is a very good chance he could be 1-5 as a permanent head coach before he even gets a chance to take a deep breath.
Hey, no one ever said being the head guy at USC was easy.
Helton’s next move could be his most important. He has to hire a defensive coordinator – the RIGHT defensive coordinator. If, as rumors suggest, Wisconsin’s young, bright Dave Aranda is near the top of his list, that would be a major coup. Helton’s players would be the first to tell him linebacker Jack Cichy and the Badgers’ defense were as physical and well coached as any they played all year.
As disappointing as that final result was in San Diego, it should be noted that Helton’s kids didn’t quit. Even when it was 20-7 and the Trojans were getting mauled on both sides of the line of scrimmage, they somehow battled back with Smith-Schuster – who else? – making the big third quarter 39-yard catch that seemed to momentarily ignite the offense and produce a short-lived 21-20 lead.
The defense, too, played much better in the second half, led by Devon Simmons and the guys up front. If they had demonstrated as much passion in the first 30 minutes, USC probably would have won the game.
But when it really mattered, when USC had the ball on its own 20 with 2:28 left to play, needing only a couple of big plays to get into field goal range, Kessler, pressured once again by the omnipresent Cichy, threw a pass that was intercepted by Sojourn Shelton.
The quarterback whose biggest strength was avoiding interceptions threw one that will haunt him for a long time.
It’s too bad. Kessler deserved better. He was a gritty, loyal survivor amid all the turmoil throughout his career. It’s unfortunate it had to end the way it did.
But if the quarterback’s college run is over, the head coach’s is just beginning. It’s been a shaky start coming out of the gate, although time often has a way of evening that out.
Clay Helton will have every opportunity, but let’s be clear about one thing at this point:
He still has much to prove.