There are games that strip away all the illusions and leave you with cold, hard reality. Oregon was just such a game. You cannot watch that game and believe in the fantasy that this program is on the right track.
How bad was it? If you invented a time machine, took a recording of the USC-Oregon game to the deepest, darkest, prehistoric jungles, and showed it to a clan of the earliest cavemen, I believe they would scramble to invent human language as quickly as possible for the sole purpose of being able to say, “I don’t think that confused-looking guy should be in charge.”
There was a lot in that game to talk about. I don’t really want to. I’m sorry I saw it the first time around. But I do want to talk about the defining play of the game, and maybe of Clay Helton’s career at USC. Let’s talk about The Kick. We all know that USC should not have kicked deep with 20 seconds left in the first half. You don’t have to know anything about either team; you don’t have to know much about football; you certainly don’t have to be Bill Belichick or Vince Lombardi to know what do do there: any random collection of hairdressers and middle school librarians would know that you either squib or kick very high and very short in that situation. The decision to kick deep was foolish.
But if we add a little background, the decision becomes even more of a head-scratcher. Because, you see, Helton chose to kick deep in that situation with a bad kickoff unit. USC’s kickoff specialist has been pretty good this year; most of his kicks have been touchbacks. But the coverage has been lousy. The Trojans entered the Oregon game 118th in kickoff return defense. (It’s worse now.) When Clay chose to kick deep, he must have known that his kickoff unit was one of the worst-ranked groups in the nation, right?
Maybe he didn’t know the ranking. I didn’t until I checked last night. But I knew this unit was a problem before looking up that statistic, because I kept noticing how often the kicker was making the tackle on kickoffs. That’s not designed, people. They’re not trying to funnel everything to the kicker so he can be the enforcer. The kicker making a lot of tackles is a giant red flag for any kickoff unit. And entering the Oregon game, the kicker had made four tackles in 22 kickoff returns — a full 18% of all tackles on that unit. Think about that for a minute: if the tackles were evenly distributed among the 11 players on that unit, you’d expect the kicker to have two. But they shouldn’t be evenly distributed. The kicker should rarely have to make a tackle. But with USC, the guy was putting up Hardy Nickerson or Mike Singletary figures. (That’s not really an exaggeration. Any linebacker who makes 18% of the tackles on defensive plays is going to be averaging 13-15 tackles a game and will be an All American.) That USC’s kicker was becoming a virtuoso tackling machine was noticeable and troubling.
At least it was to me. Clay Helton and John Baxter appear to have ignored it. And this raises one of the fundamental problems with Clay’s tenure: the inability to see and deal with problems before they lead to disaster. This year, the kickoff team has not been keeping its lane assignments and is forcing the kicker to make the stop far too often. Helton and Baxter let the problem linger, hoping for the best. And then, faced with a situation that obviously called out for a squib, Clay Helton unleashed his unprepared and underperforming unit and let them kick deep, effectively ending the game in the process.
Why did he do that, you ask? Good question. I think in part because Clay Helton is a coach who believes strongly in the power of positive thinking — in fact, he seems to believe in positive thinking more than he does preparation or strategy. If you just wish hard enough, the pony you want will appear. So while everybody else sees giant red flags waving all around his program, Clay sees only a rosy future: I can’t wait to see this kickoff team in November, he thinks. Let’s kick deep. But blind optimism in the face of dire warning signs is not leadership, and it’s not a strategy.
This tendency to paper over and ignore problems has plagued USC since Helton arrived. The blindness to a chronic special teams mess is not new. Two years ago Helton and Baxter allowed a punt returner to misplay balls all year long, consistently catching balls he shouldn’t and consistently failing to catch balls he should. The lost field position was real and costly. And they did nothing about it. And we don’t need to get into Tee Martin and the gumbo offense; Neil Callaway and offensive line ineptitude; a failing strength and conditioning program. These things fester for years at USC where a top coach would identify the problem and deal with it in short order.
This kickoff return gets to a second key problem with Clay’s tenure: a remarkable inattention to detail. To kick the ball deep under those circumstances was foolish. What was he hoping to achieve? With 20 seconds left he wanted to pin Oregon deep, have them run three plays and then punt so USC could then score? That’s obviously impossible in 20 seconds, which makes it likely that he didn’t think about the kick much at all. If there’s not overly rosy optimistic thinking taking place, there doesn’t seem to be much thinking at all. Helton just did what they always do: send the kickoff team out to kick the ball. And sending that kickoff team out to do what it always does under those circumstances just happened to be an act of coaching malpractice. He simply overlooked the sort of detail that Nick Saban or Urban Meyer would not have overlooked, the sort of detail that decides football games.
Prior to Saturday, Helton’s supporters — they once existed in vast numbers, believe it or not, like the Great Plains buffalo — could at least say that his players continued to fight and never quit; they were warriors, Helton has told us after every uninspiring performance. Well, guess what? Allowing a 56-7 run isn’t an example of fighting on. Allowing Oregon to score touchdowns eight consecutive times it touched the ball wasn’t being a warrior; it actually looked suspiciously like quitting. Oregon’s offense is good, but it’s not that good. Oregon scored 17 against Cal, 21 against Stanford, 35 against Montana. They’ve only been over 50 twice — against USC and Nevada. Oregon isn’t a juggernaut; in fact, USC showed in the first quarter that they are capable of stopping Oregon. The Ducks only became a juggernaut once USC’s early aggressiveness and physicality disappeared and the Trojans stopped giving maximum effort.
Helton said that he loved what he saw from the defense the first three series; that’s the way the defense should always play, he said. You’re right, coach, it should. And maybe with a new coaching staff it would.
Now some of you are saying, “Chris, isn’t this a bit unfair? If not for turnovers by a true freshman QB, the game would have been a lot closer.” Sure. But live by the freshman QB, die by the freshman QB, and it was Clay Helton’s decision to go to an offense that puts everything on the quarterback’s shoulders. Mario Cristobal has done at Oregon what Clay Helton promised to do — and spectacularly failed to do — at USC: build a football team around a rugged offensive line and a physical running game. Clay promised to do that, he didn’t do it, and then he desperately reversed course 180 degrees and embraced the Air Raid, or at least some debased form of the Air Raid, hoping it could save his job. Nobody forced that on Clay Helton. He chose that, and now he has a true freshman QB who has to throw the ball 50+ times in the biggest game of the year. When that strategy doesn’t work out, it’s not the freshman quarterback’s fault. Indeed, Kedon Slovis lacks only two things before he becomes a first-team all-Pac 12 performer: experience, and a better coaching staff. The kid will be fine. He didn’t put his team in this spot. His coach did.
So while I’ve expressed my dislike for Oregon football on a few different occasions in Musings, let’s thank Oregon for the assist. Unless you are willfully blind, you can now see the state of the football program with stark clarity. We can put aside all the wishful thinking of the past few weeks, all of the fantasies about USC going on a run and winning a Rose Bowl, all of Clay’s happy talk about USC being so great by the end of the year. USC is an average football team that wins about 50% of its games. (Ten of the last 22 for those who are still counting.) USC was never going on a five-game winning streak. It was never on the verge of a remarkable turnaround. The Trojans may not even be done losing; they are capable of losing any of the next three games. The program is as bad right now as it was at the end of the Hackett era. It is what it is.
So let’s face the truth. USC football has been eroding for years. It’s currently irrelevant and badly in need of new leadership. No, Clay Helton didn’t start this erosion. But he contributed more than his fair share, and things will not get better — they cannot get better — until the football program has a new football coach.
Can we trust the new decision makers to do a better job than their incapable predecessors? We’ll see. This is the school whose last five hires consisted of a guy with no discernible people skills who had already failed spectacularly at Pitt and who (predictably) turned out to be a spectacular failure at USC, an immature and dishonest trust fund kid who wasn’t capable of leading young men, a drunk who was already on the hot seat at another Pac 12 school because his teams were soft and undisciplined (just like he was), and an unqualified, uninspiring holdover from two failed regimes who had never accomplished anything of note even as a coordinator. USC’s only successful hire was a guy they didn’t even want, a guy willing to say yes after everybody else said no, and who probably got hired because he was unemployed and had a kid on campus. With that track record of shoddy decision-making it’s easy to be cynical about the next hire.
But, hey, it appears USC actually has an athletic director after having not really had one for the last twenty-something years. I don’t know if he’s any good, but it appears that overseeing athletic departments is at least his profession. So there’s that.
I’m assuming, of course, that Helton’s tenure is ending. It’s hard to imagine anybody surviving what he’s put on the field the last two seasons, and it’s equally hard to imagine any athletic director taking over this job and hitching his wagon to Clay Helton. It would be career suicide. Not to mention program homicide. It’s hard to imagine anybody showing up to watch a Helton-led football team next year, and it’s clear that practically no USC-level recruit has any interest in participating in any such venture. The old commercials used to say it was so easy a caveman could do it. This decision is so easy even a USC administrator can do it.
So, Mr. Bohn, it’s time to act. Please, for the love of all that’s good and holy, do what everybody in the world can see needs to be done, and do it right now.
Carthago delenda est.