USC head coach Clay Helton remained positive about his 2019 Trojans after the 30-27 overtime loss to BYU during his Sunday night call with the media, comparing this early-season loss and performance by his young quarterback to the 2016 early-season loss to Utah and the performance from an emerging Sam Darnold.
“Coming home last night, which was a hard ride home, and addressing our staff this morning, I felt almost like I did walking away from a game in Utah a couple years ago,” Helton said. “Walking out of the game going, ‘Wow, this could be a really good football team.’
“If they stay the course, at the end of the year they’re going to be a really good football team.”
After reviewing the tape, Helton reiterated that he felt it was a “good college football game” that came down to two things—turnovers and third-down efficiency. The Trojans turned the ball over three times to BYU’s zero, and were held to just six-of-17 on third-down attempts.
“We needed to have one less turnover and be able to sustain one more drive,” Helton said.
The Trojans will have less time than usual to regroup following this loss, as they’ll welcome Pac-12 South favorites Utah to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Sunday night. Helton says he expects his team to be able to bounce back.
“I feel really good about where they are mentally,” Helton said. “The skill they have around them and how they’re all pulling together. They went right back to work today and are looking forward to the next opportunity. I’m really proud of them for their mental mindset right now.”
Helton put some of the blame for Saturday’s loss on some youthful inexperience, pointing out four plays against the USC defense that allowed nearly 150 yards were all turned in against young players.
“It’s something we’ll live and learn from and grow from,” Helton said. “Even with the quarterback, every rep you get and experience you have, whether it’s a success or failure, you’re going to learn from…This team will grow and we’ll grow. We lost a really close game in overtime on the road, early in the season, and this team will get better week by week.”
Helton also acknowledged that quarterback Kedon Slovis made a few mistakes with his reads on a couple of his interceptions.
“There were some times that he skipped a progression,” Helton said. “There were some times he got locked in and guessed a couple of times. It’s a little bit being young, a little bit seeing something that’s not really there. He still completed 70% of his balls and put us in a position to win…I hope he does just like Sam did in 2016, learn from them and move on.”
Helton said the overtime interception was a specific case of Slovis making the wrong read, as the play resulted in an open receiver, but the eventual throw went to a covered Drake London. Helton credited the BYU linebackers for converging quickly, and lamented that the “ball bounced the wrong way.”
Helton also said that he communicates with Graham Harrell on offense, Clancy Pendergast on defense, and John Baxter on special teams, but that, “Ultimately, Graham is making all the calls, and I thought he did a great job.”
And on the overtime interception: “Called a third down spacing play that if you go through the read correctly, there is a man open. You can always go hindsight after the game.”
Helton said they wanted to stay aggressive during the overtime period, but also praised Harrell for running on second down to set up a third-and-manageable.
Helton praised redshirt freshman Markese Stepp for his role in the game, specifically saying that he pointed out his two big fourth-down conversions to the team. Helton also said punter Ben Griffiths performed well, forcing BYU to start inside its own 20-yard line on the three occasions he had to pin them deep, and also hit a 47-yarder on his lone open field punting opportunity.
As for injury updates, Helton said he was unsure on nickel back Greg Johnson, who sustained an injury early in the game and did not return. He also said they will see how things go with defensive end Christian Rector throughout the week.
“Christian was close coming into the game, but just not close enough,” Helton said, adding that neither he nor Rector had enough confidence to put him in the game. “I think it’s going to be how he feels this week in practice, but I feel like he’s pretty close.”