For 55-1/2 minutes of playing time Saturday, it probably was a good thing for USC’s football Trojans that there were no paying spectators in the Coliseum.
The limits of Pandemic Football deprived them of the energy and adrenaline provided by a loud crowd, and forced players to provide their own juice. But it also averted the reaction of a home audience already prone to skepticism over the coaching of Clay Helton and his staff.
Hold the #ClayMustGo hashtag for at least a couple of weeks, Trojans fans.
As weird as it sounds, those last 4-1/2 minutes might have saved a season that has just begun. The narrative going in, as the pregame talkers on Fox noted, was that if the Pac-12 had any shot at a berth in the College Football Playoff with its truncated schedule, it would involve USC running the table.
Fortunately for the Trojans, the entire nation saw those final five minutes, and their comeback from a 13-point deficit for a 28-27 victory over Arizona State.
Unfortunately for the Trojans, the entire nation also had access to those first 55-1/2. Those who tuned in witnessed four Trojan turnovers, two occasions when USC came away empty in the red zone, two times they were stopped on fourth-and-1 (once at the ASU 6, so that falls into two categories), and a soft zone defensive scheme by ASU that seemed to befuddle Graham Harrell’s Air Raid offense and often forced Kedon Slovis to flee the pocket trying to find something, anything to work with.
They also saw a defensive scheme that was supposed to more aggressive under new coordinator Todd Orlando but kept getting overwhelmed by ASU’s offensive line and gashed by Sun Devils’ running backs Rachaad White and Chip Trayanum and quarterback Jayden Daniels, who rushed for 124 yards and passed for 134.
The optimist could say that the Trojans looked like a team that hadn’t played in nearly 11 months. The pessimist would say that resembles midseason form for Helton’s teams anyway. And if there had been real, live, demanding alumni in those red Coliseum seats, rather than a few socially isolated cutouts, Helton and his team would have heard the displeasure.
But it is the coach’s job to stay positive even if the fan base doesn’t, and Helton said afterward that he’d called it when USC got the ball back on a punt with 4:28 left and a 27-14 deficit.
“I was going up and down the sideline,” he said, “saying, ‘Guys, I’m looking at it right now. You’re going to win this game 28-27. It’s going to take two scores. We’re going to have to treat it like a two-minute drive, and go to our two-minute drive rules. We’re going to get a touchdown, get an onside kick and go score again.’ And they did it.
“I thought the whole sideline stayed positive, didn’t panic, stayed poised and just really played situational mastery football the whole way through, from taking timeouts to using two-minute rules to even Kedon throwing the ball away, checking the ball down, not taking negative plays down the stretch.”
The Trojans converted a pair of fourth-down plays in the nine-play drive that got them close, one fairly desperate and the other semi-miraculous. Slovis found Tyler Vaughns for 14 yards on a fourth-and-3 from the USC 27. Five plays later, having reached the ASU 26 but facing a fourth-and-13, they got a free play because a Sun Devil had jumped offside. Slovis slung it toward the end zone, where Amon-Ra St. Brown was dealing with double coverage. St. Brown rose above the defenders and deflected the pass into the waiting mitts of former Mater Dei teammate Bru McCoy.
Unfortunately, St. Brown can’t be credited with an assist on that play. He deserves one.
“Amon-Ra did a great job of being aware,” McCoy said. “You realize it’s a free play, so you might as well give an opportunity to somebody; if they pick it off we get the ball back. So he tipped the ball up, was just situationally aware, and I was able to make a play.”
McCoy was playing his first real game since the 2018 season at Mater Dei. He’d originally signed with USC, transferred to Texas and participated in spring practice there in 2019, and then went back into the portal to return to USC.
With back-to-back plays Saturday he showed the wait was worth it. After catching St. Brown’s deflection, he recovered an onside kick at the Trojans’ 45 with 2:52 left to keep hope alive.
And maybe the way the Trojans won it was entirely in character. They faced a fourth-and-4 at the ASU 16 with 1:26 to play … so naturally right tackle Jalen McKenzie was guilty of a false start, turning it into a fourth-and-9 at the 21. (Pause here for Helton’s critics to moan.)
Slovis then fired a bullet down the middle that Drake London, in double coverage, snared with a leaping grab for what turned out to be the winning score after Parker Lewis’ PAT kick.
Helton said he thought his team wouldn’t have won this game a year ago. McCoy put it this way:
“You could kind of feel the energy pick up as people realized that we weren’t out of the game and we could still put something together if we really wanted to. For the chips to fall the way they did, having the amount of turnovers we had and still being able to come up with a W, I think it says a lot about the character of this team and how we’re going to continue to play moving forward.”
Perhaps this was a learning experience. It is college, after all.
@Jim_Alexander on Twitter