Even if the results in recent seasons haven’t been up to the standard, Clay Helton has always expressed an understanding of what the benchmark for success at USC is: championships.
Division, conference, Rose Bowl, national, or all of the above, if the season aligns that way. Take Helton’s answer after a disappointing Holiday Bowl loss to Iowa to end the 2019 campaign at 8-5.
“We believe in championships here, and the expectations are high and I love them,” Helton said last December. “And our players love it, and that’s why we all came to USC.”
After two years without achieving any of those goals, No. 16 USC (4-0) can take the first step back with a Pac-12 South divisional title Saturday. Beat UCLA (3-2) at the Rose Bowl, and USC finishes the abridged 2020 regular season undefeated.
It’s not the season USC was supposed to play. Before COVID-19 was a consideration, the Trojans planned to open the season against Alabama, currently the unanimous top-ranked team in the AP poll. Then the Trojans were scheduled to close the season against Notre Dame, No. 2 in the poll.
In addition, USC had Pac-12 North leaders Oregon and Washington on the docket, not to mention Colorado, the other undefeated team in the South.
The first four games were canceled due to the pandemic. The Pac-12 revised the season with a six-game schedule, although the game against the Buffaloes was nixed due to positive COVID-19 cases at USC.
So USC wound up with a far less challenging schedule, playing three teams who were in their first game of the season, a North non-contender in Washington State, and these Bruins, certainly improved in Year 3 under Chip Kelly but no behemoth.
If USC can complete the job Saturday in Pasadena, the Trojans will have taken the first step and won a division title, an accomplishment not lost on Helton after everything his team, and all others in the FBS, have endured since March.
“Hopefully we accomplish our goals. It will be one when you’re 80 years old, you’ll look back and say, ‘Man, I’ll never forget that group of men and what they meant to us and our university that year and the toughness and discipline that they had,’” Helton said Thursday.
When USC has the ball
Last year, quarterback Kedon Slovis set a USC record with 515 passing yards against the Bruins, so there aren’t questions about the Trojans’ passing game entering Saturday.
Rather, the focus is on USC’s run game, which managed just five yards Sunday against Washington State. The leading rusher for the game was Kenan Christon with 11 yards on three carries. It represented the second game in a row where USC had a big drop-off from its first two rushing performances, whioch were admittedly inflated by a few outlier long runs.
“I think it’s the mark of a good offense, being able to run the ball when needed. Not to say we’re going to force the run,” Helton cautioned. “We’re going to take what the defense gives us. But we can do better in that game. We all know it, as coaches, as players.”
Perhaps a week of practice with an actual offensive line available will help the Trojans. But the Bruins have proved to be good against the run, limiting opponents to 143.6 yards per game (third in Pac-12) and 3.68 per carry (second).
Linebacker Caleb Johnson and defensive lineman Osa Odighizuwa lead the effort up front for the Bruins, and with their 8.5 combined sacks will lead the effort to make Slovis uncomfortable in the pocket and prevent him from an encore performance.
When UCLA has the ball
The Bruins are two possessions away from being undefeated this season, and the two losses can both be tied to directly to turnovers: The Bruins had four giveaways in a six-point loss to Colorado, and another four in a three-point loss at Oregon.
That’s an area where the Trojans can thrive. USC leads the nation with four turnovers forced per game and are second in turnover margin per game (1.50). Safety Talanoa Hufanga has led that charge with three interceptions.
“It’s players making plays. It’s that simple,” defensive coordinator Todd Orlando said. “This is a game about players making plays. That play that Tally tipped the ball up to himself and jumped over a guy, yeah, that’s not coaching. That’s a player, you know what I’m saying?”