Clay Helton was surprised by the outcome of Saturday night’s game between Stanford and USC. The Trojans turned in their best week of practice this fall, according to the head coach, and then turned in one of their worst game day performances of the past few years.
“Obviously a disappointing night for our football team and, to be honest with you, one that we didn’t really expect or anticipate after the week of practice and preparation the kids had,” Helton said to lead off his Sunday evening media call.
Stanford sprinted ahead of USC with an 87-yard touchdown run early and then walked all over the Trojans for the next three quarters, in a 42-28 win.
Helton lamented three big Stanford plays–a 49-yard pass to running back Austin Jones at the end of the first half, and a 31-yard interception return touchdown in the third quarter by Kyu Blu Kelly, in addition to the long Nathaniel Peat run. But he also heaped blame on parts of the USC offense, specifically the “missed opportunities in the passing game as an offensive unit” and the lack of ability to consistently create “explosive plays as well as points in the red zone.”
USC had just three passes of 15 yards or more in the game (and just two when the game was still in doubt). Helton said losing the field position battle and not creating any turnovers meant the Trojans had to put together sustained drives when the big plays didn’t come. USC’s three scoring drives, while the game was competitive, lasted 15, 15 and 12 plays.
“I thought…the biggest thing was the missed opportunities as a unit,” Helton said. “Not just the quarterback or wideouts, but as a unit, of being able to do some things that I thought would have pushed the ball down the field further. And in the red zone, we missed some opportunities to put points on the board. Where it’s a dropped ball or it’s a missed throw or it’s just a slight error in protection. It’s something that obviously those things will throw you off.”
Helton did take responsibility for the more than 100 yards in penalties the Trojans racked up against the Cardinal. He said the team will walk away from the game knowing it can do things better from “an assignment standpoint, from a fundamental technique standpoint and limiting the penalties.”
Praise for Graham Harrell
Helton praised offensive coordinator Graham Harrell’s performance against Stanford.
“I credit him really for really making it a point in this season to be able to take some of the pressure off Kedon and the play calls he’s making right now as far as in the run game and believing in that and using that as a complementary aspect to our offense,” Helton said. “I thought he put our kids in position last night to be able to make plays. It’s something that I that our kids are going to look back on and say, gosh darn, we missed some opportunities there. I thought he really got in rhythm late in the game when the tempo increased a little bit.”
The increased tempo with the offense might be something the Trojans to continue to use, Helton said.
Defensive end Nick Figueroa was a game time decision with a shoulder injury and while he played early, couldn’t finish the game. He emerged for the second half without pads and sat out the rest of the game. The Trojans will monitor him on a day-by-day basis, but there’s a chance he could be out for a bit.
“He’s a warrior,” Helton said. “We’ll see where it is at the end of the week. Those AC sprains are hard and sometimes you have to just let it die down.”
With Figueroa dinged, the expectation was for Korey Foreman to step into a bigger role Saturday night. Instead, Foreman watched a huge majority of the game from the sideline.
He dealt all week with a bruised foot, according to Helton. Missing practice meant he was limited to the rush package. Helton said he hopes Foreman’s injury subsides and he can step into a bigger role is Figueroa remains out.
Helton mentioned twice during the media session that last week was a great week of practice for USC.
“I thought the preparation was very well done,” Helton said.
He believes the big touchdown run from Stanford early in the game did more than just provide the Cardinal with a majority of its rushing yards.
“I think we got a little bit shell-shocked in the game,” Helton said. “I thought the early touchdown took a little bit of the spark out of us. We’d been so effective in the run game and then, all of a sudden, you get hit with a big one.”
Helton credited his team with fighting through the fourth quarter and continuing to compete. But the three big plays turned the tide.
“I think some of the bigger plays in the game kind of took a little emotion away from us, the spark away from us,” Helton said.
As has been the case following early season losses, Helton pointed to the future as an opportunity to redeem the season.
“I look at last year,” Helton said. “In the face of adversity, we win all but one game. I hope we do the same this year. After losing this game, I hope we win all but one.
“It’s early in the season,” Helton said. “I hope that people will see us all the way through the season and see our total product and our total resume at the end of the year…Disappointed right now, but I believe we’ll be happy at the end of the year.”
Since the interim title was removed from Helton during the 2015 season, USC is 1-5 in the final game of the season under him, including losses in the final game in each of the past four seasons.