Clay Helton's Success vs. Utah Shows Just How Good USC Can Be

Bryan Fischer@BryanDFischerNational College Football Columnist October 25, 2015

Southern California linebacker Cameron Smith directs the USC Marching Band after Southern California defeated Utah 42-24 in an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 24, 2015, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — For the first time all night, USC linebacker Cameron Smith looked confused and lost.

Moments after USC pulled off a 42-24 stunner of No. 3 Utah, the true freshman emerged from an impromptu press conference on the floor of the L.A. Memorial Coliseum with a big smile but a look that said he was unsure of where to go.

This was no time to rush off to the locker room, that was certain. This was a time to savor what he had come to Troy for: big wins, a loud crowd and another ranked opponent heading home with a loss. Still, there was some place the young defender had to be but didn’t know where to go.

“Hey, Cam, we need you for the sword!” shouted a USC staffer.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

It’s extremely rare for any true freshman to run over to the corner of the Coliseum and hoist the sword the team’s famed mascot Tommy uses to stab the field with, but on Saturday night, after delivering a dagger of his own into the heart of the Utes’ College Football Playoff hopes, Smith deserved it after picking off Travis Wilson three times and returning one of them for a touchdown.

“Those picks, that momentum, won us the game. I truly believe that,” Trojans signal-caller Cody Kessler said. “The offensive line played well; the defense overall was great. But what Cam did with those big plays really won us the game.”

Smith led the team in tackles too and was the key figure in reminding everybody that this team—even coming in at .500 on the season—was the one picked to win the Pac-12. He stepped in front of a short Wilson third-down pass early in the second quarter to immediately tell the sparse home crowd that this contest was not going to be a repeat of three weeks ago when a lifeless squad fell to lowly Washington at home.

That loss kick-started a run of impressive drama on a campus just down the street from Hollywood, furthering an enduring saga that saw the school fire head coach Steve Sarkisian and then suffer a loss in a winnable game against bitter rival Notre Dame.

On Saturday night amid a tense but exciting atmosphere, those memories seemed quite faint for the Trojan family. As Smith weaved through an opening and burst into the end zone for a 54-yard pick-six, capping a run of three straight touchdowns that began with his first interception, it appeared a team plenty-capable of greatness was finally showing the fans what it was made of.

“We’ve seen it in the spring and through training camp. He’s one of the more football-instinctive kids we have on our team. You saw that today,” interim head coach Clay Helton said of Smith. “Unbelievable leader for a freshman and playing at a high level. It was 14-7, and we needed a spark. He gave it to us.”

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

The emphatic victory lifted a visible weight off Helton’s shoulders, with the former offensive coordinator looking downright giddy after the game in what is actually his second stint leading the team in his six seasons at USC.

In the process, he became the second interim coach to lead the Trojans to a victory over a top-five team— something the two previous head coaches the school actually hired had only accomplished once.

In many ways, Helton got out of the way of his talented group of players and finally put them in a position to succeed on the field.

Sophomore receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster not only stretched the field on his way to a 143-yard, one-touchdown night, but he was also seen slicing a previously stingy Utah defense in the intermediate passing game. Tailback Ronald Jones II, also a freshman, led the team in rushing and again proved to be the biggest threat for the Cardinal and Gold on the ground since the days of "Thunder and Lightning."

More than anything, the Trojans used the Utes’ game plan against them. For the first time all season, they were truly more physical than an equal or better opponent. They won in short-yardage situations and were notably more aggressive on defense. Led by Smith, they shut down Heisman Trophy candidate Devontae Booker (14 rushes for 62 yards) and harassed Wilson into throwing four interceptions.

Although it’s rare to hear a team acknowledge the fact that it heard all about its shortcomings from the fans and media, USC addressed it head-on. Helton and a number of upperclassmen talked about being the more physical team on the bus ride to the game and made no bones about walking out of the Coliseum with a win.

“We can get tired of it, but it’s true. We have all this talent, but when you don’t execute, it doesn’t matter,” captain Su’a Cravens said. “We’ve been through this before. We don’t like losing, and that’s why we came out and played the way we did. Losing is unacceptable; we’re USC, and we’re supposed to win. We’re not supposed to be 3-3 in the middle of the season. Most of the guys on the team took that personally.”

It certainly speaks to the talent level and failure to meet expectations at USC that they were able to beat the pants off the country's No. 3 team without five projected starters, losing two more during the game to boot.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

“We still have a one-game lead in the loss column in the South. That was a good football team we played at their stadium. I don’t know how they’re 3-3 going in, but they’re really good,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham remarked, looking lost for answers for the first time all season. “They could easily win out, that’s how talented they are.”

Thanks to a youth movement at key positions, a host of additional 4- and 5-star talent filling out the roster (per 247Sports) and Helton and his staff fostering a loose attitude, there’s little questioning the fact that USC is capable of still making noise in the increasingly tough Pac-12 South.

In contrast to previous flashes of greatness, though, the Trojans finally looked confident enough in what they were doing to start to believe. After all the drama the Trojans had been put through on and off the field over the past few seasons, the team finally looked sure of where it is headed—no small feat with an interim head coach and a fanbase full of doubters.

“We said going into the game that failure was not an option,” Helton added. “They were not going to lose this game. I’m so proud of them. They’re the definition of ‘Fight On.’”

For another week, USC will do just that. Playing loose, fast and confident, the Trojans appear to finally have some idea of where to go next.

Bryan Fischer covers college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.