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Thoughts on why USC is struggling

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After their second loss of the season we offer our thoughts on why the USC Trojans are having trouble finding a rhythm.

USC v Texas Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

For the past ten years, USC Trojan fans have patiently waited for the perfect successor to Pete Carroll. Starting with Lane Kiffin in 2009, to Steve Sarkisian and Ed Orgeron between 2013 and 2015, the seat has belonged to Coach Clay Helton for the past two seasons. As one of the most storied and successful college football programs in the history of the NCAA, Trojan fans have become accustomed to high expectations and extraordinary levels of success. However, as a young roster enters Week 4 of this young 2018 season, questions are beginning to rise regarding Helton’s future with the program.

The purpose of this is not to say Clay Helton is a bad coach, nor should anyone argue he has failed to do a fine job up to this point in his tenure at USC. Fans are not looking for ‘fine’ though, and a 1-2 record with losses to Stanford and Texas are far from it. It would be one thing if Stanford and Texas were top 5 teams, but they are not — Texas is not even ranked in the Top 25. Helton might not even be the problem, but through three games, coaching certainly is and it needs to be addressed.

Starting with offensive coordinator Tee Martin, the departure of Sam Darnold has exposed some glaring issues with the Trojans’ offensive playbook. JT Daniels may be 18, but he has shown far too much talent to have only one touchdown pass in three games. Oddly enough, the Trojans are actually getting into the opposition’s red zone, but they are failing to finish drives. This has been evident since Daniels’ first career half against UNLV, when the offense went 0-4 in the red zone and had to settle for field goals on all trips.

All of Daniels’ big plays this season have been just that — big plays where he is able to find his high school wideout Amon-Ra St. Brown for big yardage. That is arguably a reflection of their history and chemistry with one another, not creative play calling. For the past two seasons, professional football analysts have questioned Martin’s playbook with Darnold, and as we enter Week 4 with Daniels, these questions are as loud as ever.

On the other side of the field, there appears to be an overall lack of leadership on the defensive unit. Senior linebacker Porter Gustin was thrown out of Saturday’s game at Texas early in the third quarter for a head to head hit against Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger. As a result, Texas went on dominate the second half and now Gustin will miss the first half of the next game. As a standout player and leader of the defense, a smarter tone needs to be set moving forward. Between Texas and Stanford, there have been far too many penalties and missed tackles the past two weeks, and if this team wants to keep any hope alive of playing in a respectable bowl game at seasons end, the defense needs to be more consistent from top to bottom. At the end of the day, it just feels like ages ago when Pete Carroll had USC running one of the top defenses in the country year in, year out.

Compared to the majority of football programs across the United States, USC fans have been quite spoiled. However, Trojan fans would argue that this program does not compare to the majority. USC should be a perennial playoff contender, competing with the likes of Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma, and Clemson. Since Carroll’s departure, and the brutal sanctions imposed by the NCAA, USC has yet to return to a National Championship game, let alone a four-team playoff. The struggles have been blamed on the NCAA sanctions, early departures for the NFL, and, at certain points, simply under-performing. At this point in time, it is time to blame the lack of success at the national level on elite coaching.

Helton has done a solid job leading this program to a PAC 12 championship and Rose Bowl victory, but with Darnold now playing as the youngest starting quarterback in the NFL’s Super Bowl era, Trojan fans are beginning to question if more impressive feats could have been accomplished. The answer may have to be the return of an elite level coach to USC. With head coaching as arguably the most important position in all of college football, a fired NFL coach at seasons end could be the solution. FS1’s Colin Cowherd threw out Hue Jackson’s name as a potential candidate last week, though after watching the Seahawks lose again last night, Carroll’s future in Seattle looks bleak to say the least. At 67, could he have a return to Southern California in him? Most likely not, but it is time to start having these discussions once again, unless coach Helton has another massive turnaround left in him.