LOS ANGELES, CA-Moral victories are for the birds. Losing to Notre Dame is probably a lot worse for the USC Trojans football team. A week after losing to crosstown rival UCLA, USC had wanted to draw the line in the sand against the Fighting Irish. Beating Notre Dame, the No. 3 ranked team in the country, would salvage what luster the Trojans may lost during a season that is best described as unfulfilled potential.
The opportunities were certainly there. But at the end of the evening Saturday night at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Notre Dame (12-0) was still standing with an unblemished record, pravailing over the Trojans with a hard-foght 24-17 road win.
The defeat was a bitter pill for the Trojans to swallow, a team with high expectations coming into the 2018 college football season. Finishing fourth in the Pac-12 Conference South Division with a 5-7 overall record and a 4-5 mark in division is not something that head coach Clay Helton or the Trojans could have imagined they end the year. Dropping consecutive games to longtime rivals UCLA and Notre Dame wasn’t on the agenda, either.
But that is the reality the Trojans must deal with before they get in gear for spring football. Instead of gearing up to play in a bowl game, USC players will be sitting on their couches in December and January looking at other schools have all the fun.
With that being said, there’s been high drama about where the football would go once the season ended. USC Athletic Director Lynn Swann, in an email to the Trojan faithful, made clear that the immediate future pointed best towards Helton coming back.
“To the Trojan Family: The 2018 USC football season was disappointing to me, to Coach Helton and his coaching staff, to our players and to our great fans. Nobody is happy with our record. Everyone deserves better.
It is my firm belief that we have a good team returning next year and a solid foundation in place, and that Clay Helton is a good coach. Let me be clear to everyone, our players, our recruits and our fans. Clay Helton is our head coach and he will continue to be our head coach.
I am a strong advocate of consistency within a program, sticking by a leader, supporting them and helping them and their team improve.
One season does not define a coach. Remember, Coach Helton inherited a program in turmoil. He won 10 games, including the Rose Bowl, in his first year in 2016. He won 11 games and the Pac-12 title in 2017. He runs a clean program, he graduates his players, he recruits well, he produces NFL players.
We see top programs across the country have down years and the fans want to change coaches. In fact, it happened a few years ago with yesterday’s opponent, but that administration remained committed to their head coach, who made some key changes, worked hard to fix things and got his team to improve markedly. That will happen here at USC.
Coach Helton and I meet extensively each week to evaluate our program from top to bottom. We acknowledge and understand our deficiencies in areas that include culture, discipline, schemes, personnel and staff. We agree that changes need to be made, and they will. We will improve and get better, in all areas. Coach Helton has a plan in place to get USC back to the top.
I have heard from many in the Trojan fan base. Some will be happy that Coach Helton remains our coach, others will not. I love our fans’ passion about USC football. They have high standards, as do we. Fight On.”
Those high standards got temporary derailed. At least for the 2018 season. USC concluded its year, dropping five of its last six games. The Trojans’ last three contests resulted in defeats. However, despite the rough seas that engulfed their season, their is a bright light that Helton and the Trojans can hang onto and look forward to seeing in 2019.
Freshman quarterback JT Daniels, stepping into the large shadow cast by Sam Darnold, proved the stage would not be too big for him, completing 59 percent of his passes for 2,672 yards and 14 touchdowns. In the biggest game of his collegiate career, Daniels was magnificent, completing 37 of his 51 passes for 349 yards and a touchdown.
Daniels may have posted an even better finale had the Trojans not left a few more plays on the field that they wish they could have back against the Fighting Irish. That would include costly penalties that nullified promising offensive drives and two fumbles that eruptly curtailed potential scoring possessions. Missed opportunities is sort of the theme that might best describe the Trojans’ defeat to the Fighting Irish.
But it is also was a prevailing thought during the season for USC. Close defeats to Cal, UCLA, Arizona State, Utah, and to Notre Dame, could have easily resulted in victories for the Trojans, and changed the trajectory of their season. So instead of going bowling, the Trojans are left wondering what happened? Losing a 10-0 second lead against Notre Dame is a good example of this.
For a good quarter and a half, the Trojans’ defense smothered the Fighting Irish’s offensive unit as they built their double-digit lead. But just like in defeats to Cal and UCLA, the Trojans wore down in the second half and couldn’t sustain the same defensive intensity against Notre Dame in the second half. USC linebacker Cameron Smith didn’t have that problem, registering 12 tackles (nine of them solo) in the game.