The one thing USC Athletic Director Mike Bohn, the rest of the Trojan administration and head football coach Clay Helton needed for Christmas this year — more so than any other gift — was a Holiday Bowl victory against No. 16 Iowa.
USC found quite the opposite under the tree Friday night, as the Hawkeyes lit up the Trojan defense and captured a 49-24 San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl win. Iowa scored on each of their first four possessions and won the time of possession battle by around seven minutes.
The Trojans’ poor showing prompted immediate changes for Bohn and Helton, as defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast was relieved of his duties Saturday afternoon. Special teams coordinator and tight ends coach John Baxter also lost his job Saturday.
Just hours after stating he’d be evaluating his staff, Helton said to usctrojans.com, “I want to thank Coach Pendergast and Coach Baxter for their dedicated service and efforts. However, in evaluating our team’s performance this year and after consulting with AD Mike Bohn, it is evident that these changes are necessary.”
USC’s defense was an issue all season, but special teams mishaps were key in the Trojans’ loss to Iowa. Hawkeyes’ wideout Ihmir Smith-Marsette returned a USC kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown with the score tied at 14, swinging the game’s momentum. In the third quarter, shortly after losing starting quarterback Kedon Slovis to a right elbow injury, the Trojans had an opportunity to recover a muffed punt that would’ve set them up deep inside Iowa territory.
Hawkeye kick returner Max Cooper got to the loose ball first and Iowa went on to score off a 90-yard, 14-play drive. What makes USC’s poor performance in two of the game’s three phases even more disappointing is how well the offense played with Slovis under center.
As was the case for much of the 2019 regular season, Slovis — who earned Pac-12 Freshman of the Year honors and set USC freshman records for completions and yards — tore apart the opposing defense. He completed over 73 percent of his throws, gained 260 yards and scored two touchdowns, all before his third quarter injury.
USC announced Saturday that tests showed a strained elbow for Slovis, which will require treatment, rest and recovery. He won’t need to have any surgery, a major sigh of relief for the Trojans. USC has at least a few more seasons of Slovis at its disposal, assuming he keeps the starting role next season with JT Daniels returning from injury. Should Slovis still be the quarterback in 2020, the Trojans can’t afford to waste another season of his talents.
USC also won’t have any shortage of weapons in 2020, as receivers Amon-Ra St. Brown, Drake London, Kyle Ford and Munir McClain all return. Tyler Vaughns’ NFL future is still up in the air, so there’s a chance he’ll return to Troy as well. The Trojans will also add heavily recruited wideout Bru McCoy, who wasn’t eligible this season after transferring to-and-from Texas multiple times.
On the other side of the ball, one issue USC faced in 2019 was youth. Sophomore Olaijah Griffin and freshman Chris Steele spearheaded the Trojans’ secondary. Several other underclassmen played lots of meaningful snaps in 2019, which prompted some of the frustrations USC experienced on defense.
With a year of game experience for players like Griffin, Steele, Isaac Taylor-Stuart, Greg Johnson and others, 2020 should see the Trojans put out a more cohesive defense.
After 2018’s offensive woes, first-year offensive coordinator Graham Harrell did a remarkable job with installing an effective air raid offense that finished inside the nation’s top 20. Hiring a new defensive coordinator could very well produce the same results for the other side of the ball in 2020.
Whether or not USC finally gets its act together throughout the winter, spring and summer or not, a ticked off Nick Saban-led Alabama Crimson Tide await the Trojans in Dallas to kick off the 2020 season next fall. Helton’s survived two consecutive seasons of bad loses and controversy, and it’s hard imagining USC keeping him around should the Trojans have a similar performance to the 2016 Alabama game. But, at this point, don’t put anything past Mike Bohn and this version of the USC Trojan football program.
Blake Atwell is a multimedia journalist and sophomore at Santa Monica College.