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USC's ugly loss to Stanford puts Clay Helton back onto hot seat

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When USC’s kicker was ejected for targeting on the opening kickoff, it was not a good omen for the rest of Saturday night’s game against Stanford.

USC, ranked No. 14 in the country, was beaten soundly, 42-28, by Stanford, a team coming off an ugly Week 1 loss to Kansas State. This Stanford team barely put up 200 yards of offense in the 24-7 loss to K-State, yet it had no problem marching up and down the field on Clay Helton’s Trojans.

It was a loss indicative of the issues that have plagued USC throughout the Helton era. More specifically, USC was plagued by self-inflicted wounds. For example, when the score was tied at 7-7, it looked like the USC defense would hold Stanford to just a field goal. In fact, Stanford lined up and kicked a 25-yard field goal — but USC was flagged on the play.

A USC defender was lined up in the neutral zone, so Stanford took the five yards and put the offense back on the field. On the next play, Tanner McKee hit Elijah Higgins for a three-yard score on fourth-and-goal. Instead of a 10-7 score, Stanford took a 14-7 lead.

By halftime, that lead extended to 21-10. And any chance of a USC comeback was dashed by another self-inflicted mistake. Trailing 21-13, USC QB Kedon Slovis had an easy drag route in front of him, yet he threw it behind his intended target. The ball bounced off the receiver and into the arms of Stanford cornerback Kyu Blu Kelly, who returned the interception 31 yards for a Stanford score.

Stanford cornerback Kyu Blu Kelly, left, returns an interception for a touchdown during the second half of the team's NCAA college football game against Southern California on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Stanford cornerback Kyu Blu Kelly, left, returns an interception for a touchdown during the second half of the team's NCAA college football game against Southern California on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Instead of a potential game-tying drive, the USC offense gifted seven more points to the Cardinal via a pick-six. And on the ensuing drive, USC quickly went three-and-out. The USC defense's attempt to get the ball back to the offense was wiped out by multiple costly pass interference penalties. Stanford used those penalties to quickly advance into USC territory and extend the lead to 35-13 with 25 seconds left in the third quarter.

At that point, USC was even more listless and a comeback never even looked like a possibility. That Stanford offense that looked so bad against Kansas State calmly moved the chains and drained the clock against USC’s defense. It was an ugly scene for the Trojans, who trailed 42-13 with 9:16 to play and managed to make the score a bit more respectable with two touchdowns in garbage time. USC entered the game as 17-point favorites.

This is a team that is supposed to be explosive on offense. In this game, it was anything but. The running game was OK, but Slovis, now in his third year starting, really couldn't get much going at all. He finished the night 27-of-42 for 223 yards, one of the worst outings of his career. Even worse, USC finished the night with eight penalties for 104 yards. 

Clay Helton's hot seat talk is about to ramp up again

Helton, now with a 46-24 (36-13 Pac-12) record, has lived on the hot seat through his entire tenure at USC. Here we are again.

Seemingly every year, USC loses a game or two to teams with vastly inferior talent. This was one of those games and the heat on Helton is going to quickly intensify. Frankly, after the way the Trojans performed on Saturday night, it should. USC is a program that should be competing at a much higher level than it has under Helton.

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At the same time, it’s still early in the season. The Pac-12 — particularly the South division — is going to be highly competitive all year long with many teams capable of winning. USC can still compete for a division crown, but Trojan fans want to aim their sights higher than that. That’s what has to be so frustrating.

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