Crisis of confidence ultimate SC sanction

Today is a chance for the Trojans to get out from under the sense that there's no way they get it right but it's all up to Clay Helton and Co. to make that happen.

We were wrong. We jumped the gun. The sanctions aren't over.

And it couldn't be more clear on this Saturday when a 3-3 USC team (1-2 in the Pac-12), one that was ranked as high as No 6 in the nation after the first two weeks, hosts an unbeaten No. 3 Utah team (6-0, 3-0 Pac-12) that started the season unranked and now it's the toast of the college football world.

They know how to do things right, it's obvious we say of the overachieving Utes. USC is the gang that can't shoot straight. Or shoots itself in the foot.

Which is why today's game (4:30 p.m., Fox) is so incredibly important. The season, and a program for another year, are in the balance. Win and USC has a chance to get back in the game. Lose and it's all about waiting until next year and the new coach.

But even then, it isn't. Because if you'd ask most USC fans, you can't get there from here. Not with the people who got us here. Not if they're still here making the same dumb calls.

Which is the point. How does a program that can't get it right, get it right with the same guys who have gotten it wrong? Yeah, we know what you're thinking: Get lucky the way Mike Garrett did with Pete Carroll and get out of the way.

But that was then. Before USC had a high-profile, highly paid -- the highest in the nation by far, athletic director at $2.5 million a year plus, as reported in today's LA Times, lots of other outside income.

Other than the AD's own ability to generate personal income and make personal connections work for him, this is a program with a crisis of confidence in the other things that generate income -- football and men's basketball.

Who out there has any confidence that USC can get this right? Not just the coaching search but the ability to figure out how and with whom to do that search. Same way as last time, you say? Nothing has changed, you say.

And we say that is the very definition of you know what -- doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

After all, this is the program that, to begin Notre Dame week, its historic matchup with an archrival that is the ultimate in intersectional college football rivalries, had a head coach show up for Sunday practice incapacitated with a substance abuse problem that had reached critical mass -- and done so publicly -- a day before firing him. Although some would say it had done so nearly two months before at Salute To Troy.

So crazy did that sound, the Notre Dame players had to be convinced it was true. By Monday, Steve Sarkisian was gone.

And for the second time in his career, Clay Helton was USC's interim coach. And for the fifth time in three seasons, Trojan football had a new head man.

But that was hardly the end of the drama. The man who appointed four of those five, AD Pat Haden, after a long, hard week was unable to make it to or through the Notre Dame game, collapsing on the sideline before kickoff and feeling "lightheaded" before heading back to LA on a private plane and missing the game.

He's fine now, we're told, and ready to unveil the plan for rebuilding the Coliseum and financing the $500 million price tag. Oh, and finding a football coach, too.

And doing so when almost no one, except the people at USC making the call, think he can do it. Much the way so many feel about where this football team is today -- incapable of getting it done no matter the talent level or the tradition.

Which, as it turns out, is the residual effect of the sanctions thanks to USC compounding things with one bad decision after another -- or nondecisions when decisive action was called for.

Turns out it wasn't just about cutting the scholarship numbers, lowering the roster size, kicking fans out of practice, upping the Compliance Department numbers, missing bowl games, making innocent players pay for something they had no responsibility for or bringing in a new athletics administration.

It was all about putting USC football in its place. And now the university has cooperated in compounding the penalties by piling on with its own bad calls -- letting Lane Kiffin and Kevin O'Neill go far too long after their self-determined demise was inevitable. Letting Ed Orgeron and that excellent staff go and hiring Sark and his UW guys. Then failing to step in when Sark signaled it was time for him to go.

And don't even mention USC's failure to make a case against the harsh NCAA sanctions when everyone else (Ohio State, Auburn, Miami, Oregon, North Carolina, Penn State and Todd McNair) did.

But today makes all of that come into clear focus with just the football part of this. We'll break it down a bit here.

USC vs. Utah recruiting

In the 2011-2015 recruiting classes the last five years, USC has had an average class rank of No. 11 with a high of No. 1 in 2015 and low of No. 20 in 2014. Utah meanwhile has had an average recruiting class over the same five years of No. 49 with a high of No. 33 in 2014 and a low of No. 69 in 2012.

As to individual recruits in that time, USC has signed 33 Top 100 players while Utah has signed none, not a single one. USC signed 14 five-star recruits, Utah none. USC signed 55 four-star recruits, Utah seven.

To put that into some context, if all those players were available and on the field today, 55 of the top 62 players would be Trojans, just seven of them the unbeaten Utes.

No wonder Kyle Whittingham famously told his cousin Su'a Cravens, one of those five-star, Top 100 USC players, that "if I had your players, I'd never lose."

Hard to argue there. Whittingham doesn't have USC's players and he has yet to lose this season. And he's done so with a constantly turning over staff and an AD who hasn't exactly been supportive.

So maybe it's the football -- and the football coach -- that matters here and everything else is window-dressing. Which is why USC fans have every right to be concerned.

As Ryan Abraham's excellent analysis of the consistency issues for USC last week at Notre Dame made clear, USC may have gained 590 yards of offense on 77 plays -- a 7.7 yards per play average -- against the Irish, but 320 of those yards came on six of those plays. "The remaining 71 plays gained just 270 yards for a 3.8 yards-per-play average," Ryan wrote.

Which tells us one thing. The talent is there. You can't hit home runs like that without the raw talent to make it happen. So as the recruiting numbers, and Whittingham, have shown, it's not simply about talent.

It's about coaching. It almost always is. It's why, as Ryan noted, "USC's four touchdown scoring drives lasted eight, one, two and five plays. The Trojans had five other non-scoring drives that lasted four plays or less. That is feast or famine, inefficient offensive production, score on the big play or punt."

Then there's this, as this week's WAR ROOM noted, "It has been six years since the Trojans were trailing entering the fourth quarter and came back to win. Six years and six head coaches ago. The last time it happened was when the Trojans visited Ohio State on September 12, 2009. After three quarters the Buckeyes were up 18-15 and Matt Barkley led USC back for the victory. Since that time four different teams have come back to beat USC in the fourth quarter, including Notre Dame last weekend. The other three were Arizona State in 2014, Arizona in 2012 and Washington in 2010."

Not exactly confidence inspiring. Nor is this. USC has been penalized 45 times for 437 yards to opponents' 28 for 276 yards -- and that's with another 10 penalties that were called that were declined or offset. Again, that's coaching and clearly correctable -- with the right coach.

Clay Helton wants to be that coach. And he's getting his chance, maybe not with the same staff -- or schedule -- CEO had two years ago in similar circumstances. The best thing if Helton can get it together for his guys and this program and win out, of course, would be how it might allow this administration not to have to make a call it's demonstrated it would just as soon not make.

And then when it comes time for that call to be made, someone else will be in place to make it.

Someone who will have done something to make us confident that they'll get it right.

Because we know what happens when programs like Alabama and Ohio State get in trouble -- and then get it right. They've gone out and gotten a Nick Saban or an Urban Meyer and start winning national championships again. The way USC did with Pete.

That's what happens with historically great programs. Get the right man in place and get out of the way. It'll be OK.

Today at least, Clay Helton is the man. He's had just a couple of weeks. And comes in at a time when he's all USC has. There's no one else.

But as we always like to say, at least he has a chance. As does this USC team. Again, that's all you can ask.

Get it right and it's a confidence-inducing moment USC has long needed. And long been missing.

Trojan fans can only hope although Helton has said there's "no hope" involved here. USC will get it done, Clay says. Book it.

They will be able to run the ball. They will be able to stop the run. They will match Utah's physicality and ability to play under control and without penalties. They will be able to drive the ball, tackle and run some sort of two-minute drill. This will not look like a Sark team, we're assured, although not in that direct a way.

For Clay's sake, and USC's, we can only hope.

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