Getting a clear picture here

Clay Helton knows who he is and where he's going and his team seems to understand it as well.

It's Clay -- as in clarity.

Another week, and it seems as much as we can tell from where we are, another six days of clear thinking about who this USC team is and how it wins football games.

Sounds obvious, right? Of course you have to know who you are and how you win football games if you really expect to win football games.

But if the person driving the bus doesn't really know where he's going or how he's going to get there or even what it is a bus driver is supposed to do, the passengers are likely not to get anywhere near where they're hoping to go.

Of course they want to get there, but first someone needs a map. And a guy at the wheel who knows how to read one.

To this point, Clay Helton knows who he is, where he wants to go and how he -- and his USC team -- have to get there.

Sure, he's getting a late start. And having to make up some serious ground. But he has a chance. Today at Cal (12 noon, Fox), Clay & Co. take Step 3.

But as Clay will tell you, he absolutely knows who he is after six years as a Trojan, 21 years as a football coach and in a second stint as interim head man here. He's "the son of an old O-line coach," Clay likes to say. And he sounds like it with a strong, dominating voice that he's now been able to unleash all over Howard Jones and Brian Kennedy Fields.

But more than his voice is on display here. "I want them to feel my passion," he says as the offensive coordinator and former quarterbacks coach hangs out with the linemen.

The players' reviews could not be stronger. Freshman Ykili Ross, who has yet to see the field, ran by the other day calling out how Clay was the man, just to be sure if we hadn't figured that out.

The way that plays out, however, is this: Does this team know exactly what it must do to win this football game? And not just Saturday in Berkeley. But all week back home. What is the nexus between getting it right on the practice field and in the film room and on Strawberry Hill?

Sure, you have to hurry and hassle Jared Goff and not let him get comfortable in the pocket. But how you get to be able to do that happens by understanding clearly that what you do Monday through Friday will make the difference Saturday.

It's about you, Clay makes it clear to his Trojans. "It's not about the coaches," he said this week, even if it is -- sort of. They must be clear about what they're asking these players to do and maybe even more clear about why they're asking them to do it and how that makes winning on Saturday possible -- and then get out of the way.

That was what was so striking after the Utah game. Every USC player got it. "If we stop the run and make them pass, we win," the defensive guys said to a man. Bingo.

"And if we can run the ball," the offense said, well, then they'll be able to throw it. That's how it works. But if they could run it on Utah, or at least establish the threat, USC wins.

The Trojans did both. And just as they were promised, that got them where they wanted to go. They looked at all the things they were doing and got it down to the stuff that made the most sense, D-line coach Chris Wilson said. And then they worked extra -- and extra hard -- on doing those things perfectly.

The result? One missed assignment on defense. One.

Amazing how well what you're trying to do works when you do it right. And that level of competence lets your coaches, maybe some who have shown some hesitancy to let you go and make plays, let you go and make plays.

Funny how that works.

"Each game, we climb the ladder," senior defensive end Greg Townsend Jr. said.

And see things a bit more clearly. "We've got to get the ball out of Jared's hands," Su'a Cravens said. "Put pressure on him. No long throws, short throws. Make them run the ball." Just the opposite of last week. But clear . . . and doable.

"We just have to keep making plays," Cody Kessler said, "we don't make excuses, we make plays."

Cameron Smith certainly did. "I'm loving it," he said, "enjoying every minute with these guys." Last week, especially. "Last week was different," Smith said after his three-interception game against Utah. "We all understood what we were supposed to do. Everyone was into it."

No one more than Smith. "I'm in the film room a lot," Smith said. "So when I'm out there, I can feel the guys [receivers] behind me . . . I want to know every single thing they're trying to do."

That's the clarity Clay has been trying to instill into his guys. Today they get another chance to show how clear the message has come through.

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