Clay plays it cool

But his critics are predicting this isn't going to go well for a USC team not practicing all that much and not hitting all that hard in the Holiday Bowl run-up.

They look ready. They look rested. They look fast. And athletic.

And yes, we know what the Clay Helton critics will say to that: They should be rested. He gave them team two weeks off, for Pete's sake.

When the big bad Big Ten Badgers were slogging away in full-contact work back in the Midwest winter in full pads, USC was healing up and at no time in full pads -- or tackling. But it was counting those four extra workouts and a conference championship game as postseason practice opportunities.

Let's hope the math works for USC's new coach who clearly believes this is the right way to go. It worked two years ago when he was the interim coach the first time and the Trojans practiced a mere six times with 44 scholarship players available for the Las Vegas Bowl and were way too athletic, no matter the numbers, for Fresno State.

The numbers aren't the issue now, despite the injuries. It's the approach for a USC team its coach says it will be a run-first, win-in-the-trenches, stop-the-run team. And now it's playing someone that actually is most of those.

Not all that unlike a Stanford team that wiped the Levis Stadium turf with an ill-prepared USC team three-and-a-half weeks ago in the Pac-12 Championship Game the Trojans worked so hard to get to by sweeping through an unbeaten 5-0 Pac-12 South.

And now they get a do-over against the 9-3 Badgers and their shutdown Big Ten defense that Helton says will be "a huge challenge" the way "it holds up so strong at the line of scrimmage. You just don't see them making mistakes . . . it ought to be fun."

That's Helton. He's having fun. His critics are having heart attacks.

It doesn't make the critics any more confident with two new, never-having-coached assistants handling things for both Trojans lines. No matter how impressive the playing -- and already the coaching techniques and impact -- of the O-line's Mike Goff and the D-line's Kenechi Udeze, they're newbies.

As may be some other things in a game USC has been able to point to for at least the last couple of weeks -- something that hadn't happened before for Helton who took over the Monday of Notre Dame week and has been tap-dancing as fast as he can since then.

"You've got more time," Clay said, "basically nine opportunities . . . and just like they've been game-planning and self-scouting," well so has USC.

"You're able to throw in some new wrinkles," Clay said. "I'm looking forward to seeing how we execute."

He's not the only one. A loss here and that's two losses to end the season. Three out of the last four. And with Alabama the opener next season. This one matters a great deal.

"It's as important as the Notre Dame game, the UCLA game, as any game the last nine weeks," Helton said. "We still have a bad taste in our mouths from the last game."

He's not the only one. But win this game and it goes away for the winter and spring and summer until September. It's really that simple.

Win it and Helton will have read his players, and his opponent, exactly right. And figured it all out. Even if he was a newbie.

Trojan talk

*** Juju Smith-Schuster: On his decision to go without protective padding on his surgically repaired fractured right hand: "I hope the trainers know . . . although I didn't tell them."

*** Ronald Jones II: Asked if the folks back home in Texas have been keeping up with him, he said they have. "I took my little brother to the barber shop when I was home for Christmas and they were calling me 'Hollywood.' "

*** Khaliel Rodgers: on new O-line coach Mike Goff: "He's a 12-year NFL veteran and has more football knowledge than anybody I've been around."

*** Zach Banner: on his move to left tackle: "I definitely want to make a lot of money some day . . . and I want to show my versatility . . . and I want to help Coach Helton, he's a good guy."

*** Justin Davis: on the decision of Helton's to be a run-first team: "I love it . . . I embrace it . . . I can't wait for next year when we'll be a two-back team."

*** Clay Helton: on the development of San Diegan Taylor McNamara at tight end: "Always saw him as a great pass catcher but didn't see much of him as a blocker . . . he's made the most of it . . . how many times did we run his way against UCLA?"

MONDAY QUICK HITS: Day 7 of USC's Holiday Bowl prep work and the second in San Diego had the Trojans in shells with helmets and shorts and jerseys for an hour workout at Southwestern College . . . the emphasis here was on red zone work . . . It doesn't look like either Kevon Seymour (high ankle sprain) or Isaac Whitney (collarbone) will be ready to go for the game after Monday. Kevon just wasn't able to go at full speed and Isaac, after getting a hit on his collarbone Sunday, was in pain at the injury site . . . Clay talked about tight end Connor Spears, on his way back from going home to Sioux Falls, S.D., for Christmas, had been stuck in the Lubbock, Tex. airport with no food service for two nights and more than 50 hours before getting a ride with the family of a college student from Lubbock that took him nine hours to get to Denver after finding out there'd be no flights out of Lubbock until at least New Year's Day. "Connor's really trying to get here," Helton said. "It's been a nightmare for him." When he makes it to San Diego, Connor will be picked up by his parents who left Omaha two days after he did but didn't end up in West Texas . . . after Monday's workout, the USC team joined Wisconsin for a 2 p.m. insider tour of the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, just arrived in its new port of San Diego after an 8 1/2 month tour of the world from its previous port of Norfolk that took it through wartime duty in the Arabian Sea off Iraq and Syria and then duty in the South China Sea . . . USC alum Dave Gilbert, CEO of San Diego-based National Funding, the title sponsor of this year's Holiday Bowl, attended Monday's practice with his family and saw son Alex, 10, get a chance to go out on the field with Helton who asked him to help him do some coaching.

CHECK THIS OUT: For Monday's practice report, check out MONDAY DAY 7 HOLIDAY BOWL GHOST NOTES.

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