SAN DIEGO -- He's just starting his five-year contract but Clay Helton may have already reached one of those must-win moments in only his second game as head coach.
Although that's just a technical definition. With a 6-3 record in his overall time as interim and actual head coach over two seasons at USC, Clay has come to one of those moments. Not necessarily completely of his own making, of course, but where it's getting close to one of those do-or-die games.
And for accounting purposes here, were not considering this the start of Clay's head coaching career. It's the end of his first season, really. It's not even his first bowl game. That came two years ago in Las Vegas and was a smashing success.
But that rousing win over Fresno State was another of those must-win moments. Lose that game and Clay would not have been a member of Steve Sarkisian's staff, we're pretty sure. He hadn't been extended an offer and with Sark wanting to bring in his own guys and with his feeling that he really didn't need a quarterbacks guy or an offensive expert other than himself, we're guessing Sark would have let Clay go away.
But he won big. And impressively -- athletically and aggressively. USC owed him. Clay jumped in after the mishandling of the Ed Orgeron-Sark hiring dance and smoothed things over.
Now Clay has to smooth over another of the USC hiring/firing hiccups that we're so getting used to these last five years. The Eagles letting Chip Kelly go Tuesday doesn't help. Just more fuel to the fire from the critics who ask: What the heck was the hurry?
Not hiring any new assistants for the fired four, or at least not naming them, doesn't help here unless the grad assistants/strength guys moved up for this game like line coaches Mike Goff on offense and Kenechi Udeze on defense are the ultimate answers.
Win against Wisconsin and that looks a lot more palatable. Lose here and -- fair or not -- that's a tougher case to make. You could have come here and lost with Chris Wilson and Bob Connelly, critics will say.
It doesn't help that a 9-3 Wisconsin team, as hard-working, disciplined and single-minded as the Badgers may be, hasn't a single win over a good team. Not that they played many.
Nor does USC's 13-0 record this century against the Big Ten. Nor its 6-0 all-time mark against Wisconsin. USC fans pretty much expect to win this one, as do the pundits almost all picking the Trojans.
Would a loss be fatal? Obviously not. Win next year's opener against Alabama and all will be forgiven. No question.
After all, Pete Carroll lost his first bowl game to end his first season with that forever forgotten 10-6 horror show to Utah in Las Vegas before a pitiful crowd of 22,385 but that USC team had run out of running backs. And by the end of the next season, Pete had the best team in the country.
So it's doable -- if you're Pete Carroll and your returning captains are Carson Palmer and Troy Polamalu.
And there were always questions about Pete's practices -- although not in Pete's mind or his players. They're having too much fun, the outside media folks allowed to attend practice the first two Orange Bowls in South Florida said. This isn't serious. Look at how different Iowa and Oklahoma approach it in practices the media weren't allowed to attend. Surely they were working harder. USC was taking it too easy.
Lots of those echoes right now. You know what they're saying about you guys, we told Clay the other day. Wisconsin is hitting in full pads and you guys are going in shorts. Or not going at all.
Clay didn't bat an eye. This is exactly how he wanted to do it. Give them time off. Get healed up. Get fresh legs. Get to where their athleticism and ability would take over and trust their talent to make it happen.
Are there worries? Sure. Tackling against a tough-minded team that wants to run the ball down your throat after not doing so since the Stanford game nearly four weeks ago -- and not all that well then -- is the first issue we see. Not that they can't. Or won't. Just what if they don't? For whatever reason.
We think they will. If you put good athletes in the right places moving fast and aggressively, as Clay says he wants them to, well, that's most of the battle here. Get them where they're supposed to be in a hurry and in a bad mood and they'll make the plays. It's just that they better.
That's how it worked in Las Vegas two years ago when a decent-enough Fresno State team with more stars on it than this Wisconsin team was obviously no athletic matchup for a fresh, motivated USC team coming off just six practices.
Now Clay's math will tell you that by the time tonight's game is finished, his Trojans will have had 15 December workouts -- counting all the Pac-12 title game practices, the Stanford game, the Holiday Bowl practices and the Wisconsin game.
"That's like an extra spring practice," Clay will tell you. As for the developmental work that the young guys could have had, well they have been doing that since the Notre Dame game every Monday, he notes in a change Clay instituted that first week.
"It's why we were able to survive in the UCLA game with a fourth-string center," Clay says, comfortable and confident in his choices.
As are his players. Noteworthy at Tuesday's Kickoff Luncheon was the spontaneous cheering from the Trojans players when Pat Haden congratulated "our team . . . and Coach Helton" with the cheering coming at the "Coach Helton" mention.
These Trojans like Clay and trust him. "We're playing for the man we want to play for," Cody Kessler said Tuesday.
Cody also said two other things: "It's our last chance to do it" and "it's going to be difficult against Wisconsin."
All true. So how does this play out? Clay has made it easy for this team to get back at the end of a tough season that has seen it go through so much. Talking to the Wisconsin people, you can tell they can't quite understand how the Trojans are still standing -- other than the talented athletes lining up for USC.
Now those talented athletes have the chance to make Clay's vision of how this should go this month work. That's how Pete Carroll did it. And John McKay.
Which is where one of Coach McKay's most insightful observations about his job comes in: "It's not about the Xs and O's, it's about the Jimmies and Joes," he famously said.
It will be tonight. And if that happens, if USC's "Jimmies and Joe" step up, it will also be about a guy named Clay who went all in trusting them -- and his own instincts.
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