Shotgun Spratling | USCfootball.com

Getting back after it

Some see Clay Helton as a "dead man walking" in his first stint already as a head coach for the 1-3 Trojans. It didn't look like that Tuesday.

Sure, LSU whacked Les Miles Sunday after four games. And installed USC favorite Ed Orgeron for his second interim head coaching gig in four seasons. And LSU was 2-2.

So . . . 

USC is next, right?

Not if Tuesday's full-pads practice has anything to say about it. The Utah loss? Hey, that was like 90 hours before the return to the practice field. And with the 24-hour rule, it's like it happened last year.

Oh, you say you want to count last year, too, at least the last two games after then-interim Clay Helton was named head coach and given what Pat Haden described as a "five-year contract," as hard as that may be to believe. well, do that and it drops Clay's head coaching mark to 1-5 as the guy since then.

And in what Clay has described as "a production-based business" when he replaced fourth-year quarterback Max Browne with redshirt freshman Sam Darnold last week, that expression is being tossed back at him after the Trojans gave up a 14-point second half lead for a loss at Utah, dropping USC to 0-2 and last place in the Pac-12 with all sorts of help needed to get to a South title. (For Sam Darnold's reaction to his first start, check out Ryan Abraham's story and video here).

And yes, we're hearing from lifelong USC fans who say they can't take it any more. Until USC makes a change, they're telling us, they're no longer a part of the Trojan football family. It hurts too much. Or at least it's not enough fun to keep them coming back week after week to watch the result of so much self-inflicted damage.

If and when AD Lynn Swann makes wholesale changes in the football program, tearing it down before bringing the right person in to build it up, they're outta' here.

But that wasn't the vibe on Howard Jones-Brian Kennedy Fields. Clay called it "happy Tuesday," and added another "happy" about getting back to the Coliseum for four of the next five games.

How many USC fans will be there for unbeaten Arizona State (4-0) Saturday (5:30 p.m., Fox) is the question. Will it be like the kind of home crowd that pushed -- or was it puled -- Utah past the Trojans Friday? Almost certainly not the noise but maybe the 46,000 or so will be in the neighborhood.

Not a problem, said Darnold. "At home, we have a big advantage at the Coliseum," an optimistic Sam said, noting how tough the Rice-Eccles crowd made his debut. Although there's one thing that would be better than being at home.

"If we don't turn the ball over," Sam said, of the loss and Utah's 81-59 edge in plays even though USC won the yardage battle. If USC doesn't turn the ball over, Sam said, "we win the game." And after all, that's what it's all about.

"You gotta' get wins as a quarterback," Sam said of his 18-of-26 passing for 253 yards and no interceptions, "it doesn't matter how well you play."

One Trojan playing well has been Chad Wheeler, who in 128 pass attempts that he's been in for hasn't allowed a single sack or quarterback hit, tops in the Pac-12 for a left tackle and coming on the heels of plantar fasciitis, that threated to knock the 6-foot-7, 312-pound senior out of the Alabama game.

"I feel great now," Chad says, "I'm just doing my job, down after down." But he hasn't been perfect, he says. "Some times the backs bail me out . . .  and our third-down efficiency was pretty good at Utah (six of 10)."

The other tackle, Zach Banner, my not be perfect like Chad, but "everybody expects me to be perfect," Zach said. "Not only have I gotten better this year over last year but I've gotten better every single game this year . . . I'm killing it."

Of this USC team, the captain said: "We should have won last week," But that's not something that a Trojan alum like LenDale White should be bashing the team over, Zach said of his twitter war with LenDale this weekend that Shotgun Spratling details here.

And while Clay made it clear, as a Pac-12 head coach, he's not allowed to comment in public about some of the strange calls made in that Utah game, no such prohibition applied to JuJu Smith-Schuster, who was the victim of a bad spot before the fatal punt on fourth and more than three at the Utah 37. "It should have been fourth and one," JuJu said but the dude pushed me back two more yards."

That wasn't all, JuJu said. There was Damien Mama's ineligible receiver downfield on a run-pass option pass from Darnold. "Damien rolled two yards [past his block on the linebacker in the allowable three yards] and then got up. Nobody ever calls that." Well, not nobody. This is the Pac-12.

Clay said they have until noon Monday to submit 10 plays to the league for comment back on the calls within 48 to 72 hours. He's waiting for this week's answers.

For Tuesday's practice, USC went quicker, was much more uptempo than we've seen and, as Clay likes to say, with the "goods on goods," off to a more competitive start. There were also promises of new ways to get pressure on the quarterback this week. And using Connor Murphy, Oluwole Betiku on the edge to give Porter Gustin and Uchenna Nwosu some plays to catch their breath.

"They've improved week-to-week" every week, Clay says of his team. But the improvement this week had better be a win, as Sam says.  

Tuesday footnoted

Noah Jefferson is back in school but won't be back with the team for weeks as he gets both his academics n order, after going home to Las Vegas to attend to family business, and also taking time to get his AC sprain rehabbed, the sophomore defensive tackle won't be back until "November," Clay says  . . . Back in pads were junior safety John Plattenburg, after more than a month off on concussion protocol. He'll see action this weekend on defense and special teams . . . and freshman running back Vavae Maleapai, who hasn't been completely cleared from his collarbone fracture, should be in action in a couple of weeks . . . Damien Mama suffered a stinger and didn't finish practice. He should be back Wednesdays . . . Zach Banner was out in pads but still taking it easy on his ankle sprain . . . Chuma Edoga filled in for Zach at right tackle until he seemed to get a return bout of his stomach flu late in practice . . . and for a Tuesday practice play-by-play, go to TUESDAY ASU WEEK GHOST NOTES.  

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at weber@uscfootball.com.

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