They played harder. They played smarter. They were better. They've clearly improved. They're alive, at least for another week. And they're almost relevant in the Pac-12 South with South-leading Colorado (2-0 in the Pac-12) coming into the Coliseum this Saturday (1 p.m., Pac-12 Network).
So there. It's not all over except for the shouting. You know that when people are paying attention to the way Cal, a loser to the Arizona State team USC beat on Saturday, held for two plays at the goal line to hold off Utah earlier Saturday. That's exactly what USC needed. Someone to give Utah a loss no one maybe was expecting.
So now those three-way-tie scenarios, those hope against hope possibilities, just could play out. You know, the ones where the tiebreakers break USC's way.
Of course, that would be a USC team that would pretty much have had to beat every single one of its remaining Pac-12 opponents coming up -- Colorado, Arizona, Cal, all this month, and UCLA at the Rose Bowl in November. And as a must throw-in that looks clearly doable, a win over struggling Oregon to end October. We'll put that Washington game in Seattle on our "to be determined" list of expectations for the time being.
But that would take lots and lots of improving, as Clay Helton said the Trojans have showed each week. Almost sad to have to say that when you throw Stanford into that mix now that we know how average the Cardinal is and how lame that effort at Palo Alto was.
Toss the mistake-filled, penalty-marred, brain-dead decisions at Utah, another team USC should have beaten, into the mix and you realize how deep that hole was this USC team is trying to climb out of.
But they are climbing out a bit, at least, no longer digging. That's because the USC coaches have taken their shovels away. Shovels by the way that this new USC coaching staff had given them through most of Clay's "September not to remember."
And they're now learning from those tough experiences. That's all you can ask at this point. Did anyone think that once Clay was named after the UCLA game, he'd all of a sudden become experienced? How does that happen? You only get experience by getting experience.
Was that fair to either USC football of Clay? Not really although it's one of those mostly unearned breaks, one of those being in the right place at the right time deals you can't turn down even if you're clearly not ready as Clay was not. And yes, this USC team, after what it had gone through the past five years, clearly deserved better than what it got in September.
Of course Clay Helton is not Tom Herman. And as far from Nick Saban and Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw and Chris Petersen as you could find. But he's doing the only thing he can do right now. He's learning the hard way, at least if the last two weeks are any indication. And hopefully, for him and for USC, he's learning fast.
He's making some of the tough calls that tough coaches make. He's got an offense that looks like it's headed where it has to go the last two weeks even if that's not exactly where he thought it would be going and behind a line he'll probably never be able to be sure of.
And with a quarterback he didn't think he'd be turning the team over to, someone else learning on the fly. And learning well, obviously. For that, Clay should get the credit. He put Sam Darnold in position to make this transition quickly. That's on Clay. If we're going to hammer him for so much of September, give him where this goes in October.
Which is the point here. Let this play out. Can a USC coach capable of winning national championships get the experience required to do that in the hurry-up, on-the-job training in the time that Clay has left here, whatever time that is? Why not wait and see? He's not the only coach to screw up three straight fourth-down decisions.
But he better not screw up another one. Or pretty much anything else. Just imagine if somehow, Clay & Co. make it. Make it out of that hole. Who would have had a tougher trial-by-error learning experience?
Would that be enough to satisfy the critics?
Well, if USC can also beat Notre Dame, then maybe he can satisfy some of them, that's a definite maybe.
BY THE NUMBERS
*** 10.2-6.2: Big edge for USC in the passing game with a 10.2-yards-per-pass-attempt compared to ASU's 6.2. Trojans will take those numbers. And probably keep throwing it with Slingin' Sam.
*** 600: The ASU game was USC's 600th all-time in the Coliseum where Trojans are 2-0 this season and 437-136-27 all time.
*** 1: USC alum and Olympian Alyson Felix, who led USC onto the field at the Coliseum Saturday, is the first and only woman to have that honor.
*** 71,214: Now we know what that USC staffer meant when we cited a list of home attendance numbers over the past decade, saying to us: "You believe those numbers?" Well, after the published attendance of 71,214 from Saturday, no we don't. But the crowd was spread out and more in the seats than many predicted so if it's all tickets sold, that's still something of a plus for the then 1-3 Trojans. Should be better this Saturday for high-flying Colorado.
*** 7-68, 5-75: USC didn't exactly lose the penalty battle this week, with 68 yards on seven flags while ASU had more yards -- 75 -- on fewer penalties -- five. The way things have been going, Trojans will take a standoff here.
*** 3 of 13: Sometimes stats don't always reflect the reality of the game as these third-down conversion numbers for USC -- missing 10 of 13 attempts and yet winning going away. You just never know how this all fits together. ASU meanwhile converted on six of 17.
*** 33 for 75: 2.3: Big, big improvement for Clancy Pendergast's defense against the run this week holding an ASU team averaging 236.5 yards a game to 75. Between them, top Sun Devil tailbacks Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage managed a mere 35 yards on 13 carries. Heck of an effort by the Trojans.
THEY SAID IT
CLAY HELTON: "Adversity reveals your character. The character of this team is something I'm extremely proud of . . . as a coach, you have to ask yourself if this team is improving? I can honestly say that this team is improving . . . as a head coach you can see the improvement every game and that's what you want."
ASU COACH TODD GRAHAM: "Obviously you have to give them [USC] credit. They were the better team tonight . . . We couldn't run the ball. We couldn't do much. We didn't have much offense at all. Give them credit. They did some things differently, they did some pressures and we didn't do a good job preparing. They shut us down."
HELTON AGAIN: On whether with Sam Darnold, this is becoming a pass-to-set-up-the-run offense? "It's a balanced offense and one takes care of the other. To have Justin Davis run the ball well opens up JuJu. It will always be balanced. At some point in time, Sam's going to have a tough day. All quarterbacks do. And you better bring your running game."
ASU WR TIM WHITE: The son of former USC WR Timmy White and nephew of former USC return specialist and LA Times sportswriter, the late Lonnie White, who caught seven passes for 84 yards and had 152 all-purpose yards to lead the Sun Devils talked about what it was like to play in the Coliseum where his dad and uncle played: "It was an awesome experience. I enjoyed every moment, even with the loss. I'll always remember this for the rest of my life. And yes, my dad was here."
Zach Banner's sprained ankle did not loosen up after warming up and he was spelled by Jordan Simmons, as the starter, and Chuma Edoga, who looked strong in that spot after having spent a week fighting stomach flu and another week with bronchitis. Chuma said he's finally healthy and his blocking showed it . . . Freshman CB Jack Jones was able to come back from his ankle sprain and get some action late.
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