Gerard Martinez |

Every week a test

It's what USC needs and what a rookie coach with Clay Helton's pedigree requires . . . every week it's take-a-test time for him and his Trojans.

If it seems like there's no time for resting on their laurels, for looking back at a four-game win streak and saying there's at least a little bit of a reason to feel some satisfaction, forget it.

And that unbeaten 7-0 mark for Clay Helton at the Coliseum, no big deal. Been there, done that.

Every week is a brand new season. Every Saturday -- or Friday or Thursday -- a career-defining test for a career in its infancy.

When you dig yourself a hole as deep as USC's Trojans did with their 1-3 start [0-2 in the Pac-12], it's not enough to stop digging. All that gets you is a spot somewhere down deep in that hole.

You'd better figure out how to get out of there and get out of there fast. And better not miss a single step climbing out.

Which is why Oregon matters today (4 p.m., ESPN). As does Washington next week. And UCLA and Notre Dame the two weeks after that.

This USC team cannot miss a beat. It owes these folks something after having to play them half-a-dozen years or so with at least one hand tied behind their backs.

Granted, USC has cooperated with its own self-inflicted hands-tying here -- keeping Lane Kiffin around too long, sending Ed Orgeron packing and bringing in Steve Sarkisian in a 1-2-3 combo of punches to its own jaw.

And yeah, we know what you're thinking. Don't stop there. What about Helton. No national search. No attempt to come up with the best possible person for the USC job. Just move up the good-guy longtime assistant who won't embarrass the program with his personal antics.

But really, could he possibly be the next John McKay or Pete Carroll? Please? Of course he can't.

But can Clay Helton be somebody USC fans -- and players -- can work with? And make it work for them?

Well, that's why the next four games matter so much. We're going to find out if Clay Helton could possibly be good enough to be the USC coach.

And yeah, again, you probably are saying that isn't that the sort of thing that should be determined BEFORE a person is hired. No arguing that.

But considering USC's history here, there's no arguing that USC just doesn't do it that way. And hasn't, going back at least to McKay and probably before that to the man Knute Rockne recommended, Howard Jones, who was the exception. He came here with a real resume.

So now USC has a man his critics will not forgive the fact that he didn't have much of one -- a resume -- until this past September. And we know how that turned out. So every line he adds, like today against the dangerous offense of the Ducks, matters more than maybe for any other coach in America.

It's all we've got. And all he's got. And it is headed in the right direction, obviously, as the strength of schedule heads the other way.

Although the historic embarrassment of that 46-point Alabama loss, the realization of how unacceptable was that 17-point loss to a so-so Stanford and the way a second league loss to Utah in a sloppy, turnover-fueled fourth-quarter defensive fail in Salt Lake City makes the wins that much more difficult to swallow now. Not when you know this USC team should be leading the Pac-12 South without a league loss as it prepares for what could have been a monumental showdown next week in Seattle.

Even his wins can be used to say that just proves Clay isn't the right guy. Sure he's winning now, when it almost doesn't matter. But it really does. It's telling us on the job if Clay should have the job. A little late, you say. But it is what it is. An opportunity to see if the good guy, the decent person, the fine example for his players, is also the coach who can make them, and this USC program, better.

And we don't just mean better than Oregon today, or better than Arizona State, Colorado, Arizona or Cal. Of course USC should be better than those teams. It's USC. C'mon.

But does USC keep getting better. And in a hurry. And not just on Saturdays. Does Clay's little-bit-laid-back approach to practice work for these players? Does it work for him and his coaches?

As it has, or is starting to, for the likes of Sam Darnold, who isn't doing all this great stuff completely on his own. He was brought along in ways that allowed him to step right in and have the kind of instant impact few redshirt freshmen -- maybe none at quarterback for USC -- have ever had. Some of that is good coaching.

Sure, like so many things, that's a two-edged sword for Clay. Why didn't he start the season with Sam? Why did it take three games?

We can go down the list. There are all sots of second-guesses available. Does the lack of pads in practice, especially in November, signal someone who has taken too much away from the two head coaches he assisted the last six years here -- or is it a sign of someone confident in his players' ability to get it done on Saturday with fresh legs and a tough-minded maturity?

There's not an easy answer here. All-time USC great D-lineman Shaun Cody was talking at practice about his own Trojan career and the "tradition" of a "No-Pants [or Pads] November" and how hard it was for him "to learn to practice at the right tempo" without pads in college. By the time he got to the NFL, players knew, Shaun said, but in college, that's a lesson to be learned.

Even for the coaches. "I remember when we started it, Coach O [Ed Orgeron] was not happy at all," Shaun said of the move to less-than-full-pads practices a decade ago. Getting that mix right, however, is what Pete Carroll did better than anyone during his run with those quick, intense, highly competitive workouts.

It's what coaches must do. Figure out what works for them and their players. It's different for everybody.

But we can already hear critics saying you can't mention Clay in the same breath with Howard Jones, John McKay and Pete Carroll. And of course you can't.

And yet you must. By taking the USC job, Clay allowed USC to put him in their company -- and all that entails.

Now his challenge, game by game, week by week, test by test, is to show that he does belong there. Nothing else will do. And after September, no missteps allowed.  

Get it right -- or get ready to get going so USC can find that successor worthy of heading a Top Five program in college football history.

There is still time for Clay. And still the opportunity. And for anyone knowing Clay, he's someone to root for. But this will not be decided on sentiment as it plays out.

This business is all about results. Sure, process and character matters, as do many things.

But the scoreboard will make the final decision -- as it almost always does. That's why it's there. 

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at

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