SEATTLE – It’s “the next game,” Clay Helton says of the way he's approaching his Trojans’ opportunity to remove the stain of that 1-3 September start while they stay alive in the Pac-12 in hostile Husky Stadium (4:30 p.m., Fox) Saturday. But that’s not all.
The “next game” is also “a really big game,” Clay acknowledges. “It’s why you come to USC.”
Indeed. “It gets your competitive juices flowing,” Clay says. It better.
This is one of those games USC football was made for. And one of those games that has made USC football. All those winning trips to South Bend. To Ohio State. To Oregon. That Auburn game. And Alabama. And LSU. And everywhere up and down the West Coast over too many years to mention.
This is why they hate the USC band and its longest travel streak in college football. And “that damn song,” as more than one head coach has noted.
This is why you have to step up if you’re a Trojan football player on this day the way countless Trojan teams in the past have. It’s why you love the underdog role on the road.
It’s why the most fun you can have in college football is to go into a favored opponent’s stadium and shut them up by showing them who the superior team is – and it’s not them. That resulting sound, that sound of silence, is easily college football’s most rewarding reverse cheer.
There’s nothing like it. Football doesn’t get any better than watching the home fans file out of the Rose Bowl or those dominant numbers of Virginia Tech or Iowa or Oklahoma fans at “neutral site” games figuring out when is the right time to try to find their cars.
USC is at one of those moments when Trojan fans, and these players themselves, will be able to look back and say “This was our moment.”
Not that there’s a lot we can be sure of here. There are these certainties, however. The Huskies probably won’t beat themselves. They’ll do what Chris Petersen’s teams do.
And in a Pac-12 tradition stretching back more than a decade when Pete Carroll discovered it, they’ll almost certainly be penalized less than they usually are. They’re playing USC. That’s just the way it is
Don’t doubt us on this one. Check out the Stanford, Utah and Arizona games against USC this season. All three were under their season average for penalties. Among them, they average 6.3 penalties a game. Against USC, they were flagged for 12 penalties for all three games -- an average of 4.0. USC? No dropoff for the Trojans who were close to their average of 7.7 a game with 23 penalties in the three games.
That’s just the way it is, always has been and always will be apparently. Which is why “if it ain’t close, they can’t cheat you,” has to be USC’s mantra here. If you don’t trust the Pac-12 officials, you simply can’t let it be up to them.
It has to be up to you, which for those special USC teams in those special wins, it always was.
You realize that when the Shaun Cody and Lawrence Jackson come by to practice and reference those touchstones in their football life. And you realize these guys on this team haven’t gotten to go there. Not really.
For Zach Banner, this is his chance. Not only is he going on the road, a fifth-year senior with higher-than-high personal and team goals, he’s going home. This would absolutely be that moment for him that has never come.
The same for two juniors who have done so much and meant so much to USC football -- Adoree’ Jackson and JuJu Smith-Schuster. Sure, they have USC’s two big rivalry games with UCLA and Notre Dame to finish out what figure to be their final regular season games as Trojans.
But against the Huskies, unbeaten, at home and defending their No. 4 spot in the College Football Playoffs, this is the game Zach and JuJu and Adoree’ and Justin and Chad and Michael and Leon and Quinton and Jordan and Max and Stevie T. will take with them. That “one shining moment” moment that, for all sorts of reasons beyond their control, they haven’t had.
But win this game and it makes so many things possible, not the least of which could be a trip back to the Pac-12 Championship Game to see if the Trojans can get it right this time. And as a result, a much better bowl game, one that would matter in a place that you want to visit against an opponent you want to measure yourself against.
And the memory of what this was like for the rest of their lives. And if on top of it, USC can knock the Pac-12 out of the College Football Playoffs, so be it. The conference needs a big-time shakeup from top to bottom anyway so if this hastens that moment of reckoning, we're all for it.
One more reason to win this one.
But for no one does this game mean more than Clay Helton. Sure, he’s come back from the dead. Come back with a nice little five-game win streak. Come back with some exciting young guys like Sam Darnold and Ronald Jones and Deontay Burnett who could make things really interesting for this Trojan team in the years to come now that they're starters.
But for Clay, he really hasn’t come back to where people will yet say he deserves this USC job -- no matter how this season ends. But win this one, get into more games that matter, more games that say USC is back and not just back from September but back . . . period. And the discussion changes.
But without this win, it won’t. Nor should it. These are the games USC coaches capable of putting together a USC football program that lives up to its history have always lived for.
Clay says he’s getting there. That he and his staff, like his team, may be a work in progress but together they've clearly “grown as a team, we're a lot more mature,” Clay says. And ready now to show that they have put it all together and have gotten out of that September hole USC dug itself into. Which is why playing the No. 4 Huskies, a team without a loss, matters so much.
Put it all together against a bunch of unchallenging opponents and it’s like that tree falling in the woods with no one to hear it. Does it make a sound?
But for a USC team working all week against every sound but the kitchen sink, a win at Washington will make the kind of sound USC football has always been able to make.
A very loud and unpleasant sound for the rest of the Pac-12.
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