SAN DIEGO — USC coach Clay Helton walked off the field in San Diego on Friday night, then started running as he approached the tunnel.
Helton saw the small group of remaining Trojans fans in the stands of SDCCU Stadium and knew what was coming: more boos directed at the embattled coach.
No. 19 Iowa had just dismantled No. 22 USC 49-24 in the Holiday Bowl, providing another black eye to the program since athletic director Mike Bohn announced Helton would return next season.
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“They played better than us,” Helton said of the loss. “Simple as that.”
Helton was right. Iowa deserved to win, and it was easy to figure out why. USC repeated the same mistakes that have caused most its struggles this season. The defense couldn’t stop Iowa, the offense never ran the ball and the special teams committed a critical error.
Not that any of that deterred Helton after the game.
“We believe in championships here,” he said. “Just as the fan base might be frustrated, the coaching staff and players are frustrated . . . (but) we’re going to be a very good team next year.”
Former USC tailback Reggie Bush was more stark in his summation:
“At the end of the day, USC was out-coached,” Bush said postgame on Fox. And although Helton is back next season, some of his assistants are not expected to be so lucky.
Helton didn’t want to address staff changes after the game, but defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast and special teams coach John Baxter are two assistants who may no longer be on his staff next season. Neither looked great on Friday.
Iowa scored 49 points in its romp over USC — even Middle Tennessee State held the Hawkeyes to 48 — with just 328 yards of offense. But the Hawkeyes converted 8 of 13 third-down attempts, and one fourth down attempt. Quarterback Nate Stanley completed 18 of 27 passes for 213 yards and two touchdowns. Running back Tyler Goodson and receivers Tyrone Tracy Jr. and Ihmir Smith-Marsette each rushed for a score.
USC’s special teams missed a field goal — down 42-24 with 5:12 remaining — and allowed Smith-Marsette to return a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter, right after the Trojans had tied the game at 14-14. Iowa never led USC by fewer than four points after that.
USC stagnated offensively after quarterback Kedon Slovis left in the third quarter with an elbow injury. But even before he got hurt, the run game was nonexistent (the Trojans finished with 18 carries for 22 yards). At one point, they threw 36 passes while its tailbacks ran only times.
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That lopsided attack was fine against Arizona, Colorado, Arizona, State, California and UCLA. But Iowa is a good team, dominating the line of scrimmage against the Trojans and consistently dissecting USC’s defense with more disciplined play: all the things that seemed to hurt this team the past two seasons.
“Bright days are ahead,” said a seemingly oblivious Helton.
Who else believes that? The loss to Iowa comes on the heels of a disastrous early signing period that saw USC rank last in the Pac-12 in recruiting and 78th overall. Bohn was on the sideline on Friday night, but hasn’t tweeted in nearly a month after being heavily criticized on social media for his controversial decision to retain Helton.
USC has a young team, and returns Slovis in 2020. But that won’t matter if the mistakes that have hurt the Trojans every week in 2019 remain next season. As long as Helton is in charge, the fans will remain skeptical.
And it’s unlikely that things will get better soon. USC opens next season against Alabama. Maybe the “bright days” Helton spoke of were for Week 2 next season, against New Mexico.