Photo by Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Cal Football

USC Preview: Head Coach May Not Be Long For This Job

November 14, 2019

Seven wins and an invitation to a minor bowl game earned Justin Wilcox a salary increase and contract extension.

Seven wins and an invitation to a minor bowl will probably get Clay Helton fired. 

The expectations at USC are different from those at Cal.

The Trojans and their beleaguered head coach come to Memorial Stadium Saturday night with six wins already secured and Helton’s job very much in peril. There was talk in Southern California that Helton might have been fired this week if the Trojans did not beat Arizona State last Saturday. They did, thanks in no small part to a brilliant first quarter by freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis. Helton will still be on the sidelines Saturday night when USC (6-4, 5-2 Pac-12) faces the Bears (5-4, 2-4). 

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Kedon Slovis

But if he doesn’t win this one and next week’s season finale against UCLA new athletic director Mike Bohn will likely make a change. Six wins, six losses and the Cheez-It Bowl won’t cut it at USC. His job status is relevant because it might play a part in how he uses his personnel against the Bears.

Helton is in his fourth year as the head coach and has a pretty good 38-21 record, a Pac-12 title and a Rose Bowl victory. But that is not enough for a lot of Trojan faithful, especially given last year’s 5-7 mark with no postseason appearance. Helton is finding the lore of the great USC coaches including Howard Jones, John McKay, John Robinson and Pete Carroll not so much an uplifting legacy but rather a backbreaking burden.

In Helton’s defense, many of his 2019 troubles are traceable to injuries.USC is among those with the rash of quarterback injuries that have plagued the Pac-12. Projected starter JT Daniels was lost for the season in the first game. Slovis took over and in the fifth game, he sustained a concussion.  

That left USC with one scholarship quarterback Matt Fink, who finished that game and started the next. Then Slovis returned and has been the man until late in the game last Saturday when cramps forced him to the sidelines again. He is expected to be fine for the Bears.

His numbers are excellent  He is 194 for 280, for 2,321 yards, with 20 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He is 11th nationally in completion percentage 69.3,  and in the top 25 in the other major categories. 

“He throws the ball really well,” Wilcox said. “Seems to do what they are asking him to do. It looks like he is in total control For a freshman that is pretty impressive.”

He had a first quarter for the ages last Saturday, completing 15 of his 17 passes for 297 yards and four touchdowns. 

The Sun Devils were down 14-0 before they knew what hit them, and 28-7 at the end of the quarter. However, possibly because of Slovis’ cramps USC’s offense went stagnant and the Trojans held on for a 31-26 victory to earn bowl eligibility.

USC uses what it calls an Air-Raid offense, but the Trojans run the ball more often than most spread teams. Although they averaged just 3.1 yards per carry against ASU, the Trojans running game has been decent despite a rash of injuries. 

The talented trio of Stephen Carr, Markese Stepp, and Vavae Malepeai have all missed time. Carr and Malepeai might be back on Saturday, which is where Helton’s job status could come into play. Freshman Kenan Christon, who was ticketed for a redshirt year, has been pressed into duty and responded brilliantly. In four games. last year’s California state sprint champion is averaging 7.6 yards per carry (57 for 320) plus he has seven receptions for 78 yards and three TDs. If he plays another game this year is no longer a redshirt season. With his job on the line does Helton care about the next four years? We will see on Saturday.

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Michael Pittman making a catch

With Michael Pittman, (71 catches, 938 yards, 8 touchdowns), Tyler Vaughn (62, 752, 5) and Amon-Pe St. Brown (55, 686, 5) the Trojans have what Wilcox and defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter say is as good as any group in the country.

“They are all explosive athletes,” DeRuyter said. “They are long, they are physical, they are guys that make contested catches. 

“It looks like they are throwing into double coverage and they come down with it. Those 50-50 balls, when the ball shouldn’t even be thrown there and they catch it. ...I think the biggest issue is they don’t have enough balls to go around. They can throw to any of them on any play.”

Center Brett Neilon,  has a calf strain that might cause him to miss this game. Other than that, the SC offensive line is formidable. 

What do they look like?

“They look like big high school All-Americans,” DeRuyter said, “They’re athletic, they’re long. It is going to be a big challenge for us.”

The Trojan defense has been hit by injuries but got a boost against ASU with the return of defensive end Drake Jackson and safety Talanoa Hufangal. Jackson was particularly impressive against ASU with six tackles, including one for loss. Hufnagel, who might be the surest tackler on the squad, had an interception and long return negated by a penalty.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
John Houston 

Middle linebacker John Houston, who lines up behind what is usually a four-man front, has 88 tackles, tops on the team. 

Jackson and tackle Jay Tefele each have three and a half sacks for the Trojans who are tied for second in the conference with 25.

Cornerbacks Olaijah Griffin and Isaac Taylor-Stewart have been consistently effective all year.

The USC punter is Ben Griffiths, a 28-year-old freshman (you read that correctly). He came over from Australia like Cal’s Steven Coutts and is averaging 40.8 yards per punt.

Placekicker Chase McGrath has made 10 of his 11 field-goal tries, while Velus Jones is one of the best kickoff return men in the conference with a 24.5-yard average,




  • USC leads the series, 69-31-5. Cal won last year in LA, 15-14, the Bears first victory in the series since 2003.
  • The Bears' last win in Berkeley was 34-31 in triple overtime in 2003.
  • The color commentator on the FS1 telecast will be former Cal running back Shane Vereen.
  • Justin Wilcox was USC’s defensive coordinator in 2014 and 2015.
  • USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast held the same job at Cal from 2010 through 2012.         

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