Today’s Rose Bowl was a sneak preview of the 2017 college football season for both the USC Trojans and the Penn State Nittany Lions.
For USC Trojans head football coach Clay Helton he has had many twists and turns on the road to get to where he currently is. For two decades Helton honed his craft as an assistant coach before he finally got a chance to lead a program. Last year saw Helton named as USC’s interim head football coach after the school had fired Steve Sarkisian. Helton was expected to simply keep the seat warm at ‘SC until the school was able to find a head coach with a big reputation for winning the would return them to prominence. But in Helton’s first seven games, the Trojans went 5-2 which included USC knocking off their crosstown rival in the UCLA Bruins to win the Pac-12 South Title which propelled them to their first appearance in the conference’s title game. USC’s sudden surge would see the school’s former athletic director Pat Haden remove the interim tag from Helton’s title. But after the Trojans lost the Pac-12 Championship Game to the Stanford Cardinal, along with losing the Holiday Bowl to the Wisconsin Badgers, some people were skeptical about Haden’s move to hire Helton on a full-time basis.
This year would see Haden replaced by another former USC alum in Lynn Swann which might have left Helton on shaky ground. And if the ground under Helton wasn’t solid, it got less firm after ‘SC began this college football season with a record of 1-3. But those three losses weren’t to the little sisters of the poor as the Trojans fell to the Alabama Crimson Tide, Stanford Cardinal, and Utah Utes who combined to go 30-7 this season.
However after the slow start, things would begin to click for USC as they reeled off an eight-game winning streak which saw them fall one victory short of winning the Pac-12 South for the second consecutive year. And after the Colorado Buffaloes were throttled by the Washington Huskies this past Friday night in the Pac-12 Title Game, the Trojans moved ahead of them in the College Football Playoff rankings. The win by the Huskies means that they’ll be heading to Atlanta, Georgia to face the Alabama in the Peach Bowl which is one of the national semifinals for the College Football Playoff as that left the Rose Bowl without the services of the Pac-12 Champion on New Year’s Day. But guess who was more than happy to fill the void?
USC has been selected to appear in the Rose Bowl as they will make the short journey from Heritage Hall in Los Angeles to Pasadena as both cities are only separated by 20 miles. The Trojans will take on the Big Ten Conference Champions in the Penn State Nittany Lions as the Rose Bowl committee will get the traditional Pac-12-Big Ten meeting that they covet. This will be the 34th appearance in the Rose Bowl Game for the Men of Troy, and it marks their first appearance in Pasadena on New Year’s Day since 2009 which was also a meeting against Penn State. But that appearance in the Rose Bowl marked the end of an era for the Trojans as head football coach Pete Carroll would only stay around for only one more season before becoming the head coach of the Seattle Seahawks in the National Football League, while ‘SC was left to deal with sanctions that were levied on their program by the NCAA which included a reduction in scholarships and a two-year bowl ban.
This set the Trojans program back immensely as since then they’ve gone through four different head football coaches which has included two different stints with Helton serving as an interim head football coach. And although that everyone wasn’t on board with Helton at first, he is the right guy for USC.
When I think of USC hiring Helton, the one college football program that comes to mind are the Clemson Tigers. During the 2008 college football season, Clemson decided to fire head football coach Tommy Bowden after the team’s 3-3 start. Bowden would be replaced by assistant coach Dabo Swinney on an interim basis. Swinney would go 4-3 for the remainder of the season, and as his players were ready to run through a wall for him, Clemson decided to remove the interim tag from Swinney’s title and make him the full-time head football coach. Swinney would reward the school’s trust in him as he was able to lead the Tigers to the Atlantic Coast Conference Title Game in 2009 for the first time in school history. Since then Clemson has won no fewer than 10 games in a season under Swinney as they’ve become a national power which has included three ACC Championships, three trips to the Orange Bowl, and an appearance in the national championship game this past January. Under Swinney, Clemson is 87-28, and although that he wasn’t a big named head coach at the time of his hiring, he was the right guy for the job.
So now Helton has the attention of everyone that supports the USC program in the Greater Los Angeles area as he has accomplished something that is on the bucket list of every head football coach upon taking over the Trojans which is to get them to the Rose Bowl. And on New Year’s Day, Helton will lead the Trojans from the visitor’s locker room at the Rose Bowl Stadium where maroon and gold will be on full display in the stands as well as the sidelines where you can expect some of the school’s most famous football alums such as Marcus Allen and Keyshawn Johnson to be in attendance.
Along with getting ‘SC to the Rose Bowl, Helton now has to ability to win the fierce recruiting war in Southern California for the top football talent in the region as he has shown that he can defeat UCLA on the gridiron, while also preventing the top-tier talent from heading north to programs such as Washington and the Oregon Ducks.
Helton has a freshman quarterback to work with in Sam Darnold who has come on strong after replacing Max Browne after USC’s early season struggles. Darnold threw 28 touchdown passes this season, while he was instrumental in USC handing Washington their only loss of the season as he was 23-of-33 passing in the contest for 287 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Darnold will have his chance to show his stuff with the eyes of the nation focused on him on New Year’s Day as his name will definitely be thrown around next year in regards to being the Pac-12 Conference’s Player of the Year.
Along with Darnold, the Trojans do have some National Football League talent on their roster that includes the likes of defensive back Adoree’ Jackson who can do it all which includes returning kicks, catching passes, and making dazzling interceptions which should help to make next month’s Rose Bowl a very exciting contest.
It has taken some time after the NCAA sanctions on USC for them to get the ball rolling, but everything finally appears to be coming full circle for the Men of Troy with an unlikely maestro leading the way. But credit to Helton for seizing the moment as he is indeed the right guy for USC.