10 Takeaways: With ugly loss at BYU, consider Clay Helton back on hot seat at USC

When USC athletic director Lynn Swann resigned this week, football coach Clay Helton lost a key ally. Swann didn’t hire Helton, and he and Helton weren’t even particularly chummy behind the scenes.

But they were linked by the golden handcuffs of the ridiculous contract extension that Swann gave Helton in February of 2018. It’s a deal that will be remembered as the negotiating version of Swann sitting alone at an auction and holding up his pamphlet over and over to bid against himself for Helton’s services. At a time when Helton had little leverage, USC massively misjudged the market and overpaid.

That deal locked Helton to USC through the 2023 season and comes with a devastating buyout that would even put a dent in USC’s deep athletic department coffers. While USC moved administratively to start anew in the athletic department by pushing out Swann, Helton’s latest faceplant on the field could end up being remembered as the beginning of the end of his coaching tenure at USC.

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USC fell to BYU, 30-27, in overtime on Saturday. The game was the easiest on paper of a four-game slate that will ultimately determine Helton’s fate, as the Trojans host No. 11 Utah on Friday and then travel to No. 23 Washington and then No. 7 Notre Dame after a bye week. They’ll be underdogs in all four, and Helton is 1-12 as an underdog as head coach.

Losing at BYU offers USC fans a searing reminder that Helton has done them a fine service as a classy caretaker in the wake of the messes of Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian. He’s a consummate gentleman who has resurrected the school’s off-field reputation and acted in a relentlessly professional manner. But coming off a 5-7 season and staring at another year of mediocrity, there’s little empirical evidence that he’s a national championship-level coach. That’s something the university badly wants and the sputtering Pac-12 desperately needs.

USC Trojans head coach Clay Helton reacts in the second half against the Brigham Young Cougars on Saturday. (USAT)
USC Trojans head coach Clay Helton reacts in the second half against the Brigham Young Cougars on Saturday. (USAT)

Helton is 28-14 in his four full-time seasons. But he’s amid a slide that’s nearly impossible to recover from. Helton’s most consistent asset at USC has been his work as a recruiter, and amid these troubled waters, the recruiting is beginning to hit a predictable funk. Oregon, Ohio State and myriad SEC schools are raiding Southern California for five-stars, as USC is ranked No. 51 in the Rivals.com rankings for 2020.

Helton had started 2-0, but USC’s solid win over Stanford that landed the Trojans in the Top 25 will likely end up being more of a footnote than a statement thanks to the upcoming slate.

With starting quarterback JT Daniels out for the season, backup Kedon Slovis threw three interceptions on Saturday and got out-dueled by BYU’s Zach Wilson. Slovis sealed the loss with a walk-off interception in overtime on a tipped pass. That came following Helton rushing on the field to call a timeout to save a game-clock violation, a bad look on an afternoon full of them.

And USC fans, looking at a grueling slate of games, can now start thinking long and hard about life after Helton. Swann’s exit and this loss have nudged the speculation closer to reality. Soon enough, we may see how badly USC bungled Helton’s extension by getting a sense of his value when he’s back on the open market.

2) Pat Narduzzi’s mind-numbing faux pas

The single most baffling, inexplicable and ludicrous moment of Saturday came courtesy Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi. Trailing Penn State 17-10 with less than five minutes remaining, Pitt faced a fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line.

Defying modern analytics, basic mathematics and common sense, Narduzzi declined to line up to attempt the tying touchdown and instead opted for the field goal. The attempt by Alex Kessman doinked off the upright, likely directed there by karma.

Even more baffling than Narduzzi’s felonious game management was his reasoning for it. Instead of admitting his mistake or even acknowledging one was possible, Narduzzi said, “you need two scores to win,” according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

While correct in spirit, someone may want to send an abacus to the Pitt football office. Or perhaps some game-management flashcards. Or at the very least, all the coaches on the headset should grow the cajones to tell their boss he’s going to be the laughingstock of college football for the rest of the day if he makes that decision.

A field goal meant that Pitt would still need another touchdown to win the game, and the Panthers’ sporadic offense wasn’t exactly producing chunk yardage plays with abandon on Saturday.

Pitt hadn’t run the ball well all game, as they finished with 24 yards on 25 carries. But there are plenty of play calls available from the 1, and any failure there would put Penn State in the precarious position of running its offense from its own goal line. Which would have set up good field position to potentially score another touchdown.

Narduzzi’s football sensibilities come from the Mark Dantonio tree, which is rooted in a defiant belief in the kicking game and field position. (Narduzzi punted from the Penn State 37 early in the game.) But his end-game decision defies even the most stringent beliefs of conservative football. The analytics companies that cover such decisions each week are going to skewer Narduzzi like a Maureen Dowd-on-Donald Trump screed.

It will be interesting to see if Narduzzi walks back his feelings on the decision this week. Much like his old boss, they can be defensive in both their football sensibilities and to anyone second guessing them.

3. More math problems at Michigan State

Math struggles may be contagious in the Dantonio coaching tree, as he committed Saturday’s second biggest coaching felony in Michigan State’s 10-7 loss to Arizona State.

Michigan State appeared to tie the game, 10-10, in the waning seconds after a 42-yard field goal from Matt Coghlin. But the Spartans had 12 men on the field, and that crucial error pushed the attempt back to 47 yards. Coghlin missed, Michigan State lost and Dantonio should take some blame for not giving quarterback Brian Lewerke at least one shot at the end zone before trying to tie the game. MSU fans, at this point, would forgive any sins that accompany offensive aggression.

(In Michigan State’s defense, the officials missed a blatant flag for running and jumping over the line of scrimmage on the final missed kick. ASU’s Cam Phillips clearly committed a penalty, and it would have been a 15-yarder.)

Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio looks on in the 4th quarter of the Spartans' loss to the Arizona State Sun Devils on Saturday. (Getty)
Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio looks on in the 4th quarter of the Spartans' loss to the Arizona State Sun Devils on Saturday. (Getty)

For Michigan State fans, the only thing worse than the final minute of missed opportunities was having to sit through the other 59. It was the same slog, as the re-arranged staff and alleged new offensive philosophies at Michigan State appears to be the football version of lipstick on a pig. That offense was all oink and spittle, with little creativity or verve. New year, but the pigpen smells the same.

But the final blame goes to down to a penalty that should never happen in Pop Warner, never mind the Big Ten. Instead of capitalizing on a chance to become Michigan State’s all-time leader in wins, Dantonio and the Spartans delivered one of the most agonizing late-game folds in school history.

4. UCF makes its case ... again

UCF announced itself in the College Football Playoff conversation on Saturday. Somehow, after going 27-1 the past three seasons, UCF entered this weekend ranked No. 17.

Well, this week will be an interesting test of voter bias against Group of Five leagues, as UCF delivered one of the most impressive and authoritative victories this college football season. They mauled Stanford, 45-27, in a rollicking showcase of both their program and vibrant home atmosphere.

UCF jumped out to a halftime lead of 38-7 at halftime and coasted behind true freshman quarterback Dillon Gabriel, who finished 22-of-30 for 347 passing yards and four touchdowns. Stanford isn’t exactly a vintage edition from the Andrew Luck era, but it’s a solid Power Five team

While the College Football Playoff rankings aren’t technically attached to the weekly polls, there’s inherent perception carryover. Time for the voters to put UCF where they belong – in the thick of the Top 10 and CFP race.

5 . Buckeyes starting to find their groove

Ryan Day is bringing smashball back at Ohio State.

“We’re starting to forge an identity,” Day said after the Buckeyes trampled Indiana 51-10, their biggest margin of victory in a Big Ten road opener since 1998.

That identity is ground and pound, a departure from Urban Meyer’s final Buckeyes squad. That offensive attack was throw, throw, throw — in part to take advantage of the gifts quarterback Dwayne Haskins presented, but also because Ohio State’s line did not create a lot of holes and its running backs were inconsistent.

Three games into 2019, this is a different look.

With J.K. Dobbins slashing for 193 yards and backup Master Teague III adding 106, Ohio State piled up 314 rushing yards against the Hoosiers. The Buckeyes now have run the ball 135 times for 821 yards, 6.08 yards per carry. And that’s without asking quarterback Justin Fields to do much running — just 25 carries thus far, only four Saturday.

Ohio State Buckeyes running back J.K. Dobbins (2) breaks away to score a touchdown against Indiana Hoosiers defensive back Devon Matthews (27) during the second quarter at Memorial Stadium. (USAT)
Ohio State Buckeyes running back J.K. Dobbins (2) breaks away to score a touchdown against Indiana Hoosiers defensive back Devon Matthews (27) during the second quarter at Memorial Stadium. (USAT)

Clearly, keeping Fields healthy for the long haul is a factor — Day does not have a reliable backup quarterback on the roster. But they haven’t needed him to do anything with his legs yet, because Ohio State has been running downhill behind a much improved offensive line.

With Mike Weber gone, Dobbins is finally the feature back — and he’s getting better by the week. He had 91 yards on 21 carries in the opening rout of Florida Atlantic, then hit Cincinnati with 141 yards on 17 carries in the first half alone before Day put him on the shelf for safe keeping. Saturday in Bloomington, where Dobbins had a breakout performance in his first college game two years ago, he was at his fast-and-physical best.

“It’s Ohio State,” Dobbins said. “We’re always going to be able to run the ball.”

That really wasn’t the case last year. Now it is. And the offensive balance that was missing in 2018 could be vital to Ohio State’s playoff aspirations of 2019.

6. Florida rallies for Franks

A touching scene played out in the Florida locker room after the game. Gators coach Dan Mullen ended his address to the team by asking where veteran quarterback Feleipe Franks was. Franks crutched to the middle of the circle of players and said, “Family on three. One, two, three – FAMILY.”

No. 9 Florida had just survived a gutty 29-21 win at Kentucky, scoring 19 points after Franks went out with a fractured ankle that Mullen told reporters after the game will likely force him to miss the rest of the season.

Backup Kyle Trask, a lightly experienced redshirt junior, scored the game-winning touchdown on a four-yard run with just over four minutes remaining. Trask finished 9-for-13 throwing, and will quickly get some experience as he’s appeared in just six career games.

Mullen’s remarkable quarterback resume includes developing Alex Smith, Tim Tebow and Dak Prescott. That quarterback acumen is about to get a thorny test, as the Gators will be transitioning from Franks to Trask with an upcoming schedule of Tennessee, Towson, Auburn and at LSU.

Trask looked solid leading the comeback on Saturday night in Lexington and will have to grow up quickly on the field.

7. Clemson dims Dome at Syracuse

Clemson provided Syracuse opportunities to hang around like it has in the past two seasons. This year, the Orange didn’t take advantage in a 41-6 Tigers win. Twice in the third quarter, Syracuse intercepted Trevor Lawrence passes and brought the ball deep into Clemson territory. Twice, the Orange failed to muster any points.

But the first play after Clemson turned the ball over, Syracuse quarterback Tommy DeVito threw a pass right at Clemson’s Mario Goodrich for an interception.

Soon after, Amari Rodgers dashed 87 yards to the end zone.

That was the story of Clemson’s night: a quick burst of offensive success intertwined with long periods of uncertainty. The Tigers offense stalled in the second quarter, notching three points on a Syracuse defense that allowed 63 points to Maryland last week. Running back Travis Etienne, who entered the game averaging 9.21 yards per carry, ran 14 times for 76 yards while Lawrence completed 22 of 39 passes.

After uncertainty surrounding Lawrence’s performance through two games, Clemson’s commitment to throwing the ball led to the sophomore quarterback finishing with a career-high 395 passing yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. But the two turnovers pushed Lawrence past his interception total from last year just three games into 2019, leaving the identity of Clemson’s offense still unknown.

8. Garrett Shrader’s helo highlight

The most exhilarating highlight of the day came when Mississippi State quarterback Garrett Shrader helicoptered toward the first-down marker on a furious fourth-and-16 scramble.

Shrader appeared to elevate about eight feet in the air in an attempt to leapfrog Kansas State defensive back AJ Parker and then was spun around by Elijah Sullivan. The play happened on the Kansas State sideline, not far from first-year Wildcat coach Chris Klieman.

“Elijah Sullivan came and attacked it,” Klieman told Yahoo Sports by phone on Saturday night. “He may have jumped over him, but he hit him and enabled him to start going sideways.”

Shrader, who was in for the ineffective Tommy Stevens, came up about a half-yard short of the first-down after his wild ride. And that helped Kansas State improve to 3-0 with a bruising 31-24 road win in Starkville. With blowouts of Nicholls and Bowling Green and this win, Kleiman is showing early signs of being a worthy successor to Bill Snyder.

“We’re only three games into it,” said Klieman, who won four national titles as a head coach at North Dakota State. “We’re learning every day about our guys. They compete and are close-knit.”

9. Who is No. 2 in the ACC?

It was a brutal weekend for the ACC. Boston College lost at home to Kansas as a three-touchdown favorite, Georgia Tech lost at home to the Citadel, NC State got blasted at West Virginia and Pitt’s clunky math robbed the league a shot at an upset victory.

Virginia edged out Florida State, 31-24, after the Seminoles botched a chance to score and tie the game in the final seconds when they elected to run an ill-conceived Wildcat play at the goal line instead of spiking the ball and getting organized.

The ACC team that shined brightest this weekend? It may have been Wake Forest, which topped North Carolina in a rare non-league game between teams in the same conference. Wake Forest jumped out to a 21-0 lead and held on for a 24-18 victory, which was lowlighted by a Mack Brown clinic on how to not run a two-minute drill. (ACC officials bungled the final second of that game and appeared to rob Florida State of a few seconds at the end of that game as well.)

Wake Forest has started out 3-0, with consecutive Friday night wins over Utah State, at Rice and then North Carolina. Quarterback Jamie Newman has established himself as one of the ACC’s best quarterbacks, as he’s completed 69-percent of his passes, thrown seven touchdowns and just one interception. Newman is 6-1 as a starter and playing more refined.

“He’s playing at a really high level for us,” Clawson said by phone on Saturday night. “He has all the physical attributes you want a quarterback to have. And now he’s playing the game well mentally – the reads and progressions and the things we’re asking him to do have slowed down for us.”

Could Wake Forest be 9-0 heading to Clemson on Nov. 16? They should be favored in every game, but Clawson certainly isn’t looking ahead. “We are in so many one-score games that if we look anywhere past the next game, this thing will get away from us quickly,” he said.

10. Les is more at Kansas

I spent some time with Les Miles and the Kansas staff in the Boston suburbs on Thursday night, the night before Kansas’ stunning 48-24 upset of Boston College. One big takeaway from the staff, many of whom had never worked with Les Miles, was Miles’ maniacal dedication to recruiting. The coaches commented they’d never seen a head coach spend as much time on the phone with recruits, and Miles’ charisma and name recognition translates.

Kansas has 26 commitments for the 2020 class and is ranked 25th nationally by Rivals.com. That ranking will inevitably slip because quantity of recruits impacts the rankings and others will fill up. But the point is that Miles came with an aggressive recruiting plan, selling playing time, the Big 12 and his pedigree of success. “It’s an opportunity to play on a team that’s coming and make a difference,” Miles told Yahoo.

Kansas has a talented young tailback in Pooka Williams, who ran for 121 yards against BC and will likely be an attractive transfer landing spot. “The Jayhawks are coming,” Miles said. “It’s realistic we can be a great program with quality football teams year after year.”

Pat Forde contributed to this story from Bloomington, Ind., and Josh Schafer from Syracuse, N.Y.

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