Clay Helton, dressed in a gray suit and a cardinal tie, stood over the podium in an auditorium of the McKay Center. He had finished prepared remarks at his introductory news conference two years ago this week.
Helton, who had been named USC’s permanent coach earlier in the day, gushed about the opportunity, what he later referred to as his dream job, before changing the subject.
“With that, this is a big week for us,” Helton said, “and I really need to get back to that film room.”
The crowd cracked up.
A Pac-12 championship game against Stanford awaited his team five days later.
The Trojans are back in the big game and aiming to become the first Pac-12 South team to take home the conference crown. #FightOn pic.twitter.com/eh4Xk2mnuk
— USC Trojans (@USC_Athletics) November 30, 2017
Players then were overjoyed that Helton, after seven weeks as their interim coach in place of the fired Steve Sarkisian, had been retained, and many of them saw the title game as their chance to prove USC’s administrators had made the right decision on a full-time replacement.
“We were head over heels for him,” safety Chris Hawkins, “and at the same time, we didn’t come out and perform like we wanted to.”
The Trojans ultimately suffered a 41-22 loss to the Cardinal, who were led by four touchdowns from Heisman Trophy runner-up Christian McCaffrey.
Some regret still lingers.
“We don’t want that feeling again,” USC junior running back Ronald Jones said.
In a way, USC has arrived at its full-circle moment. It faces Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game for a second time Friday night, a chance to take its next step as a program. Despite a second straight 10-win season, it has not won a conference title since 2008, when it was still the Pac-10.
COLLEGE FOOTBALL: A look back at conference title rematch history
“Anytime we go 10-2, it’s a great start,” linebacker Cameron Smith said. “We’re where we want to be, and in the end, we came here to play for Pac-12 championships. So we’ve got a lot of goals we need to take care of. We’ve fought through a lot of stuff. This is going to be the result of our season.”
Entering this season, the Trojans were considered contenders to reach the College Football Playoff, a goal that now appears extremely remote, but they believe a Pac-12 title would be a clear indication of their improvement, especially compared to when they last took the field in Santa Clara. USC is No. 10 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings, with Stanford at No. 12.
“We’re really going to show how much progress we’ve made in two years,” Hawkins said.
WHEN USC HAS THE BALL
There were several factors that went into the Trojans ending the regular season on a four-game winning streak.
Players often said they played more freely without the weight of the lofty preseason expectations. Jones pieced together his most productive stretch as a USC tailback. Their defense had almost half of its nation-leading 41 sacks during the final month too.
But Sam Darnold, the Trojans’ star quarterback, also put together his best string of games this season, looking like the Heisman Trophy favorite he was billed to be in August.
Darnold threw for 1,170 yards and seven touchdowns with a 63 percent completion percentage and just two interceptions in the final four games, shaking off an uneven start to the season.
We won the division. We own the city. Now, it’s time to claim the conference.#FightOn | #BeatTheFarm pic.twitter.com/9CJPmDdbQP
— USC Trojans (@USC_Athletics) December 1, 2017
“I didn’t see a lot of difference from what Sam was doing from last year to this year,” Helton said. “I thought he was making good decisions, maybe forcing a ball once in a while, but from the quarterback play, the development of guys around him has elevated our offense.”
Helton and others pointed to receivers Tyler Vaughns, a redshirt freshman, and Michael Pittman, a sophomore, for adding capable targets to the passing game. The underclassmen caught four of Darnold’s seven scoring tosses during the four-game winning streak.
WATCH: Who had the best uniforms in college football in 2017?
“Everybody’s clicking and gelling,” receiver Deontay Burnett said, “so help from everybody is helping Sam.”
The Trojans averaged more than 40 points per game over the final month, but Stanford has been tough simultaneously. Its defense holds opponents to 21 points per game, second in the Pac-12, and 390 yards per game, fifth in the conference.
WHEN STANFORD HAS THE BALL
For USC’s defense, the memories of the 2015 Pac-12 title game remain stark because of McCaffrey, who broke Barry Sanders’ single-season record for all-purpose yards with 461 against them.
“We got embarrassed,” Hawkins said. “And I think everybody on our defense knows that. We almost handed one person the Heisman that day.”
McCaffrey is no longer in Stanford’s backfield, leaving for the NFL after last season. But there is another Heisman Trophy candidate, Bryce Love, a junior who has rushed for 1,848 yards and 16 touchdowns while hobbled by a gimpy ankle for the second half of the regular season.
“Gotta work for it.” Get your mind right tonight with our team highlight before we play for the Pac-12 Championship. #GoStanford #BeatSC
(watch the whole video for a bonus #Pac12FCG trailer) pic.twitter.com/Ci5nql2DEL
— Stanford Football (@StanfordFball) December 1, 2017
In the Trojans’ 42-24 victory over Stanford in the teams’ Pac-12 Conference opener in September, they limited the damage by Love, who gained 160 yards on 17 carries, but much of that came on an early 75-yard touchdown run.
Love is not as versatile as McCaffrey and is not used on kickoff or punt returns like his predecessor, but he is as capable as a running back. Hawkins considers patience one of Love’s best attributes, which is especially evident on pitch plays.
SCORES: Follow every conference championship game and more action in Week 14
“Usually you get pitches to the outside,” Hawkins said. “They pitch it backward and let him use his eyes and put his footwork to good use. He’s back there, patient, watching for holes, things like that, and if you’re not in your hole, he’s going to find it.”
That leads to big plays, too.
King in the North
Pac-12 North champion Stanford is one of only three schools to win a Power Five division title times in the past years (Alabama, Wisconsin). #GoStanford pic.twitter.com/2acDlZJmQn
— Stanford Football (@StanfordFball) December 1, 2017
Love has had a run of 50 yards or more in 11 consecutive games, an FBS record.
And as Stanford has shaken off its 1-2 start, it has found help for Love too.
Quarterback K.J. Costello, who took over for Keller Chryst, has gone 4-1 as the starter during Stanford’s late-season surge, which includes wins over No. 13 Washington and No. 15 Notre Dame. It was Chryst who started against the Trojans in their previous meeting.
“Earlier in the year, everything ran through Bryce Love and a talented offensive line,” Helton said. “Here lately, K.J. has done a really nice job of stepping in and making the most of his opportunity and really protecting the football while hitting explosive plays down the field.”