USC fires head coach Clay Helton two games into seventh season

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LOS ANGELES – Southern California fired football coach Clay Helton on Monday, two games into his seventh season in charge.

Athletic director Mike Bohn made the move two days after an embarrassing 42-28 home loss to Stanford that dropped the Trojans (1-1, 0-1 Pac-12) out of the AP Top 25.

Donte Williams, the Trojans’ cornerbacks coach and associate head coach, is taking over as head coach. Williams, a Los Angeles-area native and the first Black head coach in USC football history, joined the program in 2020 and has played a major role in the Trojans’ significant recruiting advancements over the past two cycles.

USC visits Washington State this weekend for its road opener.

Helton went 46-24 during his improbable tenure in charge of a longtime West Coast college football powerhouse with 11 national championships. The career assistant coach twice took over as USC’s interim head coach before permanently getting his first head coaching job late in the 2015 season.

“Clay is one of the finest human beings I have met in this industry, and he has been a tremendous role model and mentor to our young men,” Bohn said in a statement. “We appreciate his many years of service to our university and wish him nothing but the very best.”

While Helton brought stability to a tumultuous football culture and ran a clean program that inspired loyalty and love from his players, he never won over a significant portion of the Trojans’ vast fan base, even during his early successes. His folksy demeanor didn’t inspire confidence in fans used to Pete Carroll’s intensity, while Helton’s genteel Southern twang and mannerisms always seemed out of place in California.

The Trojans won the Rose Bowl after the 2016 season and the Pac-12 title in 2017 while Sam Darnold was their quarterback, but Helton’s teams otherwise struggled to live up to the sky-high expectations around the USC program.

Helton was 19-14 since the 2017 season, and he repeatedly avoided vocal calls for his dismissal from fans and boosters during that stretch. Bohn replaced Lynn Swann as USC’s athletic director in November 2019, and the school’s aspirations for national title contention ramped up again with major infrastructure additions to all areas of the football program.

“The added resources carried significantly increased expectations for our team’s performance,” Bohn said. “It is already evident that, despite the enhancements, those expectations would not be met without a change in leadership.”

Bohn’s decision means one of the most visible and most powerful jobs in college football is open just three weeks into the new season, and the AD said he is launching his search immediately.

USC fans have been calling for the Trojans to chase three-time national championship coach Urban Meyer, who is only one game into his tenure with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Bohn hired successful Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell when they were both with the Bearcats, while many USC fans admire and covet Iowa State’s Matt Campbell.

Bohn has been on the job for less than two years, but he already has a strong track record on hiring for major jobs that will please Trojans football fans: Four months ago, he persuaded Lindsay Gottlieb to leave the NBA to take charge of the Trojans’ underachieving program even though the successful, decorated former Cal coach wasn’t initially seeking another job.

Helton’s firing finally brings an end to one of the most unlikely head coaching tenures at a premier football program in recent NCAA history.

Helton had been at USC since 2010, when Lane Kiffin hired the former college quarterback as his QBs coach. Helton became the Trojans’ offensive coordinator under both Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian before assuming the head job when Sarkisian was suspended and ultimately fired for alcohol-related misbehavior.

Helton also served as the Trojans’ interim head coach for a victory in the 2013 Las Vegas Bowl when interim coach Ed Orgeron resigned after the full-time job went to Sarkisian instead of Orgeron.

Swann gave a lucrative extension to Helton in 2018 over the objections of many fans. Helton was under contract until 2023.

Helton’s continued employment put a perpetual cloud over the USC program in recent years, with rivals using his tenuous status against the Trojans in recruiting. The coach navigated this treacherous terrain with a smile and consistent optimism, never failing to express his gratitude and appreciation for his position in the sport.

“I love USC, because you know what the standard is? Championships,” Helton said earlier this summer. “You can be at USC and win every game but one, and if it’s the last one, it’s looked at as a bad season. That’s being at a special place. You can have an undefeated regular season and win the Pac-12 championship, and everybody is sad. That’s a special place to be.”

Klubnik, No. 10 Clemson rout No. 24 UNC 39-10 for ACC title

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Backup quarterback Cade Klubnik completed 20 of 24 passes for 279 yards and a touchdown and ran for another score and No. 10 Clemson reclaimed the Atlantic Coast Conference championship with a 39-10 victory over No. 24 North Carolina on Saturday night.

Cornerback Nate Wiggins broke up two passes in the end zone, blocked a field goal and returned an interception 98 yards for a touchdown to help the Tigers win their seventh ACC title in eight seasons.

Clemson (11-2, No. 9 CFP) won six straight ACC championships from 2015 to 2020 before failing to reach the title game last season. But coach Dabo Swinney‘s Tigers rebounded in a big way, going 9-0 against ACC foes this season to reach the Orange Bowl.

They have Klubnik to thank for that.

With Clemson down 7-0, Swinney benched two-year starter D.J. Uiagalelei after the Tigers failed to pick up a first down on their first two possessions, Swinney turned to Klubnik, a 5-star recruit from Austin, Texas. He responded by leading the Tigers to four straight scores and a 24-10 lead at halftime.

Clemson stretched it to 39-10 heading into the fourth quarter.

It wasn’t the first time Swinney has turned to Klubnik.

He benched Uiagalelei in the second half against Syracuse and Klubnik responded by leading the Tigers to a come-from-behind 27-21 victory. Swinney also turned to Klubnik against Notre Dame, although the results were the opposite with the freshman throwing a Pick 6 in a 35-14 loss.

Swinney has never been shy about replacing veteran QBs with less experienced players. He did it in 2014, sitting Cole Stoudt for Deshaun Watson, and again in 2018 replacing Kelly Bryant with Trevor Lawrence.

ACC player of the year Drake Maye was limited to 268 yards passing and turned the ball over three times for North Carolina (9-4, No. 23 CFP), which was seeking its first ACC championship since 1980 when Lawrence Taylor was wreaking havoc on quarterbacks.

Maye got things started on the right foot for the Tar Heels, capping an 11-play, 78-yard drive with a 3-yard touchdown run for a 7-0 lead on UNC’s first possession.

But the Tar Heels repeatedly sputtered on offense inside the red zone after that, the biggest blow coming when Maye misfired near the goal line and Wiggins – who had struggled in Clemson’s 51-45 win over Wake Forest – returned his pass for a touchdown to give Clemson a 32-10 lead with 5:05 left in the third quarter.

Klubnik provided an immediate spark for Clemson.

He led the Tigers on a nine-play, 71-yard drive, culminating in a 1-yard TD pass to Davis Allen. After Maye’s fumble, Klubnik caught a 19-yard pass from Phil Mafah to set up Mafah’s 4-yard touchdown run – Clemson’s second TD in a span of 40 seconds.

Klubnik then showed off his arm strength with a 68-yard pass to fellow freshman Cole Turner to set up his own 1-yard TD run for a 21-7 lead.

END OF AN ERA

This is the final year the ACC will feature its two division winners playing for a championship. In future years, all ACC teams will be lumped together and the two teams with the best records will advance to the title game.

THE TAKEAWAY

North Carolina: Maye garnered plenty of Heisman Trophy talk during the season, but the Tar Heels offense has stalled resulting in a three-game losing streak. But as long as Maye doesn’t transfer – and there are no indications he will given his family history at North Carolina – the Tar Heels have a good chance to get back to the ACC title game next season.

Clemson: The Tigers have set a high bar by winning national championships, so as much as they will enjoy getting back atop the ACC mountain there will be plenty of talk over whether Swinney cost his team a chance at a spot in the College Football Playoff by not turning to Klubnik at quarterback earlier in the season. It seems Uiagalelei might be a logical transfer portal candidate.

UP NEXT

Clemson will play in the Orange Bowl, while North Carolina awaits a bowl bid.

Pratt accounts for 5 TDs, Tulane tops UCF 45-28 to win AAC

Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports
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NEW ORLEANS – As Tulane receiver Shae Wyatt watched jubilant fans streaming onto the field, he couldn’t help but reflect upon how far his team had come since finishing last season 2-10.

“It’s definitely surreal,” said Wyatt, whose two touchdown catches were no small part of why a celebratory scene so hard to conceive of a year ago was unfolding around him. “Seeing all the other schools with their success, and having their fans storm the field – eventually, everybody wants that.”

Michael Pratt accounted for 442 total yards and five touchdowns, Tyjae Spears highlighted his 199 yards rushing with a 60-yard score and No. 18 Tulane beat No. 22 UCF 45-28 on Saturday night in the American Athletic Conference championship game.

The victory virtually assured Tulane (11-2) would play in the Cotton Bowl – its first major New Year’s Day bowl since the 1939 season.

A full hour after the game, Tulane players were still in uniform, walking back to the field from the locker room to pose for photos with teammates, some with cigars in hand. Spears joked that his elbow was sore from fans pulling on him for a congratulatory embrace.

“It was an amazing feeling, man,” Spears said. “That’s something that will stick with us for the rest of our life.”

And Wyatt suggested that Tulane’s remarkable turnaround should serve as a lesson.

“They were just throwing dirt over us and for a while it was hard to bounce back,” Wyatt said of last season, during which Tulane was displaced by Hurricane Ida to a Birmingham hotel for a month, and plagued with injuries to prominent players.

“If you keep your faith and you believe in your brothers that are next to you, flowers will grow. I promise you,” Wyatt said. “I hope this is a testament to anybody out there.”

Pratt passed for a career-high 394 yards, including touchdowns of 73 yards to Duece Watts, 60 and 10 yards to Wyatt and 43 yards to Lawrence Keys. Pratt also ran for a pivotal 18-yard touchdown with 4:04 left.

“It was awesome to close out that game and have those fans so fired up,” said Pratt, named the game’s most outstanding player.

Spears electrified the record crowd of 30,118 at Tulane’s cozy, on-campus Yulman Stadium with his long scoring run, on which he broke two tackles near the line of scrimmage, made two other defenders miss and hurndled his own fallen teammate after cutting back inside.

The Green Wave, which earned the right to host the title game by ending Cincinnati’s 32-game home winning streak last weekend, avenged a 38-31 regular-season loss to UCF (9-4) on the same field on Nov. 12.

But UCF was not quite the same team because of QB John Rhys Plumlee‘s nagging hamstring injury, which appeared to rob him of the explosiveness he displayed by running for 176 yards in the previous meeting.

Plumlee struggled enough early on that coach Gus Malzahn pulled him in the second quarter in favor of Thomas Castellanos. But with Tulane up 24-7 in the middle of the third quarter, Malzahn put Plumlee back in as primarily a passer – and he nearly led the Kights all the way back.

“He’s one of the toughest players I think I’ve ever coached,” Malzahn said. “John Rhys just kept telling me, `Coach, give me another chance.’ … He really gave us a spark.”

Plumlee led UCF quickly for a touchdown to make it 24-14, converting a fourth-and-10 pass along the way and capping the drive with a 17-yarder to Kobe Hudson.

“You work all year to play in a game like this,” said Plumlee, who completed 29 of 39 for 209 yards and one TD, but finished with minus-7 yards rushing as Tulane had six sacks. “I didn’t want to sell myself short or sell this team short.”

Tulane responded when both UCF safeties froze on a play-fake to Spears and Pratt found Watts running free behind the defense.

UCF cut it to 31-21 when former Virginia QB RJ Harvey took a backward pass from Plumlee and launched a 49-yard TD pass to Hudson.

And the Knights got the ball right back when Spears fumbled after a catch on the Green Wave 30. Isaiah Bowser‘s 10-yard run shortly after got UCF as close as 31-28 with 9:48 still left.

But Pratt again found a way to lead the Wave down the field, connecting with Wyatt for the longer of the receiver’s two TDs, and UCF didn’t threaten again.

THE TAKEAWAY

UCF: Knights sophomore backup QB Mikey Keene, who had come in after Plumlee injuries for comeback victories over Cincinnati and South Florida, did not dress for the game. That allowed him to retain a year of eligibility, but also raised questions over whether he might test the transfer portal.

Tulane: It was a dream end to week that got off to a less-than-ideal start with reports out of Atlaata that head coach Willie Fritz being pursued by Georgia Tech.

“Well, I sure am glad I stayed,” Fritz said. “I made a commitment to these kids and the last thing I ever wanted to be was a distraction. So, I’m just proud to be here.”

UP NEXT

UCF: Awaits a bowl bid on Sunday.

Tulane: Heads to its most significant bowl appearance since losing 14-13 to Texas A&M in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 1940.