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USC’s Helton pushes for better practices to end losing skid

September 18, 2018

FILE - In this Sept. 2, 2017, file photo, Southern California head coach Clay Helton yells to his team during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Western Michigan, in Los Angeles. Southern California running back Aca'Cedric Ware let loose after the 37-14 loss at Texas on Saturday, lamenting poor practice habits and a lack of offensive leadership in consecutive blowout losses. When the Trojans returned to practice Monday night, Sept. 17, 2018, it looked as if coach Clay Helton had taken Ware's words to heart. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Southern California running back Aca’Cedric Ware let loose after the 37-14 loss at Texas on Saturday, lamenting poor practice habits and a lack of offensive leadership in consecutive blowout losses.

When the Trojans returned to practice Monday night, it looked as if coach Clay Helton had taken Ware’s words to heart. The normally mild-mannered Helton used a few choice expletives to punctuate his speech after practice. Ware felt it was exactly what USC needs to keep its season from spiraling out of control.

“We need a coach like that, a coach that’s going to get on our tails when we aren’t doing it right,” the senior said. “I feel like that just motivates us to get better.”

USC (1-2, 0-1 Pac-12) has plenty of problems to address before hosting undefeated Washington State on Friday night. It ranks among the bottom 20 FBS teams nationally in average scoring (20 points), rushing (109.33 yards) and tackles for loss allowed (7.83). However, players and coaches couldn’t identify one common thread responsible for those issues.

Inexperience might be the simplest explanation for USC starting 1-2 for the second time in three seasons. Quarterback Sam Darnold, running back Ronald Jones II and wide receiver Deontay Burnett each entered the NFL draft early. USC had to replace its leading passer, rusher and receiver for the first time since the 1977 season.

Freshman quarterback JT Daniels believes the offense is “very close” to unlocking its full potential.

“There’s a lot of things that when we watch film we’re really annoyed about and upset,” Daniels said. “If only that one guy did that one thing on that one play, you know.”

With that in mind, Helton is not making wholesale changes before facing the 3-0 Cougars. Instead, he’s stressing the need for better practices to avoid critical breakdowns during games. Resisting the urge to give into panic, Helton said, is what has allowed USC to overcome slow starts in each of his first two seasons as head coach.

“The one thing that I’ve learned in 24 years of coaching is your kids are going to react how you react,” Helton said. “If you don’t show leadership, if you don’t show that, ‘Hey, we understand exactly what the situation is. We understand the issues. Here’s how to fix them. Now let’s go get our jaw set and let’s go do it.’ If you don’t provide that leadership, they are not going to do it.”

Ware said the message had seemingly taken hold, which is critical with one less day to prepare for Washington State.

″(Monday) was a lot better,” Ware said. “It seemed like everybody came with a chip on their shoulder.”

Offensive coordinator Tee Martin compared the Cougars defense to that of the Longhorns, a group which had 10 1/2 tackles for loss and held the Trojans to -5 yards rushing on 16 carries. USC will try to replicate the multiple fronts and zone blitzes the offense might see on Friday night.

“Just like last week, with the multitude of pressures and different looks and the stemming up front and movement up front, just try to recreate that in practice as best you can,” Martin said. ”(Practice) was detailed. It was really good, one of the best we have had in a while, so with practices like that we can be better prepared.”

Helton implored his players to keep it up all week. Ware agreed with his coach.

“We can’t have no slacking, no laziness,” Ware said. “Washington State is a great team, so we know in order to beat them and continue on our plan to win the Pac-12, we’ve got to continue to get better and that comes with the practices.”

NOTES: S Isaiah Pola-Mao (shoulder) will have season-ending surgery on Thursday, Helton said. Pola-Mao sustained the injury in the 17-3 loss at Stanford, which left USC with three scholarship safeties available against Texas.

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