LOS ANGELES — Perhaps owing to Trojan mythology, few in college football can manage a good bloodletting the way the University of Southern California can.
One coach, Lane Kiffin, was pulled off the team bus and fired in an airport parking lot. Another, Steve Sarkisian, went straight from getting axed to a rehab center. And John Robinson, in what seems quaint now, returned home from Christmas shopping to find a message on his answering machine informing him that he was no longer the team’s coach.
As the Trojans opened their season on Saturday night, it was with a distinct feeling that Clay Helton, their latest beleaguered coach, was operating above a trap door. The same was true of the university’s athletic director, Lynn Swann.
A 31-23 victory over Fresno State did little to change that.
From the moment Swann announced last November that, to the dismay of many U.S.C. fans, Helton would return after a 5-7 season, the football program underwent the type of overhaul that was supposed to mirror the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum’s $315 million renovation.
The Trojans ditched any remnants of Student Body Right, recasting the offense by hiring Kliff Kingsbury as offensive coordinator — and then when Kingsbury left for the N.F.L. less than a month later, bringing on another Air Raid protégé, Graham Harrell. Helton also fired the strength and conditioning coach, promising not just a more fit team, but a more disciplined one, too.
“When you have a season that’s 5-7, you own it,” Helton said last week. “You own exactly what needs to be fixed and don’t put your head in the sand.”
The burnishing lasted all of one play.
When Velus Jones returned the opening kickoff 64 yards, it was nullified by a walking-into-a-lamppost-like penalty: The Trojans had two players wearing No. 7 on the field at the same time. By the end of the night, U.S.C. had committed four turnovers and made a number of dubious coaching decisions, but it was spared the ignominy of blowing an 18-point, second-half lead when safety Isaiah Pola-Mao pulled down a brilliant interception in the end zone with less than two minutes left.
“We’ve got a lot to do, a lot to fix before the next game,” Helton said afterward.
At the top of the to-do list is quarterback. The sophomore J.T. Daniels, the only quarterback on the roster to have started a game, was on crutches and in street clothes by the end of the night, having crumpled to the turf with a right knee injury late in the second quarter. On Sunday night, Helton said that Daniels had torn his anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus and would be out for the season.
The injury puts the offense in the unproven hands of Kedon Slovis, an 18-year-old freshman. The prospect of that left Helton mulling whether to ask Jack Sears — a junior who played admirably in last season’s 38-35 loss to Arizona State in his only career start — to return after Sears entered the transfer portal last week as a reaction to dropping from second to fourth on the depth chart.
While it’s perhaps unfortunate that U.S.C. may be left with a greenhorn quarterback after transforming its offense to take advantage of Daniels’s arm and a strong receiver corps, it is also in keeping with how the Trojans under Helton have been a program defined by a lone player — their quarterback. When Sam Darnold was elevated to starter as a freshman, he took the team to a Rose Bowl win and a Pac-12 title in two seasons. When Helton has had anyone else at quarterback, the Trojans are 12-13.
More is expected at U.S.C.
But it is now 10 years since Pete Carroll returned to the N.F.L. The days of star-studded teams, a rollicking Coliseum crowd and the Trojans commanding a national stage seem like an epoch ago. The crowd on Saturday night, announced at 57,329, was the smallest home opener since Carroll’s first game, in 2001.
“Comeback mode,” Swann said last week, describing the state of the program in an interview in his office. “No one’s happy, certainly for any program with a 5-7 season, and certainly not here at U.S.C.”
Swann, who extended Helton’s contract through 2023 in advance of last season, said the players and coaches became too complacent last year. He brought in Tom Moore, Peyton Manning’s longtime offensive coordinator in Indianapolis, to evaluate the offense.
But Swann said he brought Helton back because there has been so much recent upheaval — the Trojans have had three head coaches and two interim coaches in the previous six years — and Helton, who had never been a head coach before being hired by the previous athletic director Pat Haden, needed time to grow.
“You’ve got to give people a chance to execute their game plan, get their people in and make it work,” Swann said. “That’s where we are with Clay. It would be great if you hired the coach, everything the coach needed was in place, and they won instantly and it took off. It doesn’t normally happen that way.”
Whether Swann will be in position to make a change is uncertain.
The athletic department has been the subject of two F.B.I. investigations since Swann took over more than three years ago — Tony Bland, a men’s basketball assistant coach, pleaded guilty to bribery in a corruption case, and a top administrator, the water polo coach and two others connected to the department were snared in a nationwide academic admissions scandal. The university is conducting an internal investigation in the latter case.
Ultimately, Swann’s fate is in the hands of the university’s new president, Carol Folt, who was hired in March after a series of scandals involving top administrators at the university.
“Carol’s certainly coming in with an agenda and what she wants to get done,” Swann said. “That explanation will grow and refine itself over a period of time. Everyone — every dean, every department — is adjusting to that new leadership.”
Swann danced around a question that Folt is surely considering: How much should an athletic director have been responsible for what the Feds have uncovered?
“People always ask that question,” Swann said. “Look, I’m the athletic director when it occurred. I’ll take responsibility for fixing the problems in terms of what went on and that’s it.”
Swann noted that the admissions scheme — in which the senior woman administrator, Donna Heinel, was a central figure — had been going on since at least 2013 and involved other colleges as well, though no university’s involvement has been as extensive as U.S.C.’s.
Folt may be weighing all this, and perhaps that the Trojans have excelled in other areas — five teams have won national championships in Swann’s tenure. But it is hard not to figure that football, as it always has at U.S.C., carries an enormous weight. That renovation at the Coliseum, after all, came with a bank of suites that must be filled to finance it, and donors’ wallets are looser when they like what they see on the field.
The crisis of confidence in the direction of the program was hardly eased on Saturday night.
Facing a fourth-and-1 at the Fresno State 44 with 2 minutes 44 seconds remaining, Helton declined to punt because his defense — which was supposed to be in better shape — was gassed. Instead, he called a timeout and planned to hand the ball to running back Vavae Malepeai, who had been stuffed on third-and-1. But Slovis and Malepeai clattered into each other and the Trojans turned the ball over on downs.
After Pola-Mao’s game-saving interception, even the act of taking a knee was not simple.
Helton placed Slovis in the shotgun instead of under center because the Trojans never practice direct snaps. On the snap, Slovis bobbled the ball before clutching it and dropping to a knee — a play that made a few hearts skip in what remained of the crowd, and also embodied how tenuous a grasp Helton, and Swann, seem to have on their jobs.