Two days after USC suffered its first loss of the season, Coach Clay Helton regretted a field goal attempt.
When outside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu tipped and picked off a pass by Washington State quarterback Luke Falk early in the second quarter, the Trojans’ offense took possession just 3 yards from the end zone.
It never crossed the goal line.
Running backs Ronald Jones and Stephen Carr were each stuffed at the line of scrimmage. On second-and-goal, quarterback Sam Darnold’s quick back-shoulder fade to freshman tight end Josh Falo was almost intercepted.
“It proved extremely costly,” Helton said.
The Trojans’ margin of defeat on Friday night was three points, and the goal-line series netted a field goal instead of seven points, which would have ultimately made up the difference.
But the drive also remained an illustrative snapshot of some of USC’s recent offensive struggles.
Over the past two weeks, the Trojans have hit a snag.
In a win at Cal, they finished with 356 total yards, then 327 total yards at Washington State, both marking lows in the 15 games that Darnold has started at quarterback.
Asked Sunday evening what he thought primarily ailed the offense, Helton said, “A little bit has to do with just being a little more effective in certain situations.”
He pointed to third downs. The Trojans converted 2 of 11 attempts against the Cougars, though they were assuredly hurt by the fact they faced an average distance of more than 9 yards on third downs. Still, being unable to convert ended drives. They needed to pick up more first downs.
“That produces more plays, more throws and more opportunities,” Helton said.
When in the red zone, they twice settled for field goals, too. Through five games, 13 of their 21 trips inside the 20-yard line have resulted in touchdowns, a mark of less than 62 percent, ranking 64th among the 130 FBS teams.
Faced with some unexpected stumbles by the once-vaunted offense, Helton promised few significant changes.
“As a head coach, you can do one of two things,” he said. “If you have a failure or a loss, you can panic and try to scrap everything, or you can believe in the men that surround you.”
Helton said he believed USC’s offense would also improve in time as it grew healthier.
The Trojans were without three of their starters on the offensive line for much of the game against Washington State, thrusting a pair of true freshmen into the starting group.
Outside of an 86-yard touchdown run by…