Clay Helton needs a big finish. Oh boy, does he need a big finish.

Staggering and wobbling his way through unimpressive victories against Pac-12 lightweights Arizona and Colorado, he is about to close out the regular season against conference heavyweights Oregon and UCLA.

In order to establish himself as a strong candidate to become USC’s new full-time head coach, he not only needs to win both of these final two games, he has to do it impressively.

This is not to say it can’t be done, but based on the way the Trojans performed the past two weeks, the odds certainly seem stacked against him.

Hey, don’t get me wrong. There are many things Helton has done right in his short time as the interim head coach. He has focused on becoming a more physical team. He has paid strong attention to the defense in practice, something neither of the two previous full-time head coaches seemed interested in doing. And he has generally won over most of the players with his refreshingly genuine personality.

But none of that will matter if USC dispenses the same kind of long, stagnant periods of play against Oregon and UCLA that it featured against Arizona and Colorado.

What in the world was going on there in the first half at Boulder, anyway? The hometown Buffs have one of the worst rushing defenses in the country, and the Trojans couldn’t run a lick in the first 30 minutes. Colorado’s quarterback and inspirational leader Sefo Liufau was knocked out of the game with an injury, and Cade Apsay, a lightly played freshman, still managed to lead the Buffaloes to a 17-3 lead.

USC’s defense, in general, and senior tackle Delvon Simmons, in particular, bounced back to turn the game around, and Helton’s kids opened up a 27-17 lead. But Colorado scored again midway through the fourth quarter, and a Trojans team that was favored by 16 1/2 points barely hung on to win, 27-24.

If there were a poll trying to gauge the hopefuls in the race to become USC’s next head coach, Helton’s numbers would have gone down drastically.

At this point, you have to question his ability to have his athletes ready to play. They have fallen behind in all of their past four games. They were behind 11 points early to Arizona and 14 points late in the second quarter at Boulder.

If Helton recognized the problem two weeks ago, it is a major concern that he couldn’t come close to fixing it six days later.

You get down 11 or 14 points early to Oregon or UCLA, and you can say good night. And basically goodbye to any chance of retaining the head coaching job.

You know Athletic Director Pat Haden was watching closely on television Friday night. Not that it will matter if there is any truth to the persistent rumors emanating from the campus athletic offices in the past week or two.

Talk of Haden stepping down because of persistent health problems continues, and the fact that he hasn’t been present at any of the team’s most recent games only fuels the speculation.

Either way, the suspense thickens at USC, and Helton remains squarely in the middle of it all.

“Hey, I’m having the time of my life,” he said after the Arizona game a week ago. And he probably is. It has to be fun being promoted from a relatively faceless assistant into the celebrated role of USC head coach.

He certainly has plenty of people rooting for him at the moment. The players obviously like him. A good share of the fans, who are often be the most fickle of critics, would prefer to see him keep the job. And he has even won over his share of the media who enjoy the kind of honest, straightforward approach that seemed to be missing before.

Two more victories, one or both captured in resounding fashion. That’s all it would take.

Too bad it isn’t as easy as it sounds.

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