Clay Helton is an optimist.
Sunday evening, just 24 hours after his USC football team came from behind for a 34-30 win at Arizona, the sixth-year Trojans head coach addressed local reporters. Helton was asked about the possibility of playing the University of Utah.
Keep in mind, for the second week in a row, the Utes had their season opener canceled because of a COVID-19 outbreak. The Utes didn’t have enough players to meet the Pac-12′s 53-player threshold. More specifically, Utah announced Friday that there are 17 people in the football program that have COVID-19, plus another 11 in quarantine as a result of contact tracing.
Helton knew all of this. Furthermore, Utes athletic director Mark Harlan offered nothing firm on the USC game, only saying the football program would administer antigen and PCR tests over the weekend before deciding how to proceed.
“I’m hoping we get the opportunity to have a chance to compete with Utah,” Helton said. “It looks like it’s headed in that direction. Let’s say our prayers and hopefully both teams will stay safe and stay trending toward the same direction.”
USC football has had little, if any COVID-19 trouble. On Monday, the Trojans athletic department announced two positive cases over the past week, neither person is on the football team.
Later Monday, an athletic department spokesman told The Salt Lake Tribune that the football team practiced in the afternoon. That bit of news would seem to indicate that testing on Saturday and Sunday went well, or at least well enough to plow forward.
One might deduce that the Utah athletic department has its COVID-19 outbreak under control. Things already seemed headed that way after Harlan said Friday that the football program registered zero positive tests Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, before having one on Friday.
That one positive Friday test, and the contact tracing that came along with it, cost Utah the UCLA game, but one positive test in the four-day span should be considered a gigantic win following an outbreak.
So, for the third Monday in a row, Utah arrived at a game week, attempting to start a season that has been delayed or entirely called off close to a half-dozen times. From strictly a football standpoint, the Utes' season-opening opponent keeps getting tougher.
The original Nov. 7 season-opening opponent was Arizona, picked to finish last in the Pac-12 South and viewed as a good way to ease in for Utah, which is replacing nearly its entire defense, while breaking in a new quarterback.
Once that got canceled, do-everything junior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson and the Bruins were next and now, with that cancellation, Utah gets to open against USC. On the surface, the Trojans appear as expected, 2-0 and standing as the co-leader in the South Division, but they have often looked sloppy, if not unimpressive in stealing their opener vs. Arizona State, then having to drive down the field at the end to beat Arizona.
“I still think there’s a lot to play for,” Harlan said Friday. “There’s a USC team coming in next week that we’re going to do everything we can to turn this thing around, and we have games after that. We don’t know how many games are going to be played in our conference. We’re certainly rooting for everyone to play every week, believe me. I still believe, as I sit here, there’s a lot to play for, we just have to get this virus out of our program to be able to participate.”