SANTA CLARA — A few days before USC claimed a Pac-12 Conference championship with a 31-28 victory over Stanford, Chris Hawkins grew irritated.
He had read a post on Twitter from a fan suggesting Coach Clay Helton be fired for an underachieving season.
“I almost had a heart attack,” Hawkins said.
Hawkins, a senior safety for the Trojans, fired off a tweet of his own in response, before second thoughts.
“I think I had to delete what I said,” Hawkins said. “But don’t come at my coach.”
In a flush of celebration Friday night, Hawkins sat at his locker room stall in the bowels of Levi’s Stadium. Jubilation surrounded him. A whiff of cigar smoke lingered. Players posed nearby for photos with the conference championship trophy. Music reverberated.
A reporter asked Hawkins how he would respond to such fan complaints made throughout this season. He paused for a second.
“They should be on their knees praying, begging for forgiveness for what they were saying,” Hawkins said. “But I think the Trojan fans are pretty happy right now.”
It was USC’s first conference championship since 2008, the capstone of a second consecutive 10-win season under Helton.
But the Trojans entered this season with expectations of reaching the College Football Playoff for the first time, starting at No. 4 in the Associated Press poll, leading to fan frustration amid hiccups along the way. They lost at Washington State and at Notre Dame during a middle stretch of the season and avoided other close calls. While their victory over Stanford in the conference title game was their fifth straight, it was also among four wins by less than a touchdown.
“When we come to a place like ‘SC, fans have high expectations,” running back Ronald Jones said after the game. “And we do ourselves.”
Jones considered their season “definitely a success,” pointing out that it was also the program’s first conference championship of the post-sanctions era.
The win was unlikely to catapult the Trojans (11-2) into the playoff when the four-team field is released Sunday. Last week, USC was No. 10 in the selection committee’s rankings and would need to make an unprecedented climb to No. 4. The Trojans are most likely to land in the Dec. 30 Fiesta Bowl, among the New Year’s Six bowl games. The Rose Bowl is a playoff semifinal game this season.
Nonetheless, players stated their case.
“We’re Pac-12 champs,” tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe said. “I don’t know what…