The Trojans beat Arizona 49-35 on Saturday and it was a game that followed a familiar up-and-down path of USC football season, and it also resulted in a victory that puts the team closer to a spot in the Pac-12 title game.
By virtue of the win, USC needs a victory next week against Colorado (2-5, 5-5 overall) to insure a spot in the championship game regardless of what would happen the following week against UCLA.
Getting the victory over Arizona, however, was not as easy as the score might indicate.
In the first half things looked pretty good. The Trojan defense was doing a fantastic job slowing Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate, who only had 19 net rushing yards on 12 attempts, and 5 completions out of 12 attempts for 37 passing yards. That certainly wasn’t supposed to be the narrative for Tate who was coming off 4-straight conference player of the week honors, and was coming to play in front of his hometown crowd (Serra). There really wasn’t a point in the first half where Tate really threatened the SC defense, and guys like John Houston, Jordan Iosefa and Uchenna Nwosu were leading the way with a front that was widened to force Tate inside, and the Arizona QB was struggling.
Meanwhile the USC offense was doing some good things even if it felt like they could have done more. A beautifully executed first drive full of strong running got stalled and turned over on downs, a 98-yard Ronald Jones touchdown run got called back due to penalty and Sam Darnold threw an interception from the Arizona one-yard line. But there was also a Michael Pittman blocked punt that was returned for a score by Jalen Greene, some terrific running by Ware on the drive to get the ball to the one before the Darnold pick, and a pair of TD throws from Darnold to Tyler Vaughns (22 yards) and Steven Mitchell (27 yards). It resulted in a 21-6 halftime lead, and some fan reaction about Ware’s outward emotion when a pass play was called after he had accumulated 74 yards on the drive, an outburst that certainly could have tipped the play to Arizona but I also understand the thought of allowing him to finish that drive off.
So the third quarter starts and the Trojans get what appeared to be a quick stop but an unsportsmanlike penalty is called after the 3rd down play on Ajene Harris and Jackie Jones, and the Wildcats put together a drive that is eventually stopped by an Iosefa strip of Tate, but not before a penalty is called on Clay Helton for coming on the field to protest the initial non-call of a fumble. The penalties ended up being a real issue for the Trojans (6 were called on USC in first half, 6 in the 3rd Q alone) and it seemed to take some energy out of the team and the fans, and gave it to Tate and the Arizona offense. Suddenly they were using some misdirection, some reverses, getting Tate outside to show his skills, and before you knew it the score was tied with 8:30 left in the game.
And that’s when it became closing time, and Sam Darnold and the Trojan run game took over. Darnold was 6-7 for 94 yards and led 3 TD drives in the final quarter while USC ran the ball 18 times for 169 yards and 3 TD’s. Helton has talked many times about wanting the Trojans to be able to run the ball to close out games and that’s certainly what happened here. By the end of the day RoJo had 27 carries for 194 yards and 3 TD’s, and he also went over the 1,000-yard mark for the second straight year (the first Trojan to do so since LenDale White). Ware added 122 yards on 14 carries. There was also a timely interception by Houston to help finish the game, which happened to be the best one Houston has played as a Trojan (team-leading 10 tackles). Kudos to Iosefa as well, in his first game at a new position against a QB as talented as Tate and he had 8 tackles, a forced fumble and a sack.
The Trojans face Colorado on Saturday, November 11th at 1 p.m. on Fox.