by Garry Paskwietz
This game was a stunner because it should not have turned out this way.
The Trojans lost 31-27 to Utah on a night that will be remembered for a defensive collapse that featured three long scoring drives for the Utes in the second half, including a final 15-play, 93-yard drive for the go-ahead touchdown with 16 seconds left to play.
There were also three first-half fumbles by the offense, a pair of costly penalties (illegal man downfield vs Mama, pass interference against Marshall) and a puzzling decision to not give any carries to Justin Davis in the fourth quarter despite him rushing for 126 yards on 10 carries to that point in the game.
The loss drops the Trojans to 1-3 on the season, and it was the first time in 84 games that USC had lost a game when they led by 10 points or more in the fourth quarter. It should not have turned out that way.
Because if the Trojans had found a way to make that one play that could have been the difference in winning this game, it would have been remembered for so much more. It would have been remembered as the night that Sam Darnold gave hope to a USC program that sorely needed it.
There were certainly plenty of reasons for it not to be a successful debut for Sam as a starter. On the road, against a quality defense in a hostile environment, some wet weather and a trio of fumbles on the first three USC possessions of the game (including one by Darnold himself). Not exactly the way to announce yourself as the next great Trojan signal-caller, but then something interesting happened.
Instead of being shaken by the turnovers, Darnold just kept on attacking. There was an early strike to JuJu Smith-Schuster, a flick of the wrist beautiful throw to Steven Mitchell. There were designed runs where Darnold bulled his way into the end zone, and conversions where he completed a fastball to Darreus Rogers and escaped to find Tyler Petite. But more than any of that, it was the energy, excitement and life that he brought to the offense.
Suddenly the offense was running the ball with an unbalanced line, the ball was being spread around to different receivers (five different Trojans caught a pass of at least 16 yards), and the o-line was blocking admirably against the strength of the Utah defense, their front line. And Darnold, all he did when faced with the adversity of three straight USC fumbles was respond with four straight scoring drives to put USC up 27-17 heading into the final quarter.
Unfortunately, the Trojan defense was unable to hold that lead. After Utah scored to make it 27-24, the Trojans went on a drive of their own and a 32-yard Darnold completion to Rogers got the ball to the 12-yard line. But an illegal man downfield call on Damien Mama brought the ball back to midfield, and USC chose to settle for a punt at the Utes 37-yard line when facing a fourth-and-three. That decision was not without controversy, as many USC fans felt it would have been a time to run Davis, the man who had gained 12 yards a pop on the night, to try and finish things off. Instead, Davis was on the sideline as the coaches decided to stick with their pre-determined tailback rotation, and Helton made the decision to punt.
No matter what you think of the choice to punt, the execution was good as Chris Tilbey pinned the Utes at their own 7-yard line. With less than six minutes to go, 93-yards away from the end zone, things would normally be looking good for SC right about then. But this was a Trojan defense that had just given up two long scoring drives (10 plays, 85 yards, 4:51 and 11 plays, 75 yards, 5:10) as the Utes offense had seen success running the ball early but was now getting it done through the air.
A critical pass interference penalty was called against Iman Marshall when Utah was faced with a 3rd-and-10 from inside their own 10, as a stop right there likely forces a punt and puts the game away. Instead, Utah quarterback Troy Williams is able to sit back and hit three straight first down completions while getting minimal pressure from the Trojans front, and the next thing we know, Adoree’ Jackson is slipping after losing his shoe while his assigned man is catching the game-winning pass.
It was, as noted above, stunning. This one didn’t feel like the earlier losses in the season because this was a close competitive football game (466 total yards for Utah, 456 for USC). It felt for the first time this season that the Trojans were going to catch a break, and would be able to walk out with a 2-2 record and the promise of a swashbuckling new quarterback in Darnold, who completed 18-26 for 253 yards and a touchdown while also rushing 9 times for 46 yards and a score.
The good news is that Darnold will be back in action next week when the Trojans return home to the Coliseum. The bad news is that the Trojans will be sitting with a 1-3 record and it will be a chorus of negative attention surrounding the program all week with questions about Helton and job security, of potentially losing the team and any other drama that can swirl around the McKay Center in situations like these.
We’re certainly familiar with that kind of atmosphere but at least this time there is a different feeling of what’s in store for the future, and that’s because of Darnold. He was really good, can’t wait to see where he takes things.