Following a decade in which USC won two national championships and went to five Rose Bowls in six seasons, the years from 2010-2019 unquestionably served as a dip for the USC Trojans. The decade began with Pete Carroll leaving USC for the Seattle Seahawks and the NCAA hammering the Trojans with sanctions seen as excessive by anybody but the biggest UCLA fans. And it ends with an eight-win season and a thumping at the hands of Iowa in the Holiday Bowl.
In between USC experienced more downs than ups, but there were still plenty of highlights for Trojan fans. Here, WeAreSC takes a look back at the past 10 seasons, including the standouts, superlatives and USC’s All-Decade team.
USC All-Decade Team
Quarterback — Sam Darnold
I have to admit, my first draft of this had Matt Barkley as the All-Decade quarterback. I just couldn’t see a way to leave off the school’s all-time leader in passing yards and passing touchdowns, and whose 2011 season is absolutely in the conversation along with the best run Darnold had at USC. I want to give Barkley credit for steering the ship through sanctions and returning for his senior season, neither of which Darnold did nor needed to do. Still, Darnold set a USC single-season record with 4,143 passing yards in 2017, and while Barkley has the 2011 Oregon game, it doesn’t top Darnold’s performance as a redshirt freshman in the Rose Bowl win against Penn State. Ultimately, after not wanting to consider “what-could-have-been” potential, it’s exactly that reason why the choice is Darnold. Given four years, it would most assuredly be Darnold standing atop USC’s career passing lists, and if given the choice of a USC quarterback for one must-win game, Darnold would be the selection.
Running back — Ronald Jones
Jones was a star for the Trojans, and in just three years, put up sneaky-great career numbers. He’s No.5 in USC history in both career rushing yards chart (ahead of multiple Heisman Trophy winners) and career rushing touchdowns, and he’s one of 14 Trojans to rush for four touchdowns in a game.
Wide receiver — Marqise Lee and Robert Woods
JuJu Smith-Schuster was by far the toughest omission on this list, but there was just no way to bump the duo of Lee and Woods, both of whom spent their entire USC careers in this decade. Woods owns the USC career record for receptions (252) while Lee is second (248). Lee owns the career record for receiving yards (3,655) and the single-season record (1,721). They rank second (Woods) and fourth (Lee) in career touchdown receptions. And Woods set the USC single-game record with 17 receptions, while Lee is tied for second with a 16-catch game. Add their special teams work in (Lee had two KO touchdowns, Woods had one) and they are two of the easiest inclusions to USC’s All-Decade team.
Tight end — Xavier Grimble
No USC tight end put up truly outstanding numbers this past decade, but Grimble was the best overall. He finished with 69 catches for 731 yards and 11 touchdowns. Daniel Imatorbhebhe is the runaway winner of the “What Might Have Been” award at this spot, but Grimble’s production is undeniable.
Left tackle — Matt Kalil
Kalil played just two seasons for the Trojans in this decade, but he probably could have played two games and still made the team. He was that good.
Left guard — Marcus Martin
Martin finished his USC career at center, but played left guard in 2011 and 2012. He started 10 games as a true freshman and was a first-team Freshman All-American.
Center — Khaled Holmes
Holmes began his career as a guard, but made the move to center, where he was named second-team All-Pac-12 in 2011 and first-team All-Pac-12 in 2012.
Right guard — Viane Talamaivao
A four-year starter at right guard, Talamaivao was a consistent presence along the USC offensive line until an injury five games into the 2017 season sidelined him for the rest of the season.
Right tackle — Tyron Smith
Much like Matt Kalil at left tackle, Smith’s limited time in this decade is overshadowed by his dominant presence. In 2010, Smith was a standout on offense and special teams, and ranks among the best USC offensive linemen of all time.
Defensive end — Rasheem Green
Green finished his three-year USC career with 115 tackles, 16.5 sacks, eight pass deflections, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery, which he returned for a touchdown against UCLA.
Defensive tackle — Leonard Williams
The easiest call on this side of the ball, Williams was a dominant presence for the Trojans from 2012-2014. He finished his USC career with 218 tackles, 20 sacks, four forced fumbles, the fumble recoveries and two interceptions.
Nose tackle — Stevie Tui’kolovatu
There were other options at this spot who played longer than Tui’kolovatu, but nobody made the lasting impression the Utah transfer made during the 2016 season. Tui’kolovatu changed the entire USC defensive line that season. He finished the year with just half a sack, but had 53 tackles from his nose tackle position and helped lead the defensive charge to the Rose Bowl.
Defensive end — Nick Perry
Eight of Perry’s 21.5 career sacks came during the 2009 season, but he was still a tremendous defensive presence during the 2010 and 2011 seasons. He forced five fumbles during those two years and finished his USC career with 5.5 sacks in his final four games.
Outside linebacker — Uchenna Nwosu
Nwosu played in at least eight games in each of his four seasons at USC, but he makes this list in large part thanks to a dominant 2017 season. Nwosu found himself as a rush linebacker and responded with 75 tackles, 9.5 sacks, 13 pass deflections, an interception and a fumble recovery. He had a three-sack game against Arizona State, and finished his career with two sacks against Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl.
Middle linebacker — Cameron Smith
Smith’s senior season was cut short, but he’d already more than made his mark. He stepped in as a starter as a true freshman and turned in the game of his life early in his career, intercepting three passes and returning one for a touchdown in an upset win against No. 3 Utah in 2015. Smith finished his USC career with 354 tackles, 3.5 sacks, four interceptions, 14 pass deflections, a forced fumble and three fumble recoveries.
Outside linebacker — Dion Bailey
Bailey began his USC career as a safety before moving to outside linebacker before the 2011 season and ultimately becoming one of the most productive USC defenders from 2011-2013. Bailey finished his three-year playing career with 223 tackles, four sacks and 11 interceptions (five in the 2013 season). He also broke up 19 passes and forced three fumbles.
Cornerback — Adoree’ Jackson
Jackson became USC’s second Thorpe Award winner following a phenomenal 2016 season, where he recorded five interceptions, 11 pass deflections, three forced fumbles, a defensive touchdown and 55 tackles. In his USC career, Jackson scored six touchdowns via receptions, four on punt returns, four on kick returns and one on an interception return.
Free safety — T.J. McDonald
McDonald gave the Trojans a steady presence at free safety from 2010-2012. He finished his USC career with 275 tackles and eight interceptions. McDonald also recorded a blocked punt in USC’s upset win over Oregon in 2011.
Strong safety — Su’a Cravens
It might be cheating a bit to slot Cravens here, as he played more of a hybrid mix between outside linebacker and strong safety, rather than strictly strong safety. But Cravens absolutely deserves to make this team, and Bailey deserves to find a spot at linebacker more than any other strong safety. Cravens did it all defensive for USC during his three-year career, finishing with 207 tackles, 10.5 sacks, nine interceptions, 16 pass deflections, four forced fumbles, fumble recovery and an interception returned for a touchdown.
Cornerback — Nickell Robey
Another three-year standout in the secondary, Robey is another member of the 2010-2012 Trojans. Constantly undersized against opposing receivers, Robey made a big mark at USC. He finished with 163 tackles, two sacks and seven interceptions. He returned one interception for a touchdown in each of his three seasons.
Punter — Kyle Negrete
Negrete would make this list solely for his fake punt run against Washington, but he also just happened to be the best punter for the Trojans this decade, as he averaged 41.5 yards per punt during the 2011 and 2012 seasons.
Kicker — Andre Heidari
Several Trojans made some big kicks this decade, but Heidari’s two game-winning kicks against Stanford stand out. He led the Trojans this decade with 49 made field goals and hit on 187-of-193 extra points.
2011 — Stanford
Yes, it was a loss. And yes, it was one of the 10-best USC games of the decade. Matt Barkley and Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck went punch for punch through three overtimes. Nickell Robey delivered an interception return for a touchdown that sent a lightning bolt of electricity through the Coliseum and running back Curtis McNeal had one of the most tough-luck fumbles in USC history to end the game in a 56-48, triple overtime loss for the Trojans.
2011 — at Oregon
USC visited No. 4 Oregon and raced out to a 24-7 lead. Without a bowl game to play for, this was the Trojans biggest game of the season. Barkley threw for 323 yards and four touchdowns, as the Trojans were able to overcome three turnovers and a furious Oregon rally. The Ducks scored the game’s final 21 points, but a missed 37-yard field goal on the final play of the game locked the 38-35 win up for USC.
2011 — UCLA
50-0. I suppose the “best” when describing “best game” in this case wholly depends on whether you sport cardinal and gold.
2013 — Stanford
Another upset of a No. 4-ranked team, as the Cardinal came to the Coliseum against the Trojans and interim head coach Ed Orgeron. Dion Bailey and Su’a Cravens had massive fourth-quarter interceptions and Andre Heidari broke the tie with 19 seconds left to give USC a 20-17 win.
2014 — at Stanford
Another low-scoring affair against the Cardinal, and another late-game Andre Heidari field goal to win it. This one came with 2:30 on the clock, but the 53-yarder was decisive, giving USC the 13-10 win. Well, almost. The win wasn’t truly sealed until JR Tavai forced a fumble of Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan on third and six from the 25-yard line with just 19 seconds left.
2016 — at Washington
Another USC upset against, you guessed it, another No. 4-ranked team. Sam Darnold threw two interceptions but was terrific outside of those mistakes, and the USC defense led the way to a 26-13 win. Adoree’ Jackson recorded two interceptions and the defense limited the Huskies to just 276 total yards, landing an exclamation point with a safety against Washington quarterback Jake Browning to set the final score.
2017 — Penn State at the Rose Bowl
It’s not every day you can allow touchdowns on four-straight plays and seven touchdowns in seven offensive drives and still win a game in regulation. But it’s not every day you have a quarterback like Sam Darnold. USC entered the fourth quarter trailing 49-35 and punting from its own 25-yard line. Darnold led a 10-play, 83-yard drive, the defense forced two punts and then Darnold set the Trojans off on a three-play, 80-yard drive (helped by two Penn State pass interference penalties) before hitting Deontay Burnett for a touchdown (Burnett’s third of the game) with 1:20 left. And that’s when the game got really good. Leon McQuay III’s interception and subsequent 32-yard return with less than a minute to play allowed USC to set up for a game-winning field goal, which Matt Boermeester drilled from 46 yards away with no time left on the clock.
2017 — Texas
It wasn’t the prettiest start, as the drive chart between the two teams went downs, downs, downs, interception, punt, fumble, missed field goal and then five more punts before USC finally got on the board. Ronald Jones II authored one of the plays of the game, taking a short pass and weaving for a 56-yard touchdown on the final play of the first half. Marvell Tell III had a huge fourth-quarter interception and the teams traded touchdowns in the first overtime before Christian Rector ripped the ball away from Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger in the second overtime. The turnover set the Trojans up to win it on a 43-yard Chase McGrath field goal.
2017 — Pac-12 Championship Game against Stanford
USC ran up 501 total yards to Stanford’s 343, but the Trojans couldn’t quite shake the Cardinal, especially when KJ Costello started pushing the ball deep downfield to talented tight end Kaden Smith in the second half. But three plays set the final stage, as USC linebacker Uchenna Nwosu cut down Stanford running back Cameron Scarlett on fourth-and-goal from the one-yard line with just eight minutes remaining and the Trojans leading by three points. Then, after taking over on downs, Sam Darnold hit Michael Pittman for a 54-yard gain on second down out of the USC endzone. The Trojans took it the rest of the way and pushed the lead to 10 on a Ronald Jones II run. While Stanford scored on its possession, USC was able to run out the clock on a 31-28 win and a Pac-12 Championship.
2019 — Utah
The No. 10 Utes were rolling at 3-0 and the Trojans were reeling, coming off a road loss to BYU. Utah knocked USC quarterback Kedon Slovis out of the game on the second play, and it was tough to see how the Trojans were going to stay competitive. But backup quarterback Matt Fink responded with the game of his life, throwing for 351 yards and three touchdowns, as USC never trailed in a 30-23 win. Michael Pittman Jr. came up huge throughout, with 10 receptions for 232 yards, including a 77-yard touchdown and a 42-yard grab on third-and-eight during USC’s final scoring drive.
2011 Robert Woods — USC vs Minnesota
Robert Woods hauls in 17 receptions to set a USC single-game record. Woods finished with 177 yards and three touchdowns and the Trojans needed all of them, in a 19-17 win.
2012 Marqise Lee –USC at Arizona
It still sounds ridiculous to say that Marqise Lee had 345 receiving yards in one game. It’s not just a USC single-game record, it’s 85 yards clear of the No. 2 mark. Of course, it’s more ridiculous to say that USC wound up losing that game to Arizona, but you can’t blame Lee, who finished with 16 catches and two touchdowns.
2013 Nelson Agholor — USC at Cal
Four receptions for 35 yards alone won’t make this list, but Nelson Agholor is here for what he did on special teams against Cal. USC tied an NCAA-record with three punt return touchdowns against Cal, but while one came on a short return following a blocked up, Agholor did the tough work on his two. He took the first one back 75 yards, then added a 93-yarder later in the game.
2014 Cody Kessler — USC vs Colorado
It was a blowout win over a bad Colorado team, but plenty of USC quarterbacks have played bad teams and only Cody Kessler has thrown for seven touchdowns. They came on just 316 yards passing, as Kessler found Nelson Agholor three times, Bryce Dixon twice, and Juju Smith-Schuster and Steven Mitchell Jr. once each.
2015 Cameron Smith — USC vs Utah
Three interceptions in one game would be newsworthy for the best defensive back in the country. It’s nearly unheard of for a true freshman middle linebacker against a top-three team. Smith read Utah quarterback Travis Wilson all game long, taking one of his interceptions back for a touchdown and serving as one of the high points of the 2015 season.
2016 Adoree’ Jackson — USC vs Notre Dame
Adoree’ Jackson didn’t just score three touchdowns in his final rivalry game against Notre Dame. He did it in three different ways (kickoff return, punt return, reception) and each covered more than 50 yards. It was Jackson’s final appearance in the Coliseum, and it was a fitting end to the superstar’s USC career.
2017 USC offensive line — USC vs Stanford
USC fans weren’t used to watching the Trojan offensive line dominate anybody over the second half of the decade. But that’s what happened early in the 2017 season, when the No. 6 Trojans blew out the No. 14 Cardinal, 42-24. USC’s offensive line paved the way for 307 rushing yards as both Stephen Carr and Ronald Jones II rushed for more than 115 yards.
2017 Sam Darnold — USC vs Penn State
Darnold finished the Rose Bowl with 453 passing yards and five touchdowns. He also rushed for 20 yards and saved his best for last, as USC outscored Penn State 17-0 in the fourth quarter and came away with a win in one of the most entertaining Rose Bowls of all time.
2019 Michael Pittman Jr. — USC vs Utah
It wasn’t just that Pittman finished with 232 receiving yards and a touchdown on 10 catches. It’s that he constantly came up with huge catches in traffic, providing backup quarterback Matt Fink a reliable target deep downfield against tough man coverage from the Utes. His 77-yard grab when he went up over a Utah defender and then outraced him to the endzone is the most vivid memory, but this was an all-around great performance.
2019 Kedon Slovis — USC vs UCLA
Slovis set a USC single-game record with 515 passing yards, as he completed 37-of-47 passes with four touchdowns. Thanks to Slovis’s precision, four USC wide receivers surpassed 100 yards receiving against the Bruins. It was the first time any USC quarterback had ever thrown for more than 500 yards in a game.
2011 Matt Kalil — USC vs Utah
On the final play of regulation, Kalil blocked a Utah game-tying field goal attempt, which USC returned for a touchdown (a touchdown that didn’t officially count until two hours after the score went final).
2011 Jawanza Starling — USC at Notre Dame
Notre Dame snapped the ball from the USC one-yard line. A few seconds later, Jawanza Starling was in the opposite endzone having returned a fumble for a USC touchdown in a win against Notre Dame.
2011 Nickell Robey — USC vs Stanford
Robey’s interception and touchdown return against Andrew Luck looked as though it would be the game-winner for the Trojans. Seldom has the Coliseum gotten as loud as it did for that play.
2012 Matt Barkley and Marqise Lee — USC vs Hawaii
It was tough to imagine the 2012 season ending as poorly as it did with the way it started. Matt Barkley found Marqise Lee with a quick throw and Lee did the rest, taking the first play of the season for a 75-yard touchdown.
2013 Andre Heidari — USC vs Stanford
Heidari’s field goal with just a few minutes left helped USC upset No. 4 Stanford and set the scene for a field-storming by the Trojan faithful.
2014 J.R. Tavai — USC at Stanford
The Trojans took a late lead, but with Stanford driving what what appeared to be at least a game-tying field goal, if not a game-winning touchdown, Tavai saved the day with a strip sack that the Trojans recovered.
2016 Adoree’ Jackson — USC vs Colorado
It’s still confusing to watch. How did Jackson manage to keep one foot in bounds while making an interception several feet past the sideline on a ball that looked as though it could sail into the crowd? Maybe the best example of Jackson’s extraordinary athleticism.
2017 Leon McQuay III — USC vs Penn State
McQuay’s late-game interception and return against Penn State allowed USC to win the 2017 Rose Bowl in regulation. A drop on the previous play appeared devastating at the time, but McQuay responded immediately with the interception.
2017 Christian Rector — USC vs Texas
With Texas driving for a touchdown in the second overtime, defensive end Christian Rector not only stood Longhorn quarterback Sam Ehlinger up on a sneak, he ripped the ball away from him. USC recovered the fumble and was able to win on a field goal in their overtime possession.
2017 Uchenna Nwosu — USC vs Stanford
Stanford converts short-yardage plays at the goal line as well as any program, but Uchenna Nwosu had something to say about this one. The linebacker knifed across the line and took the Cardinal running back down in the backfield, helping secure a Pac-12 Championship for USC in the process.