For about a quarter and a half, the No. 20 Trojans had to feel that they could upset top-ranked Alabama. They scored first, the presumably shoddy defensive unit was holding its own and redshirt junior quarterback Max Browne had completed his first seven passes as a starter.
And then, in a span of just over five minutes, those hopes were quickly crushed.
The Crimson Tide turned a 3-0 deficit in to a 17-3 halftime lead in a hurry, and then Nick Saban’s team — with former USC head coach Lane Kiffin guiding the offense — proceeded to drop 38 unanswered points on a USC squad that had no answer.
In the end, it was a humiliating 52-6 drubbing in primetime at the hands of the Crimson Tide, USC’s worst defeat since a 51-0 loss against Notre Dame in 1966.
“Obviously one game does not make a season,” head coach Clay Helton said. “We played a very good team today, and they played up to their potential. And just the cold, hard truth is we did not play up to ours.”
It started with a 39-yard touchdown pass from freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts to redshirt junior wide receiver ArDarius Stewart, who beat sophomore defensive back Iman Marshall to give Alabama a 7-3 lead. A 3-and-out and an Alabama field goal set up a critical miscue for the Trojans — Browne’s pass from deep in his own territory intended for sophomore wide receiver Deontay Burnett was deflected and intercepted by redshirt sophomore defensive end Marlon Humphrey for a pick-six.
From there, Alabama took firm control. Out of the half, missed coverage by USC left the entire right side of the field wide open for Stewart to catch and score on a 71-yard reception. Another Trojans’ fumble in their own territory quickly turned into 7 more points for the Crimson Tide, as Hurts waltzed into the end zone on a quarterback keeper to give Alabama a 28-point advantage.
Browne expressed remorse that a game had been hyped for years resulted in a disappointing loss.
“With a big-time opponent like that, I think we’re just disappointed in the fact that we feel like we didn’t go out there and play our best ball,” Browne said.
It was a forgettable debut for the redshirt junior, who had patiently waited for a chance to start at USC. Another key player, junior wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, would also like to erase this game from his memory. The star receiver struggled, catching just one pass for nine yards, as Alabama applied double coverage on him.
“It’s tough,” Smith-Schuster said about his one-catch night. “But it’s out of respect that they [double-teamed].”
Smith-Schuster added it was a combination of little mistakes that led to the blowout.
“It takes 11 guys to score and if one guys messes up it messes up the whole thing,” he said. “It confuses everybody else.”
The Crimson Tide scored their 38th unanswered point near the six-minute mark of the third quarter on another rushing touchdown by Hurts, who appears to have claimed the starting job over redshirt freshman Blake Barnett for Alabama.
Hurts finished the game with two touchdowns on 118 yards and 6-of-11 passing. Sophomore running back Damien Harris rushed for 140 yards, while Stewart caught four passes for 113 yards.
Helton admitted he was not pleased with his team’s physicality.
“Just being honest, I believe physicality is being able to impose your will in the run game,” Helton said. “We did not do that tonight … We can’t let JuJu Smith-Schuster get double-teamed all night. You have to be able to run the ball, get one-high coverages, and make it easier for quarterbacks.”
The first quarter started out quite innocent enough for both teams, and it was a field position battle to begin. The Trojans’ converted on their first drive with a 47-yard field goal by redshirt junior Matt Boermeester.
USC’s defense held its own early on. Senior linebacker Michael Hutchings sacked Barnett which led to a punt, and when the Tide went to Hurts at quarterback, he immediately coughed up a fumble that sophomore linebacker Cameron Smith recovered.
USC held Alabama to just one first down and two total passing yards in the first quarter.
But the Trojans failed to convert on their opportunities. Browne, after starting the game completing his first seven passes, soon struggled against a strong Alabama defensive front. He finished the half misfiring on 13 of his final 16 passes.
Offensive coordinator Tee Martin noted that the lack of a run game affected Browne’s accuracy. USC had just 64 yards on the ground, with leading rusher sophomore Ronald Jones II accruing only 46 yards on seven carries.
“Max, I thought, did a good job in the pocket and making the throws he had to make, but we didn’t consistently run the ball well enough to maintain the balance you need against a defense like that,” Martin said.
Redshirt freshman Sam Darnold replaced Browne for two series in the third quarter, both of which ended in three-and-outs. He came back in the fourth quarter for two more series, finishing with 29 yards on 4-of-8 passing.
Helton said he wanted Darnold to gain experience, and was pleased he didn’t make any “critical errors.” Though, he addressed his players in what he described as “brutally honest” fashion in the locker room.
“One game does not define us,” he said. “I expect from them to go back on that plane, watch tape, learn from it and have the chip on their shoulder. Play mad for the rest of the season … this is not who we are.”