Following a forgettable opening season defeat to Alabama, USC needed a strong, all-around win against Utah State on Saturday for a multitude of reasons — and the Trojans got it.
It was a night-and-day comparison to last Saturday’s performance in Arlington, as the Trojans dominated on offense, defense and special teams to the tune of a 45-7 blowout at the Coliseum.
Head coach Clay Helton said it was a “mad” and “emotional” football team that showed up to control the game from beginning to end.
“It felt like the week creeped along,” he said. “To be able to get out there and play was special. We needed it as a football team to get a bad taste out of our mouth.”
From an early blocked punt to set the tone, to junior Adoree’ Jackson blazing across the field on a 79-yard punt return for a touchdown, the Trojans discovered what they are capable of when not being stifled by the nation’s top team.
Redshirt junior quarterback Max Browne put together a solid stat line — 23-of-30 passing for 182 yards and two touchdowns. Senior running back Justin Davis rebounded from a rough game against Alabama for 74 yards on 16 carries. Wide receivers Darreus Rogers, a senior, and JuJu Smith-Schuster, a junior, both recorded seven catches; the total was a career high for Rogers.
“We needed [the win] big to build our confidence back up,” Rogers said. “Utah State is a great team. We had it on our minds this morning to come out and execute and play hard early.”
The Trojans’ first touchdown of the season came a little more than three minutes into the game after USC recovered a blocked Utah State punt by freshman Michael Pittman Jr. at the Aggies’ 6-yard line. Browne rolled to the right on third-and-goal and found Smith-Schuster for the touchdown.
Though USC led 7-0 after one quarter, it had its share of early struggles. Sophomore offensive tackle Chuma Edoga was ejected after wrestling with an official and throwing a punch at an opponent. Redshirt junior placekicker Matt Boermeester missed a 46-yard field goal and Browne was also sacked twice.
“Poor decision by a young person who got over-emotional,” Helton said on Edoga’s ejection. “He’s got to be smarter. There’s no excuse. That could cost you a game. As you can tell, we’re still learning as a team.”
But the Trojans eventually staked out a 21-0 halftime lead with contributions from both the passing and running game — USC had 92 yards on the ground and 153 in the air at the end of the first half, with Browne completing 18-of-24 passes for 140 yards in that time.
“It was a day full of firsts — first TD pass, first start, first win,” Browne said. “It was awesome. I’ve been in the Coliseum a bunch, but all the touchdowns I got in practice finally paid off.”
Redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold got into the action as well, recording his first touchdown pass to cap off a 12-play, 87-yard drive midway through the second quarter. Darnold, who Helton said he would use in red zone situations, threw a screen pass to sophomore wide receiver Deontay Burnett, who tiptoed the left sideline and dove just past the pylon and into the end zone to give USC a 14-0 lead.
Darnold said he was not surprised when he got the call to come in mid-drive.
“When we’re in the red zone, I know my number can be called at any time,” he said. “I’ve got my chin strap ready and my mouth piece in. When they say, ‘One-four, get in the game,’ I’m ready.”
Darnold also played the entire fourth quarter, finishing 5-of-7 passing for 62 yards and two touchdowns. His second touchdown was a connection with Smith-Schuster early in the fourth quarter, a 15-yard strike to put USC ahead 38-7.
Sophomore running back Aca’Cedric Ware punched in the Trojans’ final touchdown six minutes later.
Browne admitted that being taken out of the game with his team in the red zone was “different.”
“If it helps our team I’m all for it,” he said. “I think the past three or four years has taught me to mentally roll with anything.”
Helton said he gave Darnold a fair amount of playing time because of the score and the opportunity to give the redshirt freshman more experience, which Darnold appreciated.
“On any play, Max could go down and I’m the guy now,” Darnold said. “Getting a full drive is really key.”
Right before halftime, the two teams exchanged interceptions. Browne was picked by Utah State sophomore safety Jontrell Rocquemore after trying to loft a throw over him, but Aggies’ junior quarterback Kent Myers returned the favor, throwing an interception to senior defensive back Leon McQuay III near midfield.
A 27-yard catch and run by Davis set the Trojans up in the red zone, and Browne found redshirt junior Steven Mitchell Jr. in the back of the end zone for a 21-0 USC advantage.
The Trojans had a nice distribution amongst their receivers and running backs, finishing with 208 total rushing yards and 244 receiving.
“I was sitting on the sideline when I got pulled thinking, ‘I think I threw to seven different guys today’” Browne said. “That’s awesome getting all the weapons involved.”
Boermeester’s 20-yard field goal and Jackson’s punt return in the third quarter put the Trojans ahead 31-0.
“”I let two [punts] get away in the first quarter so I wanted to make a play,” Jackson said on his electric run. “I was anxious to make something happen and get in the end zone. My teammates were blocking well, so credit them for getting me into the end zone.”
On defense, the Trojans looked far from the team that allowed 52 points in week one. They batted down balls and disrupted passing lanes, not allowing a point until the end of the third quarter when Utah State scored its first touchdown. The Aggies’ 49 yards rushing was the lowest allowed by the Trojans since 2014.
“This was a game for us to bounce over and show that one game doesn’t define our team,” Smith-Schuster said.
As many players and Helton noted after the game, though they were happy with their performance, the Trojans are quickly preparing to play what is arguably their most challenging game of the season — a road affair with Stanford.
“I think we’ve got some clean-up to do,” Helton said when asked about preparations for next Saturday. “It’s not perfect. But a 45-7 win at the Coliseum? We’ll take it. We’ve got a great Stanford team coming up. We’ll celebrate tonight and move on.”