Last week, USC showed flashes of what it could be with redshirt freshman Sam Darnold at quarterback, but left Utah with an unsatisfying loss. On Saturday, 71,214 at the Coliseum witnessed it all come together for the first time in a 41-20 rout of Arizona State.
Darnold slithered and scrambled past the ASU defense, running and throwing for touchdowns and torching the Sun Devils (4-1) for 352 yards, with 3 touchdown passes on 23-of-33 completions. He spread the ball around to various receivers, connecting with nine different players on the night.
“It was exciting to see a guy like [Darnold],” junior cornerback Adoree’ Jackson said. “He can run the ball, throw the ball and run while he’s throwing.”
Darnold’s halftime numbers could have been impressive full-game stats: 212 yards on 14-of-21 passing and two touchdowns. The Trojans (2-3) led 27-6 at the half, scoring the final 20 points of the half. They outgained the Sun Devils 306-169 despite having possession for seven fewer minutes.
“I’m very proud of this football team,” head coach Clay Helton said. “There’s an old analogy that says, ‘Tough times don’t last but tough men do.’ When adversity hits, it reveals your character. The character of this team is something I’m extremely proud of.”
Furthermore, USC struck quickly and often. All five of their touchdown drives lasted under three minutes, with Darnold engineering big plays and rapid strikes zipping downfield.
Darnold said the key to the win was staying away from turnovers, which cost USC in Utah last week.
“If we didn’t turn the ball over last week, it would have been a different game,” Darnold said. “Without turning the ball over this game and with how we executed, I thought we did a really good job.”
As much as it was a spectacular home debut for Darnold, junior wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster had a much needed breakthrough performance in a primetime game. He recorded 3 touchdowns, catching seven passes for 123 yards.
Smith-Schuster’s biggest play was a 67-yard catch-and-run early in the second half, where he caught the ball short of his own 40-yard line, slipped past a defender before slanting to the left and taking it the rest of the way to give USC a 34-6 advantage.
“I just threw it out there and watched him do his thing,” Darnold said on the play. “Whenever I have a chance to get it out there to him, I know he’s going to do something special.”
Following a punt, Darnold tacked on his first rushing touchdown of the night on the ensuing drive, punching it in from three yards out to put the game out of reach, though Arizona State scored a couple of touchdowns in the fourth quarter to alter the final score.
Senior running back Justin Davis also had a busy evening, compiling his second consecutive 100-plus yard performance with 129.
Helton noted how dangerous this team could be with both a rushing and passing attack, as Darnold threw for over 300 yards and Davis ran for over 100.
“It’s a balanced offense and one takes care of the other,” Helton said. “To have Justin Davis run the ball well helps open up JuJu. At some point in time Sam’s going to have a tough day … and you better bring your running game.”
USC jumped ahead 14-6 early in the second quarter on another rapid drive down the field. Darnold and Davis led the Trojans down the field; Davis’ dive for the goal line on a first-and-10 play was ruled just short. But on 3rd-and-goal from the 3-yard line, Darnold scrambled and found Smith-Schuster uncovered in the back of the end zone for the touchdown.
A field goal put the Trojans ahead 17-6, and they gained further separation on a 37-yard touchdown run by Davis as he glided down the open right side.
“We knew that we had a great game plan put in by the coaches,” Davis said. “We just had to trust them. [The start to the game] was really slow. That’s the mark of a great team, if it just happens that we come out of the gates slow we just have to keep on pushing.”
The Trojans’ defense also stood tall against the high-powered Sun Devils’ offense, which entered the game seventh in the country in scoring at 48.8 points per game, though ASU starting quarterback Manny Wilkins left the game before halftime with an apparent knee injury and backup Brady White played the rest of the way. USC forced ASU to either punt or turn it over on downs on their final four drives of the first half.
“I was happy with executing the gameplan overall,” senior inside linebacker Michael Hutchings said. “It was the plan [defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast] drew up for us. It was a pretty clean game for the most part.”
USC held Arizona State to 20 points and 303 total yards, both season-lows.
Jackson likened the flow of both the offense and defense to a video game.
“If you have the offense doing well and the defense doing well, you just want to keep that momentum,” he said. “I mean, it’s an ideal situation in Madden.”
Redshirt junior placekicker Matt Boermeester made his second field goal of the second quarter before halftime to give the Trojans a 21-point advantage at the break.
USC’s start was rocky, as Arizona State converted twice on third down to open the scoring with a field goal. Then, the Trojans went for it on fourth-and-2 on their own 42-yard line on their first drive, and Davis lost four yards on a run play.
Helton, who had been criticized for punting on fourth-and-short plays in previous weeks, said he came into this game feeling “ultra-aggressive.”
“We really had nothing to lose,” he said. “And I wanted the kids to feel that.”
Fortunately for him, the defense had his back. On the ensuing ASU possession, junior defensive back Jonathan Lockett intercepted Wilkins’ pass at his own 5-yard line. The Trojans then marched down the field quickly — 95 yards in two and a half minutes — to score their first touchdown. Darnold found Smith-Schuster for a 5-yard touchdown, set up by a 49-yard run by Davis that put USC in the red zone.
The Trojans will now look to get back to .500 on the season next week against Colorado. In the midst of playing four in five games at the Coliseum, Helton said he thought last week’s performance against Utah was the start of a turning point.
“I saw a change last week,” he said. “I know it was a loss and the nation doesn’t see it, but as a coaching staff and players, we saw it.”
And on Saturday, in front of a national audience and 70,000-plus in the stands, everyone saw this team’s potential.
“To just have everything come together in this game, it was beautiful to watch,” Davis said.
Angel Viscarra contributed to this report.