Most times when I hear the term “Century Mark” around USC, people are referring to Instagram. You know it’s been a good weekend when your picture from gameday gets more than 100 likes, and you know you’ve made it at the school once you can consistently hit that plateau.
Justin Davis is redefining what it means to have a successful gameday around here, using the same number in a little bit of a different context. The senior tailback racked up 126 yards last week against Utah, then put up 123 on Saturday against Arizona State. It’s still early to say if his emergence as a go-to back will carry through the rest of the season, but his recent success should give Trojans fans a lot to be excited about going into the long stretch of conference play.
Davis’ senior season began about as poorly as possible for a running back, and was not all too different from the rest of the team’s performance on Week 1. Alabama held Davis to only two yards rushing the entire game, even with seven carries. His receiving numbers that night in Arlington weren’t much better either: two catches for five yards.
Davis’ other test against an elite defense was much improved, though ultimately ending in the same result for the Trojans. He picked up 63 yards on 14 attempts against Stanford, an average of 4.5 per carry, and added another 10 yards via four catches.
But against Utah State, between the two first losses and in the past two Trojan Pac-12 South battles, Davis has truly been a game changer. His 70 yards on 16 carries — for an average of 4.4 per attempt — against Utah State was very solid. He also added 36 yards on two catches, including a crucial 27 yard gain on a third and 10 that set up USC’s third touchdown just before the half which gave the Trojans a 21-point lead instead of a 14-point lead going into the locker room.
If it would be fair to call any game a “breakout” performance for the senior who was just seven yards short of the 2,000 career rushing yards mark going into Utah, then his performance at Rice-Eccles Stadium would have to hold that distinction. He hit both the “Century Mark” and the “Double Millennium Mark” that game, all within the first half. It took him both halves to get to 100 yards against Arizona State, but on top of the 123 yards he had on the ground, he added another 38 yards in the air, again on only two catches.
The look at USC’s running back situation gets really interesting when we go back to that second half against Utah. With 102 yards in the first half on six carries, it seemed like Davis was in position to take over the game, build on USC’s one touchdown lead and give the Trojans the crucial victory they needed in the beginning of divisional play.
However, he got only four additional carries in the second half — without any in the fourth quarter — and added only an additional 24 yards to his total. Of course, the Trojans then let their lead slip late, and many questioned head coach Clay Helton’s usage, or lack thereof, of Davis.
Because while Davis has been exceptional, sophomore running back Ronald Jones II has had the opposite degree of success this year.
Jones, the highly touted recruit who was just 13 yards shy of hitting 1,000 yards rushing last year as a freshman, has not taken off in his second season, and is in a very deep sophomore slump.
Though he did break out a 46 yard run against Alabama in the season opener, he was held to a net total of zero yards on his other six carries against the Crimson Tide. Against Stanford, he had his best output of the season, with 63 yards and one touchdown on 11 carries. But his totals against Utah State and Utah were both abysmal: eight yards on five carries against the former, 15 yards on eight carries against the latter. On Saturday, against ASU, he was only given another five carries, which he took for a passable 20 yards.
It’s hard to believe that RoJo has completely lost it. He appears healthy. The offensive line has been very inconsistent, which is a likely explanation, but that hasn’t stopped Davis from several explosive games. When asked after the Utah game, the only explanation Jones could point to was that maybe he’s lost his mojo since cutting his dreadlocks.
So I don’t fault Helton and offensive coordinator Tee Martin for trying to keep Jones in the mix. Jones has an exceptionally high ceiling. Allowing Davis to take most of the carries and keep some sort of a rhythm down the stretch probably would make sense, but Helton and Martin should still try to carve out situations for Jones to throw some additional challenges at defenses — and give Davis a chance to catch his breath on some drives.
Nonetheless, it appears as though the Trojans have finally found their No. 1 quarterback and No. 1 running back. Out wide, junior wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is also finally looking like his old self, and the Trojans are reminding fans of all the talent and potential this team came into the season with.
And the conference title race is still wide open. Arguably more important than USC’s dominating win over ASU was the revelation that Stanford is indeed beatable after being throttled by Washington, and that Utah will now have to win out to climb back on top of the division standings after losing to Cal. If the Trojans can keep up this rhythm on offense, they could still find a way to the Pac-12 championship game.
Luke Holthouse is a senior majoring in policy, planning and development and print and digital journalism. His column, “Holthouse Party,” runs on Wednesday.