It was not the prettiest of wins, littered with turnovers and a blown second half lead, but USC escaped the scorching Saturday afternoon at the Coliseum with a 21-17 victory over No. 21 Colorado to improve to .500 on the season.
Sophomore tight end Tyler Petite caught the eventual game-winning touchdown pass with eight minutes to play. USC held Colorado to a field goal on its next drive, and ran out the final five minutes of the game to close it out.
On a third-down play, redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold found junior wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster for a first down with just over a minute to play, essentially ending the game with Colorado not having enough timeouts to stop the clock.
Smith-Schuster could’ve scored, but went down so USC could run the game out.
“If you’re smart, you end the game early,” he said. “It took a lot out of me to go down. It’s tough when you didn’t score today, but you think about your teammates more than yourself.”
After surrendering a 14-0 second half lead, the Trojans jumped back ahead midway through the fourth quarter on a six-play, 70-yard drive capped off by an eight-yard touchdown pass from Darnold to Petite on a third-and-five play. The opportunity was set up by a spectacular 46-yard catch by senior wide receiver Darreus Rogers, who took away a sure interception, snatching the ball away from a defender and turning upfield and into Buffaloes territory.
Both Darnold and head coach Clay Helton thought the pass would be intercepted. Rogers, though, did not.
“That’s mine,” he said. “110 percent, that’s my ball. I think that’s why I caught it, because I had no intention of it being an interception. Quarterbacks always have to throw a great pass, the receivers always have to make great plays and I just try to make the hard ones look easy.”
Helton said the play might have “won that game” by itself. Had the pass been picked, it could have been disastrous, with Colorado having scored 14 unanswered points and in position to steal the game.
USC’s turnovers kept Colorado in the game as the Trojans fumbled away the ball on each of their first two drives of the second half, both in Buffaloes’ territory and committed four in all. Senior running back Justin Davis — who was carted off the field in the second half with a high ankle sprain — lost the ball on the first drive and Darnold made a poor decision on the second, losing the ball trying to flip it to avoid a sack.
Colorado recovered, and on its first play, got on the board with a trick play. Montez threw to wide receiver Bryce Bobo, who found running back Phillip Lindsay wide open downfield for a 67-yard touchdown to cut USC’s lead to 14-7.
“I hate using this word but the first word that comes to mind is lucky,” Darnold said when asked about winning the game despite the team’s four turnovers. “As an offense you’re not going to win a ton of games turning the ball over four times.”
The giveaways continued, as Darnold threw his first career interception on the next drive. But Montez returned the favor as he was picked by junior cornerback Adoree’ Jackson, who managed to plant a foot down on the sideline to make an incredible grab at his own 25-yard line.
Jackson said he was channeling Charles Woodson when the legendary Michigan cornerback made a leaping one-handed interception on the sideline against Michigan State in 1997.
“I was very aware,” he said on his position relative to the sideline. “I was just trying to torque my body enough so I could get a foot down.”
Sophomore linebacker Cameron Smith was standing next to Jackson when he made the catch.
“My mouth dropped,” he said. “I was just in awe. It was awesome.”
The Trojans, though, could not extend the lead against the Pac-12’s top defense, with drives stalling in the second half. And late in the third quarter, the Buffaloes evened the score following a long drive. On third-and-goal from the 10-yard line, Colorado quarterback Steven Montez found Bobo in the end zone to tie the game at 14-14.
Helton stressed the importance of his team staying calm after giving up the lead.
“If you get over-emotional or you start panicking, the team is going to feel that,” he said. “All the team needs is to go and drive down the field. All we were doing was hurting ourselves.”
USC had an inauspicious start. The offense marched down the field and into the red zone. But after earning a first down on a quarterback sneak on a 4th-and-1 play, Darnold scrambled from Colorado’s 18-yard line to the end zone only to fumble it away to the Buffaloes at the goal line.
The Trojans, though, forced a Colorado punt and scored on their next drive, going 80 yards in less than four minutes. Redshirt freshman tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe, making his first start, caught two passes on the drive, the latter of which was his first career touchdown. It was a 32-yard reception as Darnold slotted a ball perfectly over the middle to a diving Imatorbhebhe to give USC a 7-0 lead at the end of one quarter.
USC doubled its lead midway through the second quarter on a drive that started from its own 8-yard line, again mixing the run and pass game effectively en route to the red zone. Darnold showed off his scramble abilities again from 11-yard line when he turned a fumble into a touchdown. Darnold dropped the ball on a handoff to Davis, but he calmly picked it up, ran away from pressure before turning around, and — while scrambling laterally — found Petite wide open on the right side. Petite took care of the rest and put USC ahead 14-0.
“As I turned, I saw [Darnold] scramble back towards me,” Petite said. “Once I was running, I just looked at him and I knew he was going to throw it to me.”
The defense, meanwhile, shut down Colorado’s dynamic offense — which entered the game averaging 43.2 points per game — in the first half. The Buffaloes did not get past USC’s 38-yard line in any of their five first half drives, punting on four of them and turning it over on downs on the other one. Montez, after completing 12-of-19 passes for 73 yards, left the game in the second quarter after taking a blindside hit. Sefo Liufau replaced Montez, but the starter returned in the second half.
Helton credited the defense, which held a prolific Colorado offense to 371 yards of total offense, for the victory.
“Without them, I don’t know if we win that game,” he said. “It’s hard to win with four turnovers.”
Darnold, meanwhile, was 14-of-17 for 163 yards in the first half. He finished 25-of-37 for 358 yards and three touchdowns, but the turnovers blemished an otherwise stellar stat line.
Helton didn’t mind, lauding Darnold’s instinct and creative ability.
“I told him, ‘Drive it like you stole it,’” Helton said. “You play the game with no fear and he does. There will be mistakes. That’s going to happen with a redshirt freshman, but he’s one of those guys that you don’t make a robot. He does some things that people can’t do, so you let him do it.”
USC hopes Darnold learns from the mistakes and keeps racking up wins as the new starter. In the unpredictable Pac-12 South, the Trojans are now back in the hunt after a 1-3 start. They will hit the road to play Arizona next week.
“To get our second Pac-12 win puts in position to continue for next week,” Helton said. “We’re in a playoff mentality and every week is like a championship game. It was a very inspirational and needed win for us today.”