It was supposed to be the first taste of a dream season. It almost turned out to be a nightmare.
No. 4 USC escaped with a 49-31 win over Western Michigan at the Coliseum on Saturday on the strength of three touchdowns by junior running back Ronald Jones II and a stellar debut by freshman running back Stephen Carr.
Jones’ 37-yard carry put the Trojans ahead by a touchdown with under seven minutes left in the fourth quarter and then Carr tacked on insurance with a 52-yard touchdown run on the following drive to extend USC’s lead to double-digits. Junior safety Marvell Tell III intercepted a pass and brought it back for a touchdown for the capper.
The final score may have looked like a blowout, but after eight months of anticipation following January’s Rose Bowl victory, USC did little to impress.
“We played sloppily offensively in the first half,” head coach Clay Helton said. “But I love the poise the offense showed down the stretch.”
More than a half through what was supposed to be a season-opening cakewalk, the Trojans found themselves trailing to the unranked Broncos. A game-changing pick from redshirt junior Ajene Harris was overturned thanks to a pass interference penalty, and Western Michigan responded with a gut-punch reverse-pass touchdown to pull ahead 21-14. In the subsequent Trojan possession, redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold launched a deep pass, which was picked off — his second interception of the game.
“I doubted myself on some of those deep throws,” Darnold said. “I just have to trust it and continue to do it and learn from the film room.”
It was an unexpected turnaround considering how the game had started. Empty seats checkered the Coliseum on the team’s hottest opening day in nearly two decades, but Darnold and company brought the pumped-up crowd to a roar within minutes after kickoff.
The Trojans moved the ball with ease in their opening drive, which was highlighted by a pair of long runs from junior running back Ronald Jones II. Shaking off multiple Bronco defenders, Jones rumbled for 29 yards on the second play of the six-play drive to push USC past midfield. He then scampered 16 yards into the end zone four plays later to score the Trojans’ first points of the new season.
The Broncos responded soon after, however. The two sides traded punts following Jones’ touchdown before Western Michigan marched 59 yards in eight plays to tie the score. A pass interference penalty on sophomore cornerback Jack Jones erased a third-down stop deep in Trojan territory, and Bronco running back Jamauri Bogan capitalized, powering into the end zone from four yards out to tie the score.
Western Michigan continued to challenge the USC defense, which was missing suspended junior middle linebacker Cameron Smith for the first half due to a targeting penalty during the Rose Bowl. After forcing another punt from Darnold and a stalling Trojan offense, the Broncos assembled an even longer drive. Quarterback Jon Wassink capped off an 11-play, 84-yard march with a seven-yard scrambling score, and Western Michigan grabbed a 14-7 edge.
“They came in with a lot of confidence and know how to win,” Helton said of the Broncos. “You can tell they won 13 games last year.”
Despite entering the fall as the preseason Heisman Trophy favorite, Darnold was unable to get going early, completing less than half of his passes for just 30 yards and adding six rushing yards on three carries through USC’s first five possessions. But a 59-yard punt from redshirt junior Reid Budrovich and a strong defensive stop set up the Trojan offense in enemy territory to begin its next drive, and Darnold took advantage.
Darnold took a sack on the first play, but he rebounded with two darts to junior wide receiver Deontay Burnett to keep the offense moving. A 19-yard pass to Jones gave the Trojans a first-and-goal, and Jones punched it in from the one-yard-line to bring USC back level.
Jones was one of the lone consistent bright spots in a spotty day for Trojan football.
“I felt strong after gaining weight in the offseason,” Jones said. “The offensive line did a great job, and with the receivers blocking, they made my job easy.”
Western Michigan marched down the field once again in response, but kicker Josh Grant pushed his kick attempt wide-left. Encouraged by their previous scoring drive, the Trojans took the ball with less than two minutes to go in the first half and looked to grab the lead going into the locker room. Darnold’s pass to redshirt junior tight end Tyler Petite was tipped and intercepted with seconds left on the clock, however, keeping the two teams tied at 14 at halftime after Tell batted down Wassink’s last-play Hail Mary.
The nervous buzz around the Coliseum intensified in the third quarter following Darnold’s second pick, but captain Smith’s return boosted the Trojan defense, allowing USC to return on offense facing just a seven-point deficit. But penalties continued to dog the Trojans, as a chop-block set them up with a first-and-25 to begin the drive.
Another long toss to Burnett — this time good for 27 yards — kept the offense on the field. Then Burnett reeled in another 29-yard catch-and-run on third-and-nine. Finally, Darnold ripped off an 11-yard scramble to reach the end zone and tie the score once again. Despite looking off-rhythm for a near-full three quarters, the Trojans were still very much in the game — perhaps luckily so.
A key defensive stand — punctuated by a third-down sack from junior outside linebacker Porter Gustin — gave the Trojans an opportunity to push in front for the first time since Jones’ opening score. On cue, USC put together a rare extended drive, taking more than ten plays to move nearly 50 yards, and the drive cultimated in a one-yard touchdown dive from freshman running back Stephen Carr. The Trojans seized a 28-21 advantage — it lasted 13 seconds on the game clock. Darius Phillips fielded redshirt freshman Michael Brown’s kickoff and sliced through the USC coverage for a house call. 28-28.
With their backs against the wall again, the Trojans simply stuck to what had been working. Darnold found Burnett once again on a 42-yard toss, and Jones exploded for a 37-yard touchdown run. USC re-took its precarious seven-point lead.
Almost as expected in a game as up-and-down as Saturday’s, Western Michigan responded immediately. A 48-yard rush from LeVant Bellamy set the Broncos up inside the Trojans’ 30, but the defense forced a huge stop to hold its opponent to a field goal and set up Jones’ game-winning scamper.
“It was awesome to see our team start out slow and really come out and dominate in the second half,” Darnold said. “It’s a great win, even though we didn’t perform like we wanted to.”
After Tell’s pick-six sealed the Trojan win, redshirt sophomore Jake Olson made his USC debut at long snapper on a late extra point. Olson, who has been blind since age 12, executed a perfect snap, which freshman kicker Chase McGrath knocked through the uprights.
“Very special moment for us with a very special guy,” Helton said. “I commend and thank Coach Lester and the Western Michigan family for giving us the honor of getting a special person in [the game].”
Olson described the moment as “awesome” but said he was focused on the game at the time.
“I tried to suppress my emotions because I had a job to do out there,” Olson said. “I’ll check out the videos tonight and get emotional about it.”
Now, with a winning Week 1 behind them, the Trojans are ready to move onto Stanford next Saturday.
“We’re going to get better,” Darnold said. “We have no other choice but to get better.”