OK — let’s try this again.
The Trojans escaped with a season-opening win last week, battling back from behind to beat Western Michigan 49-31, but it was an inauspicious beginning for a team with championship aspirations. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold also got off to a sputtering start after being the preseason Heisman Trophy favorite, throwing two interceptions in a home game for the first time in his career. Surviving the unexpected Bronco stampede actually cost USC two spots in the AP Poll, as Oklahoma, Penn State and Clemson all leapfrogged the Trojans, who now sit at No. 6.
Head coach Clay Helton and his squad brushed off last weekend as a learning experience, but they must get through their growing pains before Saturday night. Conference rival No. 14 Stanford is in town seeking its fourth consecutive win against USC, and the Cardinal don’t fear the Coliseum: They’ve won in four of their last five visits there, and most recently, they hung 41 points on the Trojans in 2015. A repeat of Week 1’s performance would lay waste to all the momentum Helton’s team has generated since last October.
So we’re at a tipping point. It sounds melodramatic to say in Week 2, but it’s true. With no bye week during the regular season and a strong schedule, USC faces a steep climb to the playoff if it comes up short against Stanford. It would likely have to win out — ten consecutive victories — coming off two shaky showings and with back-to-back road trips to Cal and Washington State on the horizon.
Beat the Farm, on the other hand, and all the first-game overreactions go out the window, and business resumes as usual for the Darnold-era Trojans. Based off the current AP rankings, Stanford is the most formidable opponent on USC’s schedule. Once again, it’s early, but a victory this weekend would be a significant boost to the team’s confidence and playoff resume.
But besting the Cardinal has always been a challenge, even during the Trojans’ golden age under former head coach Pete Carroll (this year marks the ten-year anniversary of Stanford’s upset against USC in 2007, when the Cardinal entered the Coliseum as 41-point underdogs). Western Michigan exposed multiple holes in USC’s game last week, including an inconsistent air attack, a still-green offensive line and an unconvincing run defense. Time can sort these issues out, but that’s not a luxury Helton and company currently have. They must put the pieces together on the fly if they are to live up to their lofty expectations.
As Darnold’s introduction proved last fall, the Trojans are capable of adjusting in-season to great effect. And they have the talent to do so again this season — especially on the defensive side of the ball, where they have numerous established impact players: junior linebackers Cam Smith and Porter Gustin, junior cornerback Iman Marshall and junior safety Marvell Tell III, who grabbed the game-clinching pick-six last Saturday.
On the offense, however, question marks abound. The run game looks healthy, as the Trojans look to establish another two-headed rushing monster with junior Ronald Jones II and freshman Stephen Carr. Junior wide receiver Deontay Burnett appears set to continue his breakout 2016 campaign, and despite his relative struggles, we know better than to doubt Darnold.
But aside from that quartet, no offensive player really appeared a threat during the season opener. Many assumed Darnold’s presence would be more than enough to cope with JuJu Smith-Schuster’s departure to the NFL. One week into the season, it appears they underestimated the star wideout’s impact.
Fortunately, it appears USC may have found a weapon to kick-start their aerial offense. Freshman wide receiver Joseph Lewis IV was Helton’s highest-profile recruit alongside Carr last spring, and there were whispers around practice that he could be ready to take on a bigger role. At six-foot-two, 205 pounds, Lewis offers wingspan that Darnold doesn’t get throwing to the likes of Burnett and redshirt senior receiver Steven Mitchell Jr. Furthermore, sophomore Michael Pittman Jr. is about a week away from returning from an ankle sprain, adding a six-foot-four, 215-pound frame to the mix in the near future. Lewis and Pittman’s presence could bring a sizeable boost the Trojans’ vertical, big-play situations — an explosiveness USC seemed to lack against Western Michigan.
It’s obviously no easy task for a team to maintain a lethal ground game and passing offense alongside an in-sync offensive line and shutdown defense. But the Trojans are also one of the few programs that even have the depth of talent to achieve that kind of well-rounded strength. That’s what made them a popular preseason pick for the national championship. That’s what convinced more than 60,000 fans to flock to the Coliseum in ungodly hot weather last weekend, and that’s what will bring Trojan Nation out in full force this Saturday.
They’re here because they believe USC has championship chops. Let’s see if the Trojans can prove it against the Cardinal.