In the final drive of the second quarter, redshirt quarterback Sam Darnold finally came alive.
It wasn’t that his night had been subpar — he threw a perfect first half, consistently hitting his receivers and buying time in the backfield to keep busted plays alive. But when he opened the final drive of the half with a 49-yard pass to Steven Mitchell, Darnold found a way to silence the doubt that began to cloud his Heisman hopes after a disappointing season opener.
The ball hung in the air long enough for every fan in the stands to crane their necks to watch it, then dropped perfectly into Mitchell’s arms as he crashed into the ground. The crowd went wild, as any crowd will when it witnesses a hero step up fully into his spotlight. The roar was equally as loud one play later, when Darnold connected a 25-yard pass to Burnett, who dove and stretched out to snag the ball in the end zone.
The team carried its 28-17 lead into the half, entering the locker room to a rumbling cheer. Coaches and players alike danced off the field and leapt to chest bump each other.
It was a completely different scene than what took place just a week earlier, when the Trojans trudged into the locker room to smattered boos. And the game was a different feeling for the team as well, as USC went on to top Stanford 42-24, breaking a three-year losing streak to the Cardinal.
“There was an energy about our kids and a confidence about our kids,” Helton said. “We’ve had a lot of hard roads and hard days with [Stanford] in the past. Our kids had their jaws set and had the mentality to come out and be physical and they believed in what they were doing.”
After facing criticism in the wake of the Western Michigan game, the defense approached the game with one plan in mind — attack. The unit packed the box, blitzing heavily to disrupt the Stanford rush game and holding star running back Bryce Love to only 168 rushing yards, most of which came in the first quarter.
Up front, the defensive line was a nightmare, with senior linebacker Uchenna Nwosu breaking up four passes, and junior tackle Rasheem Green swatting away another. Senior defensive tackle Josh Fatu wrapped up the lone sack of the night, but most of Stanford quarterback Keller Chryst’s nine incomplete passes were forced by aggressive pressure on the pocket.
To junior linebacker Cam Smith, the game was an answer to the questions that the first week of play presented to the defensive unit.
“We’re playing really well as a unit,” Smith said. “As a group we clicked really well tonight and we’re going to build confidence off of this game.”
For the offense, the game was a clinic in spreading the ball. The opening drive saw seven players touch the ball, including a 14-yard pass to junior tight end Tyler Petite and a touchdown toss to redshirt senior wide receiver Steven Mitchell to give the team a 7-0 lead.
It took only 12 seconds, however, to reverse the momentum. Stanford immediately followed with a 75-yard run by Bryce Love, who caught a pitch and busted through a wide open hole in the USC defense. Once he passed the line of scrimmage, he was moving too fast to ever be caught. After a single play, Darnold and the offense strapped on their helmets and took to the field again.
Darnold responded in his typical style, scrambling to hit Petite with a 19-yard pass, then stalling as the line broke down again to toss a long ball to Mitchell to move the Trojans to the four-yard line. A stutter step and a pitch to Jones gave the Trojans their second touchdown of the night and a 14-7 lead.
Stanford fired back at the same break-neck pace. After an opening return to the 45-yard line, a 15-yard pass and then a long rush by Love to put the Cardinal in position for an easy touchdown pass.
This time, it was Stephen Carr who answered for the Trojans, opening USC’s third drive of the game with a 52-yard sprint, shoving off defenders along the way. Darnold hit Burnett in the end zone, and the momentum continued to swing as the Trojans took a 21-17 lead.
Darnold lit the Coliseum up in the following drive, and the team entered the second half with a grip on the pace of the game.
“The ability for our receivers to make plays when needed… it was huge,” Darnold said. “When [their] opportunity presents itself, they make the most of it. Whenever they get the opportunity to make a big play, they have.”
The second half slowed considerably, as both teams struggled in a scoreless third quarter. Penalties held the Trojans back on both sides of the ball, but the team’s response was positive, with players skipping and dancing to the sidelines to pump the crowd up.
“We take a lot of energy from the fans,” Darnold said. “When our fans come out and are loud it helps us as players to have that energy. We can feed off that and that’s something special you don’t get anywhere else.”
Darnold broke the silence in the fourth quarter, tossing 35 yards to Burnett to put the Trojans within striking range. After rushing for a quarterback keeper, Darnold scrambled and lofted a pass over two defensive backs to hit Mitchell in the back corner of the end zone. The touchdown pushed the lead to 35-17, and fans began to filter out of the stands as the point differential widened.
The Cardinal responded quickly, relying on long passes to cut the lead to 35-24 with seven minutes remaining. But a 22-yard touchdown run by Jones with under five minutes to play in the fourth quarter was enough to put the game away.