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 Jr., 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 35-24, 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 — to 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 senior 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.”
The offense also thrived, especially in the explosive first half, with a wide range of players breaking out for moments in the spotlight. Mitchell hauled in two touchdown catches, notching a career-high 94 receiving yards on the night, while freshman running back Stephen Carr continued to impress with 119 yards of rushing. Darnold went 21-for-26 after completing his first 11 passes, tossing four of the night’s touchdowns.
Behind a balanced rushing game and improved chemistry between Darnold and his receivers, the Trojans were only scoreless on two drives of the first half.
“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.