We’re three weeks into the 2017 season, and we know more or less as much about this USC team as we did heading into opening day. The Trojans kicked off their campaign with an unconvincing win over Western Michigan, rebounded with a statement victory against Stanford but then required two overtime periods to down a double-digit underdog Texas team.
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold has thrown for more than 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns so far this season, but he has also been picked off six times — already two-thirds of his 2016 total. The two-headed rushing attack of junior Ronald Jones II and freshman Steven Carr, which shined against the Broncos and the Cardinal, was held to less than three yards per carry against the Longhorns. USC’s defense, though formidable, has appeared prone to the occasional big play, which nearly crushed the team last weekend when Texas marched down the field and took the lead with 45 seconds left to play.
The Trojans now hit the road for their first game away from the Coliseum this fall. They will face an undefeated Cal team surging with confidence from its Week 3 upset over Ole Miss — and new head coach Justin Wilcox will be eager to exact revenge on his former team (he was USC’s defensive coordinator under former head coach Steve Sarkisian). Though the Bears endured a brutal 2016 campaign, they picked up an opening-week win at North Carolina in addition to beating Ole Miss, and they could very well give the Trojans their biggest test of the year so far come Saturday.
But another battle of attrition could spell trouble for this banged-up USC squad, which can ill-afford more injuries — let alone a loss. A slew of key players have been on the sidelines during practice this week, including Jones, junior linebacker Porter Gustin and three other starters. Of course, the Trojans’ injury issues will only make their task more difficult against the hungry Bears.
Fortunately, USC can take heart looking back at last year’s matchup. Even if Wilcox’s presence is a massive boost to the defense, this is largely the same roster that allowed USC to torch them for 629 total yards on offense in 2016; Trojan runners bowled the Bears over for 398 yards while Darnold rang up five scores through the air. Granted, 163 of USC’s receiving yards came from JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers, but junior wideout Deontay Burnett, who has racked up more than 120 yards in four consecutive games dating back to the Rose Bowl, should still keep Cal’s defense very busy.
However, can Jones and Carr rebound from their tough night versus Texas? Will a potentially depleted receiving corps get open for Darnold?
Can Darnold himself avoid giving the ball away to a Cal defense that ranks third in the FBS in forced turnovers? There is still plenty of confidence in this program, especially after last week’s dramatic win, but the feeling of invincibility that made fans chant “We want ’Bama” last year is fading rapidly. Whether it’s due to unlucky bounces or lack of chemistry, USC hasn’t completely clicked yet this season, and paranoid fans are starting to see upsets looming around every corner.
But there still remains a feeling that — when push comes to shove — the Trojans will jump on Darnold’s back and pull through. There was no better example of it than last weekend (save for maybe the Rose Bowl). Darnold, despite his two picks on the game, came out firing with no fear and deadly efficiency with less than a minute on the clock and no timeouts. From the second USC went down, the Trojans’ quarterback was spectacular, showing off his mobility, pocket presence and unmatched improvisational ability.
Even with all Darnold’s ability, though, it’s impossible to expect that from him every week. If they keep trying their luck, the Trojans will eventually wind up on the losing end of one of these nail-biters, especially away from home. USC hasn’t seen a deficit it couldn’t overcome in a full calendar year. You wouldn’t expect that streak to come to an end against Cal, who the Trojans haven’t lost to since 2003, but you can be sure the Bears smell blood after USC’s close call against Texas. Depending on which version of the Trojans shows up at Memorial Stadium, we could be in for another heart-stopper.
This team has been more roller coaster than hype train so far this season, but I’m still all in. With all the playmaking talent USC has on either side of the ball, there’s no question there is championship quality on this roster — and right now, there doesn’t seem to be a more automatic player in football than Darnold in clutch situations. It wasn’t necessarily pretty, but the Trojans took care of the Longhorns last week. Now it’s time for the bear hunt.
Ollie Jung is a senior studying print and digital journalism. He is also a sports editor for the Daily Trojan. His column, Jung Money, runs Fridays.