Being frank, I thought USC looked its worst this season during last Saturday’s 38-10 win over Oregon State. The stats on the surface were strong: a four-touchdown cushion, 316 passing yards (three scores) for redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold and more than 500 yards of total offense. But the Beavers are a team in shambles right now. Even when facing a turnover-prone offense and toothless defense, the Trojans did their best to support their opponent’s upset bid early on, with sloppy play and multiple bone-headed turnovers, including a poorly read interception from Darnold, an inexplicable no-contact fumble and a muffed punt from junior cornerback Ajene Harris.
Still, a win is a win — a 28-point win at that. No harm, no foul. An injury-ravaged USC roster managed to avoid more trouble against Oregon State (save what appears to be a minor toe issue for junior wideout Deontay Burnett), and inexperienced players who were asked to step into key roles logged valuable reps heading into a make-or-break second half of the season. In particular, true freshman Andrew Vorhees made his first career start last Saturday at right guard, and redshirt sophomore Clayton Johnston manned right tackle. With redshirt senior Viane Talamaivao out for the season and almost every other regular starter on the Trojans’ line nursing injuries throughout the fall, the unproven duo of Vorhees and Johnston will have to be trusted in big moments down the stretch.
But most importantly, staying the course as a one-loss team was massive for the Trojans in view of the rankings shakeup we saw last weekend, when previously undefeated Oklahoma, Michigan and Utah all lost for the first time. No. 13 USC may remain an unconvincing on-field product, but it is still well-positioned for a berth in the College Football Playoff if the team can get healthy and find an offensive spark.
I wouldn’t blame you for dismissing me as a hopeless optimist. Plenty have already bailed on the Trojans’ season, at least in terms of playoff hopes, and it’s hard to argue that this squad has played like a top-four program through its opening six weeks. But just look: USC welcomes Utah to the Coliseum this weekend, and since the Trojans and Utes are the only one-loss teams left in the Pac-12 South, a victory would put USC in clear pole position in the division. In other words, Darnold and company still control their own destiny in the conference — and if they grab the Pac-12 crown with only a single blemish on their record, it would be hard to keep them out of the playoff discussion.
Then again, I suppose you already knew that. Trojan fans’ plummeting confidence doesn’t come from the team’s record; it comes from what they have seen on the field. Even if USC somehow makes it to Santa Clara next month, could it triumph against Washington or in a rematch with Washington State?
Moreover, can the Trojans beat Utah this week? Vegas favors them by 12.5 points, but as usual, you’d expect the game to be much closer than that (USC has only covered the spread once this season, against Stanford). After the Beavers brought a bottom-25 defense to the Coliseum last Saturday, the Utes will arrive with the No. 21 total defense in the country. They hold opposing quarterbacks to the seventh-lowest passer rating among 129 FBS programs, and they are also stout against the run, sitting in the top 25. For all the much-deserved praise defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast has received for his ball-hawking unit, USC’s defense ranks behind Utah in almost all categories, and while the Trojans have forced 15 turnovers this year (fifth in the FBS), Utah has forced just one fewer. That doesn’t bode well for Darnold, who individually averages nearly two giveaways per game.
Nothing bodes well for USC this weekend, actually. The Utes will arrive confident and hungry as underdogs. On the other side, the Trojans have already played six consecutive weeks of high-pressure football (with a trip to South Bend looming next Saturday) while Utah enjoyed a bye just two weeks ago. Physically, the visitors could have a significant leg up, and the opponent could hold that edge against USC in every game from now until the end of the regular season.
So what can the Trojans do to overcome their disadvantage? How can they reestablish themselves as a legitimate championship contender? Honestly, I don’t know. If the answer were clear, we wouldn’t be debating every aspect of this team from personnel to play-calling halfway through the season. Darnold — as much as many hoped — is not a one-man solution, and there is no immediate cure for injuries or the inexperience that has been exposed as a result.
But as a season comes under threat, perspective sets in. Redshirt senior safety Chris Hawkins and senior linebacker Uchenna Nwosu are playing their final collegiate seasons — and perhaps USC’s other two captains, Darnold and junior linebacker Cam Smith, are as well. After overcoming two knee surgeries as a Trojan, redshirt senior wide receiver Steven Mitchell Jr. is also playing for one last shot at glory. It may be among the biggest sports cliches, but perhaps USC will begin to play for its seniors, for the men who might not be back in the locker room next fall. After all, this was supposed to be the year it all came together.
The season is still very much alive, too. Once again, despite all the doom and gloom, the Trojans control their own destiny. Let’s see if they can fulfill it.
Ollie Jung is a senior studying print and digital journalism. He is also the sports editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, Jung Money, runs Fridays.