On Sept. 23, 2016, it appeared as though USC’s season ended on a rainy Friday night in Salt Lake City. Utah defeated USC 31-27 on a touchdown with 18 seconds left in the game, and a then-redshirt freshman quarterback named Sam Darnold saw his debut spoiled in heart-wrenching fashion.
The Trojans fell to 1-3. But it wasn’t close to the end. It was a new beginning.
“I just remember in that game just seeing our team grow,” head coach Clay Helton said. “It reminds me a little of this year. I saw players getting better week in and week out … Instead of worrying about what’s out there way on down the line, just worry about what it takes to win this week and let’s add them all up at the end.”
Last year’s loss to Utah was a turning point for a team standing at the crossroads. Now, one year and some change later, the Trojans again face the Utes at a critical point in their season. They suffered their first loss of the season to the Cougars on the road two weeks ago, and now must win out to get a whiff at the College Football Playoff facing a stiff test in Utah this weekend.
For Darnold, Utah is the only school he has unfinished business with from last year as they represent just one of two losses he’s suffered in 16 career starts. When he played Utah, the now-redshirt sophomore entered the game as a virtual unknown, benched in favor of Max Browne at the start of the season. Since his first career start at Rice-Eccles Stadium, Darnold has been featured on Sports Illustrated covers and NFL Draft forecasts. With all eyes on him in 2017, the results have been mixed. He’s already tied his total number of interceptions last year (nine) in just six games.
“I’d like to beat Utah just because I haven’t before,” Darnold said. “And Coach Whittingham, I have so much respect for him. It’s well-documented that they were my first offer, so I have a lot of respect for the Utah program because of what they’ve built there ever since they entered the Pac-12.”
In Darnold’s emotional rematch with the Utes at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, he must go up against a stout front seven and a secondary with a knack for forcing turnovers. The Utes’ defense has allowed the second fewest total touchdowns (nine) and has forced the second most turnovers (five fumbles, nine interceptions) in the Pac-12. Senior linebackers Sunia Tauteoli (7.5 tackles for loss) and Kavika Laufatasaga (26 tackles) both can fly to the football and blow up plays in the backfield. Utah also possesses a dominant defensive line behind tackles Lowell Lotulelei and Filipo Mokofisi.
“They load the box,” Helton said. “This is a cover-one football team, cover-three football team. They’re going to put one more down there than you have. They do a tremendous job with their big people up front … Their primary focus is to stop the run and they put their DBs on islands and so far they’ve held up extremely well.”
For the Utah offense, Los Angeles native Troy Williams has reclaimed the starting quarterback spot he held last year, after Tyler Huntley went down with an injury two weeks ago. Williams is a dual threat; last year he totaled 20 touchdowns both through the air and on the ground.
He will be throwing to wide receiver Darren Carrington II, who leads the Pac-12 in receiving yards (116.8 yards per game, five touchdowns). Likely the most dynamic athlete on Utah’s roster, Carrington joined the team this season after spending the last three years as a standout for Oregon. Upon his dismissal from the program due to a DUI arrest, the San Diego native is making the most of second chance in the Pac-12 South.
Clashing with Carrington, Williams and Zack Moss, the Utes’ leading running back, will be a Trojan defense prolific in its own right. In replacing junior linebacker Porter Gustin, sophomore defensive end Christian Rector has emerged as the unit’s primary disrupter. He leads the Pac-12 with 4.5 sacks and two fumble recoveries. In addition to the defensive front, USC’s secondary is tied for forcing the most interceptions in the conference with nine. Sophomore cornerback Jack Jones has four interceptions himself over the first half of the season.
As Darnold tilts with Utah for the second time in his career, his supporting cast may look different, but the game’s importance remains the same heading into a Pac-12 contest with major Pac-12 South division ramifications.
“I think everyone on the team knows what’s going down on Saturday,” Darnold said. “We know implications that the game presents. So far, on film, we’ve seen them bring it. We’re going to be ready, but it definitely will be a battle for sure.”