No. 13 USC overcomes Utah with second half comeback, defensive stand

The air in the Coliseum hummed with energy as both teams jogged onto the field in the final seconds of the fourth quarter.

Despite taking a 28-21 lead late in the game, the Trojans had allowed the Utes to storm back for a touchdown drive to tie the game with less than a minute to play. Now, Utah had decided the risk wasn’t worth it — the team was going for the two-point conversion.

But redshirt senior safety Chris Hawkins was ready.

“Once they came out of that formation, we kind of had an idea what they were going to run,” he said.

Ajene Harris tackles Utah’s Troy Williams to seal the game for USC – Brian Chin | Daily Trojan

The center snapped the ball, and quarterback Troy Williams rolled right. Hawkins jumped his receiver, and Williams was forced to run. There was a moment of silence as the crowd held its breath, watching the foot race between the Utah quarterback and redshirt junior Ajene Harris to the right corner of the end zone.

Then Harris dove into a tackle, and the crowd exploded in roars as the pair fell to the ground just short of the goal line. The Trojans had escaped once again.

In a game that highlighted all of the Trojans’ strengths and weaknesses, the Trojans held off Utah at home with a 28-27 victory.

“Players win games,” head coach Clay Helton said. “Our players made the decision to define our football team in the second half. Our kids found a way to win a critical game for us. Great quarterbacks find a way to produce wins and …. it was a total team victory.”

The first half consisted of a handful of solid plays mixed in with a healthy serving of fumbles, missed tackles and botched plays. Time and time again, redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold and the offense marched the ball down the field into scoring position, only to cough the ball up for a turnover.

The offense notched 262 yards in the first half, but mistakes in Utah territory piled up. Darnold and junior running back Ronald Jones muffed a hand off for a fumble, and Darnold dropped the ball while scrambling for another turnover. In the second quarter, he attempted a backwards pass that smacked Jones straight in the facemask and resulted in a turnover.

“I didn’t really get in rhythm in the first half,” Darnold said. “That’s just me making mistakes. You’re not supposed to win football games when you turn the ball … but I think if I can just control the ball then we’ll be able to match up with any team in the country.”

Although the offense shone in spurts, it put together only one complete drive in the first half. Darnold threw to junior wide receiver Deontay Burnett for 21 yards to give the Trojans position on the half line. He followed with a short pass up the gut to junior tight end Tyler Petite, who hustled his way untouched into the end zone, tying the game 7-7.

Tyler Petite rushes for a touchdown against Utah – Katie Chin | Daily Trojan

The offense, however, wasn’t able to convert the scoring drive into momentum. And unlike in past games, the defense wasn’t able to take a stalwart stand to make up for offensive errors.

Junior linebacker Cam Smith opened the game by smacking down an interception to avoid a touchdown deep into Trojan territory, but the team struggled to stop the run game and showed vulnerabilities to deep balls. Junior cornerback Iman Marshall earned a pair of critical pass interference calls, and Utah capitalized on breakout drives. The Utes closed down the half with a 21-7 lead, and the Trojans were greeted by boos as they jogged slowly into the locker room.

In the locker room, however, the team didn’t focus on the struggles of the first half. Head coach Clay Helton told the team to approach the second half the same as always — as if the first half didn’t exist and the score was 0-0. Then, Hawkins turned up music — “Knuck If You Buck” by Crime Mob, he said — and told his teammates to find their energy.

“The message was to go out there and have fun,” Smith, a fellow captain, said. “It’s football. We started out pretty flat on both sides of the ball and that’s not how football should be played. We need that spark.”

The Trojans took the dismay of the first half and built from it. As the second half began, the team saw steady improvement on both sides of the ball. Despite allowing 21 points in the first, the defense locked down and refused to allow another point. And after a shaky start, Darnold lit up the offense, beginning with a touchdown drive in the midst of the third quarter.

The pocket collapsed almost immediately, and pash rushers converged from either side. Darnold dodged two tackles, ducking under arms and side stepping bodies to toss a pass into double coverage directly into the hands of Petite. The crowd roared, almost surprised — it had been awhile since Trojan fans had seen this side of Darnold, cool and collected under this amount of pressure.

Darnold showed similar composure in the fourth quarter’s tying drive. On third-and-10 at midfield, he threw a first down pass that Burnett hauled in despite getting trucked in mid-air. He followed with a scrambling 20-yard pass to Steven Mitchell, then rolled right from the one-yard line to float an easy pass to Josh Falo to bring the score to 21-21.

“The balance of the run game finally came together,” Helton said. “You feel just the start of wearing down the defensive line. All of a sudden they started to pop.”

Running back Ronald Jones II does a front flip into the end zone to give USC the lead in the fourth quarter – Katie Chin | Daily Trojan

After trailing by double digits for almost two quarters, the Trojans surged ahead with less than five minutes in the final quarter. With the run game back in rhythm, Jones and redshirt freshman running back Vavae Malepeai ripped off long runs to push the Trojans down into the red zone.

Jones dashed five yards up the gut of the defense, flipping across the goal line to pull the Trojans ahead, 28-21. Jones leapt to his feet, howling at the student section and beating his chest as the scoreboard lit up to give the Trojans a six-point lead.