Two years ago, USC marched — or rather, sulked — into Arizona State following a disappointing upset to an unranked Stanford team at home, a loss that slowed its hype train considerably after the Trojans had blown out their first two opponents and climbed to No. 6 in the rankings.
They came away with a 42-14 rout of the Sun Devils in what was Steve Sarkisian’s shining moment at USC (ironically, this was the game where Sarkisian, according to reports, coached while not sober). That game gave the 2015 Trojans some relief, a sense that the season wasn’t yet lost.
Saturday night seemed like a repeat of that game — minus the Sark, of course. Something about Tempe just seems to rejuvenate the Trojans, give them life and look like the team everyone thought they would be preseason.
And for this year’s USC squad, after a 49-14 humiliation at the hands of Notre Dame last week, playing ASU on the road was, once again, the exact recipe it needed.
The Trojans pummeled the Sun Devils yet again, and this one had to feel good. The final score was 48-17, and it was every bit the blowout that the scoreboard indicated. For a team that has lacked any sort of punch, any sort of identity, any sort of juice all season, USC found all three on Saturday night.
The offense, which looked lost against Notre Dame — and has been mediocre at best up to this point — came to life. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold did the things we thought he would do since Week 1, putting together a solid, turnover-free game — save for a meaningless fumble on fourth down — for the first time this season.
“These are very prideful individuals in that locker room,” head coach Clay Helton said. “Both as players and coaches. I praise this team because they never stop fighting. Obviously, it’s a confidence builder. As a head coach, you never want that lingering mentality coming off a loss. Usually, the better teams clear it out. That’s what these kids did tonight. They had their jaws set and played some of their best football of the season.”
A lot of players had their best games of the season, and it started with the quarterback. From the opening drive and onward, Darnold was the Darnold we know and love.
He floated a ball perfectly to junior wide receiver Deontay Burnett for the first touchdown of the night. But it was a 19-yard touchdown pass to redshirt freshman wide receiver Tyler Vaughns in the second quarter that was Darnold’s best pass of the night, fitting it in a tight window over the middle, right over the outstretched hands of Sun Devils cornerback Chad Adams. It was reminiscent of Darnold’s game-tying touchdown pass in the Rose Bowl to Burnett, the version of Darnold that has disappeared this season, save for a few fleeting moments such as that one.
Like Darnold, junior running back Ronald Jones II also needed to rebound after logging just 32 yards against Notre Dame. And Jones delivered, not only carrying the load with freshman running back Stephen Carr still hurt, but also looking superhuman with two long touchdown runs, exploding through tackles and gaps for scores that kept USC’s big lead afloat.
And there shouldn’t be any doubt who Darnold’s top target should be for the remainder of the season. Vaughns had a career night, recording over 100 yards in catches for the first time. He had two touchdown grabs and averaged 21 yards on his six catches — a sign that he can be the explosive, big-play receiver that USC has been searching for all season to replace JuJu Smith-Schuster. Vaughns’ first score featured a nicely timed pivot after the catch that opened up room, and he worked for his second touchdown, hanging onto the ball despite taking a big hit in the end zone after the catch. Vaughns’ emergence is pivotal for Darnold, who needs more consistent weapons to turn to at wide receiver.
“Tyler has been a big part to the passing game for a while now,” Darnold said. “I think the way he works and the fact that every single play the ball is coming to him is huge. That’s a really great mentality to have as a receiver.”
On the other side of the ball, the defense was sensational, limiting an above-average Arizona State offense to 17 points. In one stretch in the first half, the Sun Devils were held to just one first down in a span of five possessions, with the Trojans forcing three-and-out after three-and-out. It had to be a welcome sight for a USC defense that barely had a pulse against Notre Dame, a confidence-booster heading into the final stretch of the season.
So that’s where we turn next: the home stretch. Remember, after USC demolished Arizona State in 2015, the Trojans were upset the following week by the Huskies at home. Then, following Sarkisian’s infamous firing, USC dropped another game at Notre Dame in Helton’s second debut as an interim coach.
This time around, the Trojans will need to build off the momentum. While it can sigh with relief in beating Arizona State, USC cannot afford to let its foot off the gas pedal. Not against Arizona and Khalil Tate — the Sam Darnold of 2017 — next week. Not against Colorado the following week, especially on the road in the thin air. And definitely not against UCLA, which, for all its struggles this season, would surely love to ruin USC’s Pac-12 title hopes in the final week.
The Trojans may have passed the test in Tempe with flying colors. But there is much more to come, if they hope to salvage what is left of their season.
Eric He is a junior studying print and digital journalism. He is also the associate managing editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Grinding Gears,” runs Mondays.