Certain individual performances in sports stick with you forever. It hasn’t been too long since Sam Darnold, as a redshirt freshman quarterback, spearheaded a heroic comeback against Penn State last January, but I know the furious final minutes of that miracle will stick in my mind for decades to come. I’ll also always remember last Thanksgiving, when Adoree’ Jackson single-handedly cut Notre Dame to ribbons as a defender, runner, receiver and returner as the crowd braving rain at the Coliseum began to smell roses.
But great games can go against your team, too, and those memories remain just as vividly. I will never forget Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey during the 2015 Pac-12 Championship: Head coach Clay Helton had shed his interim label after guiding USC to the conference championship game just months after the Steve Sarkisian circus, and the Trojans were riding high off a statement victory over UCLA in a de facto Pac-12 South title bout.
Then McCaffrey lit USC up with 461 all-purpose yards, scoring three touchdowns on a rush, reception and — to twist the knife — a trick-play pass. The Cardinal dominated the Trojans 41-22 to take the conference crown and resign a deflated USC team to the Holiday Bowl.
It takes a perfect storm of sorts to set the stage for games like these: the right teams at the right time with the right stakes — and with one transcendent talent. Saturday’s game between USC and Arizona has those elements. The Pac-12 South is essentially on the line as the regular season winds to a close, and the Wildcats bring a four-game win streak into Los Angeles. Though USC bulldozed them 48-14 in Tucson last year, every other meeting between the two programs in the last decade has ended as a one-possession game. Many expect a closely fought battle, but it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising to see one special player step up and take over the game a la McCaffrey or Jackson.
Or Darnold? Unfortunately for Trojan fans, the man who looks most likely to dominate Saturday’s contest isn’t USC’s Rose Bowl hero and former Heisman contender — it’s his counterpart on the Wildcats’ sideline. Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate has owned the headlines in this week’s lead-up — and for good reason. The sophomore only seized the first-string job in early October, but he has already replaced Darnold in the Heisman race by averaging an absurd 210 rushing yards per game across his four starts, including a 327-yard effort at Colorado. Tate already has close to 1,000 yards — more than Trojan junior running back Ronald Jones II — and eight scores on the ground this season, in addition to his 784 yards and six touchdowns through the air. With Tate under center, Arizona has scored at least 45 points in every game, and it gashed Washington State for 58 points last week.
Unsurprisingly, the Trojans’ focus in practice all week has been containing the Wildcats’ unique threat. USC faced Tate briefly as a freshman, when he came in for garbage time in last season’s blowout, but he has since evolved into a track star, breaking off runs of at least 70 yards in four consecutive games. It will be a tall order to stop Tate, especially considering how Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush torched the Trojans on the ground for 106 yards and two touchdowns last month.
In truth, it feels like another embarrassing USC loss could be brewing on Saturday: Tate is the hottest player in college football right now, and the momentum and skillset he brings into the Coliseum feel eerily similar to the Fighting Irish’s rhythm two weeks ago. Not to mention the Inglewood native will be home, looking to impress in front of friends and family.
But occasionally, teams step up to be the immovable object to an unstoppable force. Leonard Fournette was the runaway Heisman favorite on a 7-0 LSU team in 2015 — until Alabama held the superstar to 1.6 yards per carry and sent the Tigers into a three-game tailspin. Perhaps USC can do the same this weekend, whether the defense chases Tate down or Darnold simply outguns his adversary. Despite the colossal disappointment of missing the College Football Playoff, the Trojans are still arguably the favorite to take home the conference championship, and five straight wins to end the season, culminating in a Pac-12 title in Santa Clara, would be as strong a silver lining as you could wish for.
In order earn that silver lining, however, USC will have to execute on Saturday. Arizona is arguably the biggest hurdle remaining in the program’s pursuit of its first Pac-12 crown since 2008 — which marked the last of seven consecutive championships. It’s tempting to dub the Wildcats this season’s Trojans while watching the team’s midseason surge under a new quarterback. But this weekend is Homecoming: It’s about repeating tradition, not passing the torch.
Ollie Jung is a senior majoring in print and digital journalism. He is also the sports editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, Jung Money, runs Fridays.