The message was clear when No. 17 USC took on No. 22 Arizona on Saturday. The Pac-12 championship trophy was on display behind the Coliseum’s west end zone as a palpable reminder: Win, or this weekend would be the closest the Trojans got to a conference crown this season.
USC was happy to answer the call after being accused of lackluster preparation and low energy in recent weeks. Facing a streaking Arizona side with a late-breaking Heisman contender at quarterback, the Trojans battled to their second statement win, downing the Wildcats 49-35 on Homecoming Weekend. USC squandered a 22-point lead in the second half but managed to avoid embarrassment with another late rally.
“Big win for us,” Helton said. “It leaves us in control of our own destiny, with a great opportunity next week to go to Colorado and try to seal things up.”
Going into a game that would more or less decide the fate of the Pac-12 South, all eyes were on Wildcat quarterback Khalil Tate — an Inglewood native — as many wondered how the Trojans could contain the hottest player in college football. Arizona picked up a quick first down in its opening drive, but Tate followed up by firing incomplete on his first throw of the day. His run was stuffed for minimal gain on second down, and he took a sack from redshirt senior safety Chris Hawkins on the subsequent play. Barely making a dent in the box score, Tate was off the field.
The snap then came in low to Wildcat punter Josh Pollack on fourth down, and before the redshirt junior could scoop it off the grass, sophomore wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. crashed into him, popping the ball free into the hands of redshirt junior wideout Jalen Greene, who ran into the end zone for the opening score.
The Trojan defensive front was aggressive from the start, consistently forcing Tate out of the pocket early to prevent easy passing and chasing him down quickly before he could break off one of his signature runs. After averaging more than 300 yards of offense across his first four career starts, Tate mustered just 19 yards on 12 carries through the entire first half against USC, and he completed five of 12 passes for 37 yards.
“We heard all the talk about these guys,” junior running back Ronald Jones II said. “But we know what we’re capable of.”
As its teammates did their part to contain Arizona, the Trojan offense turned to Jones, who was coming off a 216-yard, two-touchdown night at Arizona State. USC fed Jones out of the gate, allowing him to chew up 54 yards on the team’s opening four plays, though an unsuccessful fourth-down sneak attempt from redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold halted USC’s first drive at Arizona’s 16-yard line.
But Darnold found his groove soon enough. A pair of passes to Greene — one going for a 22-yard gain — and a screen to Jones set the Trojans up near the red zone midway through the second quarter. Darnold then found redshirt freshman wide receiver Tyler Vaughns wide open down the middle for a 22-yard score. Vaughns crossed the plane again to build on a breakout two-touchdown night at Arizona State, and USC opened up a 14-3 cushion.
With its first touchdown of the night on the board, the Trojan offense began to roll, rising to the level of the excellent defense and special teams. Darnold unleashed a 27-yard deep shot during USC’s next drive, finding redshirt senior wide receiver Steven Mitchell sprawling for the catch in the end zone. The Wildcats added a field goal before the end of the half, and USC ran into the locker room with a 15-point lead.
Arizona tried to force the issue with Tate to begin the second half, drawing up more passes and designed quarterback runs. The Trojan defense coped well initially, forcing a turnover early in the third quarter when sophomore linebacker Jordan Iosefa ripped the ball from Tate’s hands.
A shanked punt following another strong defensive stop soon set USC up in Wildcat territory. Darnold immediately took the Trojans to the goal line with a 41-yard bomb to junior wide receiver Deontay Burnett, before a five-yard run from Jones capped a two-play scoring drive.
But after getting sacked five times and seeing six runs stuffed for a loss, Tate finally broke out late in the third quarter, racing 32 yards up the gut for a touchdown that brought Arizona within 15. USC followed with a quick three-and-out, and Tate ripped off a 21-yard run, then a 30-yard touchdown pass. In the blink of an eye, the once-cruising Trojans found themselves nursing a single-possession lead.
“[Tate] is a very special player,” Helton said. “I hugged his neck afterward and said he honored his family and his city.”
A 42-yard scoring scamper from Ware appeared to reestablish some breathing room, but as soon as USC pulled ahead 35-20, it was 35-27 as Tate broke off a 54-yard gain of his own and threw for a 16-yard touchdown one play later.
Then it was 35-35. The Trojans went three-and-out on offense following the Wildcats’ touchdown, and Tate shredded an exhausted USC defense. Arizona covered 84 yards in six plays, culminating in a three-yard touchdown run from Zach Green. Tate then passed to Tony Ellison on the two-point conversion to knot the score.
The Trojans were scrambling late in the fourth quarter at home. Luckily, that is when Darnold has been at his best this season. Darnold completed four passes for 76 yards to march USC down the field in response to the tying score, and Jones punched it in at the goal line to give the Trojans a 42-35 lead. Darnold finished the game with 311 passing yards, two touchdowns and one pick.
“When they tied the game, it was just like, ‘Hey, we have to go out there and do what we do,’” Darnold said. “We knew that they had a chance to come back, and when they did, we just grinded it out.”
Tate threw an interception to redshirt junior cornerback Ajene Harris on the first play of the subsequent drive. Jones then iced the game with a 52-yard run, followed by another one-yard score as he eviscerated the Wildcats for 194 yards and three touchdowns on the game. With his big night, Jones became the first back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher for USC since LenDale White.
Redshirt sophomore linebacker John Houston Jr. intercepted Tate again on Arizona’s next possession, clinching the game for the Trojans.
With the win, USC can punch its ticket to Santa Clara as early as next week. A victory at Colorado on Saturday afternoon would clinch the Pac-12 South, setting up a date with Washington, Washington State or Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game on Dec. 1.
“There’s never a question mark about these kids and how resilient they are,” Helton said. “They care for each other. They care about being Pac-12 champions.”