You could sense the nervousness reverberating through the Coliseum.
USC had a 28-6 lead early in the second half, but Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate had come alive. And then, on a designed run from 32 yards out, Tate took the handoff, slipped past the tackle attempt of senior linebacker Uchenna Nwosu and then ran effortlessly right through redshirt senior safety Chris Hawkins and redshirt junior cornerback Ajene Harris into the end zone.
“Touchdown Tate,” yelled ESPN commentator Mark Jones on the television broadcast. “He detonates!”
It would be an explosion that kept going and going throughout the second half. Tate, the up-and-coming teenage phenom who has slipped into the Heisman conversation with his exhilarating talent and absurd stat lines since taking over the starting role five games ago, was bottled up for just 19 rushing yards in the first half. But he went off for 142 yards on the ground in the second half, having his way with a USC defense that could only hold him off for so long. He ran around and through the Trojans, which also opened up passing lanes for wide open receivers in the rare cases he actually dropped back to throw.
Before you knew it, the Wildcats had reeled off touchdowns on four consecutive drives and tied the game early in the fourth quarter on a 2-point conversion, and you thought it would be another humiliating loss for USC — this time in the form of blowing a 22-point second half lead at home to an Arizona team that many predicted before the season to finish last in the Pac-12.
Alas, thanks to late-game heroics by redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold and junior running back Ronald Jones II and a timely interception by Tate that showed that he is, indeed, human, the Trojans pulled off the win, keeping their chances at a Pac-12 championship alive and avoiding humiliation.
“There’s never a question mark about these kids and how resilient they are, how prideful they are and how much they want to compete,” head coach Clay Helton said.
Sure, USC deserves credit for responding after Arizona tied the game at 35-35. It would’ve been easy to roll over and let the Khalil Tate Express keep chugging.
“When we were up by a couple of scores, [quarterbacks coach] Tyson [Helton] and [offensive coordinator] Tee [Martin] were telling me on their headset, ‘Hey, be prepared. This game’s not over,’” Darnold said. “I knew that. We knew that.”
Darnold and the offense delivered with two touchdowns, and Harris stepped up in the right place at the right time with a key interception.
But, like most of their wins this season, it seems like the Trojans escaped Saturday night with a win behind their talent alone. Once again, they rode the arm of Darnold in the clutch — the sideline lob to Jones to set up the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter was one of the more spectacular throws he’s ever made — and the unmatchable downhill speed of Jones, who broke free for several electric long runs. Arizona may have come out with a much better game plan in the second half that USC had no answer for, but the Wildcats could not match the pure talent on the other side.
This game, in a nutshell, is why the Trojans are projected to play in the Fiesta, Cotton or Alamo bowls instead of jostling for a spot in the College Football Playoff. They struggle to put away inferior opponents, commit too many costly penalties and fail to inspire confidence that they belong in the same ballpark as the likes of Georgia, Notre Dame or Alabama.
On Saturday, USC blew two red zone scoring opportunities in the first quarter, the first when Darnold couldn’t sneak for a yard on 4th-and-1, and the second when he threw an inexcusable interception with the ball at the one-yard line, underthrowing redshirt senior wide receiver Steven Mitchell Jr.
“It was one of the worst mistakes I’ve ever made on a football field,” Darnold said.
Then, before halftime, USC had the ball in Arizona territory with a chance to go up by three scores, but two penalties stalled the drive, which ended in a punt.
In all, the Trojans could’ve had three more touchdowns at halftime, points that would’ve gone a long way toward preventing the near-collapse that was the second half. Can you imagine if they had made those same mistakes against Alabama?
And the penalties. They committed 14 penalties for 123 yards on Saturday, penalties that slowed the game to a near stop in the second half, allowing the Wildcats to seize on the momentum. The flags ranged from the undisciplined (hands to the face, holding) to the just plain unnecessary (excessive celebration, sideline warnings, unsportsmanlike conduct on Helton). It is Week 10, and somehow, the Trojans are still shooting themselves in the foot.
An optimist might say that Trojans still control their own destiny — Helton’s favorite catch-phrase — and have a good chance at playing for the Pac-12 Championship. But it seems like, week-to-week, even after wins, USC is breathing a sigh of relief that it avoided an upset, avoided embarrassment for another week. It seems like, instead of winning games, the Trojans are playing not to lose.
That’s what this campaign has come to — relief that Khalil Tate didn’t carve USC up enough to spoil its season — which is not exactly what we thought would be the main takeaway from Week 10 before the season began, back when the Trojans had deeper aspirations, like winning a national championship.
Eric He is a junior studying journalism. He is also the associate managing editor for the Daily Trojan. His column, “Grinding Gears,” runs Mondays.