Ronald Jones II started to run to the right.
Then, seeing the mass of Colorado defenders in front of him, he paused — almost to a full stop — shifted directions to the left, eluded one would-be tackler and sprinted into the end zone.
“They all went to the right, so I went left,” Jones said.
With that 22-yard touchdown run, USC went ahead by three scores midway through the fourth quarter, wrapping up the Pac-12 South division and clinching its spot in the Pac-12 Championship on Dec. 1.
“November is crunch time,” redshirt junior cornerback Ajene Harris said. “We’ve got to get to the championship, so we’re going to do everything we can to get there.”
The 11th-ranked football team followed a scoreless first quarter with a 20-point second quarter while shutting out Colorado in the first half en route to a 38-24 victory in Boulder.
“We weren’t in this position last year,” head coach Clay Helton said, “and now we are.”
Though, USC had to work in the second half to make good on the division clincher. The Trojans gifted the Buffaloes with 14 points early in the second half, first leaving Colorado receiver Juwann Winfree wide open on a 79-yard touchdown, and then allowing a punt in USC territory to be blocked and returned to the one-yard line.
From there, Phillip Lindsay punched in the score to cut USC’s lead to 27-14.
But redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold and USC’s offense put up enough points to stave off a Colorado offense that came alive too late, redshirt junior cornerback Ajene Harris recorded an interception with the Trojans in front 38-24 and redshirt sophomore linebacker John Houston Jr. sacked Colorado quarterback Steven Montez on fourth-and-1 with under two minutes to play to help conclude matters.
On defense, USC pitched a shutout until midway through the third quarter, when blown coverage led to Winfree waltzing in for a 79-yard catch-and-run touchdown. The Trojans bent but did not break on several Colorado drives. They also blocked two field goals in addition to Harris’ pick-six, the first time USC has blocked two field goals in a game since 2011 against Colorado.
“Defensively, our guys had an unbelievable first half,” Helton said, “and when plays needed to be made at the end, [Harris] did an unbelievable job. I told them [in the locker room] that it’s a player’s game and they won it.”
The Trojans grabbed the lead early in the second quarter when Darnold threw a jump ball for sophomore wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr., who hauled it in over the defender for his first career touchdown grab.
Then, after a three-and-out by Colorado, Darnold marched the Trojans right back down the field, throwing consecutive back-shoulder fades to redshirt freshman wide receiver Tyler Vaughns that set up an 18-yard strike to junior wide receiver Deontay Burnett for the touchdown.
Up 14-0, USC put a stranglehold on its lead before halftime when Harris telegraphed a pass on the right sideline, intercepting it and running it back for a 34-yard pick six.
The Trojans took a 20-0 lead into halftime, and then tacked on right off the bat in the third quarter, when Darnold hit Burnett on a deep ball and then ran it in himself on a 24-yard scamper with a wide-open lane to the end zone.
It was probably Darnold’s best game of the season. The quarterback completed 21-of-34 passes for 329 yards and two touchdowns. And, most importantly, it was his first game all season with no turnovers.
“It means a lot,” Darnold said. “Whenever I can play a really clean game, it’s always nice. It was good to sustain some drives and not turn the ball over.”
He spread the ball out to a variety of receivers, with Burnett, freshman Tyler Vaughns, sophomore Michael Pittman and redshirt receiver Steven Mitchell Jr. all catching at least four passes.
“I’m finally starting to get a good groove and a good rhythm with my receivers, and it’s really comforting,” Darnold said.
It was also a testament to the receivers getting open and gaining confidence as the regular season reaches its final weeks.
“They had the mentality that, ‘If I touch it, I catch it,'” Helton said.
The coach added that he expected Colorado to zero in on the run, considering USC had racked up 300 yards on the grounds the past few weeks.
“You’re going to get your one-on-one shots,” Helton said to the wide receivers during the game. “You’ve got to make the plays.”
Regardless, USC still rushed for 193 yards on the ground, with Jones accounting for 146 of them. He carried the ball 25 times and passed Mike Garrett and Reggie Bush to step into sixth place on USC’s career rushing list.
Jones was explosive, breaking off first down runs on nearly every drive, at times carrying defenders with him.
“The game called for it,” Jones said on his performance. “Looking at how the game flowed, the offensive line establishing their dominance once again — that’s where we win games: in the trenches.”
After the game, outside the locker room with rap music blaring, players remained optimistic that they still had a chance at sneaking into the College Football Playoff. They acknowledged that they would need a number of teams to lose. But, playing their best football of the season — and with a rivalry game against UCLA next week — the Trojans are, in Harris’ words, “hungry.”
“We want it all,” he said. “We want the Pac-12 championship, the playoffs. We want the college football championship as well.”
USC’s opponent in the Pac-12 Championship Game is still in the air, though it will face either Washington, Washington State or Stanford.