I caught some flak for a column I wrote earlier this season after USC lost to BYU 30-27 in which I wrote that Trojan fans need to manage their expectations. A fan or two (who obviously only read the headline and not the column) went after me on Twitter and asked why fans should approach a blue blood like USC with anything other than a championship-or-bust mentality.
The argument I actually made is that fans have to recognize that this team is not close to a playoff-caliber group and that it would take time to build the discipline and accountability required to become a championship program, which is always the goal.
It’s a small sample size, but I’m starting to see some of that progression from USC — at least, more of it than was apparent during the abomination that was the 2018 season. Even in road losses to ranked teams in Washington and Notre Dame, I saw a strength of will that helped keep the Trojans in the game in situations when last year’s team surely would have crumbled. USC fans don’t care about moral victories — and rightfully so — but they’re better than getting blown out, right?
USC’s 41-14 victory over Arizona at the Coliseum Saturday night was another performance that surprised me, not so much for the result but the manner. With defensive starters sophomore cornerback Olaijah Griffin, redshirt sophomore nickel back Greg Johnson, sophomore linebacker Palaie Gaoteote IV and redshirt senior defensive lineman Christian Rector all out, I figured USC would win in a shootout with a Wildcats offense that entered the game ranked ninth in the nation in yards per game.
USC ultimately put up a lot of points, but the defense was the dominant group, keeping Arizona from scoring until a few minutes into the fourth quarter. By then, USC already had the game well in hand up 34-0.
Perhaps the best player on the field was sophomore inside linebacker Kana’i Mauga, who only started because of Gaoteote’s absence. Mauga dominated, posting 13 tackles, a sack and two takeaways (an interception and a forced fumble) that directly led to 6 USC points.
“It was like unleashing somebody that was just waiting for his chance, and I can’t tell you how happy I am for him and our team that we have a guy like this,” head coach Clay Helton said of Mauga’s performance.
Fifth-string freshman running back Kenan Christon used the speed that made him a high school track star to dash for touchdowns of 55 and 30 yards in the second half. After sophomore Stephen Carr and redshirt freshman Markese Stepp left the game with injuries, Christon’s speed made an immediate impression on his coaches.
“It was fun tonight because when he hit the first one, [running backs coach] Mike Jinks as soon as he hit the line of scrimmage said ‘touchdown,’” Helton said.
Along with Mauga and Christon, backup freshmen Dorian Hewett and Max Williams held their own at cornerback and nickel back, respectively. That type of production from young backups is what you see from the best teams, who have not only the recruiting ability but the coaching acumen to get star-level play from bench players.
The best programs also play with toughness and aggression, and USC had both in spades. Sophomore cornerback Isaac Taylor-Stuart played despite an ankle injury and made a few key plays through the pain. As for aggression, the defensive front racked up seven sacks, making life miserable for whoever was in at quarterback for Arizona.
“We call it like you gotta bring the juice to the game,” Hewett said of the defensive performance. “When we brought the juice, there wasn’t nothing the offense could really do to stop us.”
Elite teams also have a knack for finding ways to win when things go wrong. The Trojan offense failed to pick up a first down on its first four possessions but paired a dynamic rushing attack with a complementary passing game to score 31 points over the final 31 minutes of the game. Helton said he’s been happy with how Graham Harrell’s offense has adjusted to early difficulties in recent games.
“There’s just a little bit of time that takes place to go ‘OK, this is what we’re getting, and this is our adjustments,’ and I credit Coach [Harrell] and the offensive staff,” he said. “They’ve done a great job of being able to say ‘OK, this is what it’s going to be today, let’s get to the place we need to get to,’ and then you look up in the end with 450 yards and 41 points.”
USC got some help from Arizona, to be sure. The Wildcats turned the ball over three times, all in their own territory, and fell apart in virtually every aspect by the middle of the game. But on this night, USC actually took advantage of its opponents’ missteps, a crucial quality of a team that has reached its full potential.
I’m not saying USC is back, I promise. In fact, I would expect plenty of regression on the road, where the Trojans always struggle, against Colorado later this week. But you have to keep an eye out for these types of developments.
Mental strength is absolutely the top factor in a football team playing above its talent, and this program already has plenty of talent. I doubt it will happen this season, but USC will be scary if it can make Saturday’s mentality the new normal.
Aidan Berg is a junior writing about sports. He is also an associate managing editor for Daily Trojan. His column, “Berg is the Word,” runs every Monday.