The Trojans overcame a 14-point deficit thanks to big games from sophomore wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and freshman running back Ronald Jones II, and defeated the Arizona Wildcats 38-30 at the Coliseum on Saturday night.
The win gave the Trojans (6-3, 4-2 Pac-12) their third consecutive victory and keeps them in contention in the Pac-12 South.
Jones had 177 yards on 19 carries, breaking a USC record for most yards in a game by a freshman.
Smith-Schuster, who underwent surgery on a broken hand Monday, not only started the game, but was also explosive, finishing with 138 receiving yards on 8 catches, which included a 72-yard touchdown.
“Not the prettiest of victories, but I love how this team is,” interim head coach Clay Helton said. “Every time they’re faced with adversity, they just rise up.”
After falling behind 14-0 in the first half, the Trojans came from behind to take their first lead of the game on the first play of the fourth quarter on a nine-yard touchdown run by junior running back Justin Davis to put USC ahead 24-20. The play was set up by a pivotal third-down run by Jones, who bursted up the middle for 27 yards to the Wildcats’ (5-5, 2-5) nine-yard line. It was the first time USC erased a 14-point deficit since 2012 against Utah.
Five minutes later, after a field goal by the Wildcats, Jones helped the Trojans create some separation with a career long 74-yard touchdown run, bouncing off several defenders as he maneuvered his way into the end zone.
“It was just a run to the right,” Jones said. “It was the offensive line creating holes for me. I should have stayed outside but I got excited. Steven [Mitchell Jr.] helped me out and it was off to the races.”
Ahead 31-23, the Trojans forced a punt and marched right back down the field, taking more than five minutes off the clock and capping the drive off with a 16-yard touchdown run by Davis for the exclamation mark on the victory.
It took until the second quarter for the Trojans to wake up. Down 14-3 and with the Wildcats threatening to score again, sophomore safety John Platteburg came up with a pivotal interception. And on USC’s first play of the ensuing drive, Cody Kessler found a streaking Smith-Schuster downfield for a 72-yard touchdown to cut the lead to four.
“Somebody had to make a big play,” Smith-Schuster said. “When coach called the play, I said, ‘Ok the corner’s playing low, the safety’s playing low. It’s a touchdown.’ In my mind, I said, ‘Just catch the ball and run, and that’s what happened.’”
Helton explained the aggressive play calling as one of the team’s hallmarks.
“We’re always going to stay aggressive,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where we are. Whether it’s defensive blitzing or throwing the ball deep, we trust our players to make plays. We’re always going to stay aggressive with that mindset. We’re going to stay fearless.”
A failed onside-kick attempt led to an Arizona field goal, but the Trojans managed to tie the game before halftime. Relying heavily on the run on this drive with Jones receiving the bulk of the carries, it fittingly ended with a five-yard touchdown catch-and-run by Jones on a screen pass to even the score at 17-17 going into the break.
Arizona scored the lone points of the third quarter, settling for a field goal after failing to convert in the red zone. The Trojans responded with a drive that lasted nearly five minutes, but they too stalled in the red zone and Alex Wood missed a 34-yard field goal wide right.
It was an inauspicious start for the Trojans, who managed just 12 yards of offense and two first downs in the first quarter. They went three-and-out on three of their four drives and fumbled on the other.
“We started slow,” Helton said. “The penalties and turnover were momentum killers. I was proud of the boys. They didn’t show any signs of panic. They came back in the second quarter and put 17 points on the board. Our defense kept us in the game while we got our stuff straight.
Meanwhile, the Wildcats took advantage of the Trojans’ early struggles. Arizona recovered a fumble on a botched handoff from Kessler to Madden and the Wildcats converted on the drive with a touchdown pass from Anu Solomon to Nate Phillips on a play action play.
Arizona took a two-touchdown lead set up by a seven play, 60-yard drive at the end of the first quarter, capped off by a three-yard touchdown catch by David Richards to give the Wildcats a 14-0 lead.
The Trojans’ first points came on their first drive of the second quarter. After they failed to convert in the red zone, Wood connected on a 24-yard field goal to put USC on the board.
For a Wildcats team that focused heavily on the run, the Trojans were exemplary defending the ground game, limiting Arizona to just 60 yards on 23 carries.
“We knew going into the game it was going to be a dogfight,” redshirt defensive tackle Antwaun Woods said. “We took it upon ourselves to be disciplined for four quarters, to be able to defend the run over and over and over again. We knew they were going to keep coming back to the run game. We just played disciplined football.”
And they played winning football, on the backs of a freshman running back and an injured star wide receiver, who was determined to play and make an impact.
“My whole mindset was to come back and play in this game,” Smith-Schuster said. “I was in a lot of pain. I cried the first night because it was so much pain. The only thing I was thinking about was my brothers are out there working hard every day at practice and I’m doing nothing, just getting treatment. I knew when it was time to play, I really didn’t care about the pain.”
Helton was in awe of Smith-Schuster’s fortitude.
“I’ve never in my life been associated with more of a warrior than No. 9,” Helton said. “For him to do what he did and absolutely commit himself to this team blows me away.”
Kessler threw for 243 yards and two touchdowns on 22-of-36 passing, while Solomon had 352 yards passing and three touchdowns.
USC will head on the road next week to take on Colorado in a Friday night affair.