Saturday’s victory against the Colorado Buffaloes was a major one for the USC football team. It was neither pretty nor perfect, but the hard-fought win represented growth. Nothing symbolized this more than the aggressive play call on 3rd and 7 with 1:19 remaining in the game.
Instead of running a conservative draw play or a safe pass well short of the sticks, USC put trust in its redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold and junior wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. The trust was rewarded when Darnold found Smith-Schuster in single coverage for a 25-yard gain that effectively ended the game.
This play call represented a stark contrast from the decision-making by the coaching staff at the end of the Utah game. At Rice Eccles stadium, USC ran a safe short pass to Smith-Schuster on third down late in the game that had no chance to move the sticks. That play was the one that preceded the infamous punt call from the Utah 37-yard line.
Though the circumstances were somewhat different, there were a lot of parallels between the two situations. It appears as if the coaching staff has learned from their mistake two weeks ago, and that is the most you can ask for from a young, new group at the helm. They realized that when you have playmakers like Darnold and Smith-Schuster, it is smart to get them the ball when the game is on the line.
Coach Clay Helton isn’t going to turn into Nick Saban overnight, but Saturday demonstrated his ability to learn and grow on the job. Considering Colorado’s offense had scored a touchdown and a field goal on the previous two possessions against a worn-out defense, Helton deserves enormous credit for deciding to let his offense be the aggressor and preserve the victory.
It wasn’t totally the coaching on Saturday. Overall, the Trojans made the plays to win the game. Whether it was junior cornerback Adoree’ Jackson shape-shifting for an interception that might have defied the laws of physics or senior wide receiver Darreus Rogers imposing his will on a Colorado defensive back, USC players stepped up. When mistakes are made — which they were to the tune of four turnovers – a team needs its stars to carry them. That is exactly what happened.
The Trojans still have a long way to go to become a complete team this season. There is something holding them back almost every game, whether that is penalties or turnovers or botched assignments. Saturday, the poison of choice was the fumble. It’s very hard to win games when you lose the turnover battle 4-1.
Not only did the Trojans suffer from a rash of miscues, but they also lost senior tailback Justin Davis in the third quarter. Davis, who was on his way to another 100-yard game, left with a high ankle sprain. The Trojan offense just was not the same without the vision and agility of the senior leader.
It was clear the scheme was reeling after Davis went down. For a few straight drives after the injury, the runs that were routinely for six to eight yards with Davis went for two to three with the other backs. This left Darnold in the unenviable position of making plays in third down situations with the Colorado defense bearing down on him. Needless to say, this line of play calling led to three straight scoreless drives in the third and fourth quarter.
Thankfully, the offensive coaching staff finally made some adjustments during the final few drives and put the ball in the hands of Darnold to win the game. The hesitation to let Darnold carry the team was understandable, as the redshirt freshman had a string of turnovers early in the third. After that, Darnold appeared shaky at times. This could also be attributed to the fact that the bulk of his passing situations were on third down facing the blitz. No quarterback is at his best running for his life as soon as the ball is snapped.
Nevertheless, Darnold regained his composure, as all great quarterbacks do, and marched the Trojans down the field for the go ahead touchdown. He was of course aided greatly by Rogers and his superhuman catch. That play seemed to settle the quarterback down, and from there he was back to normal.
To continue to succeed the Trojans need to figure out a way to compensate for Davis’s absence. High ankle sprains are limiting at best, and the team might have to prepare without the running back for the time being. On the bright side, sophomore running back Ronald Jones looked to finally get in a groove on the last drive. Maybe a greater bulk of the workload will help him regain his freshman year form.
The Trojans still have Darnold. Mistakes happen from a redshirt freshman, and he more than makes up for it with his tremendous playmaking. He gets both the receivers and tight ends involved in the game, and if he can hold onto the ball a little bit better, the offense will regain its explosive scoring form next week against the Wildcats.
Each game, the Trojans should be improving. While they regressed in some areas, coaching made a giant leap forward and the defense is starting to coalesce. Combine that with a hard-fought, narrow victory, and the season still has some promise left.