Whether it was powering through defenders, spinning off of tackles or sprinting away into the open field — sophomore running back Ronald Jones II did it all for USC in a 45-20 win over Oregon at the Coliseum on Saturday night.
Jones ran for four touchdowns and 171 yards as the Trojans won their fifth straight game and claimed their first win over the Ducks at home since 2008. The sophomore became just the 14th player in USC history to rush for four touchdowns in a game — tying a school record — and the first to do so since LenDale White in 2005.
“It means a lot to me,” Jones said on tying the record for touchdowns in a game. “There are a lot of great running backs that came before me. To be in a category with those running backs means a lot.”
Of his scores, the longest was a 66-yard run on the opening drive of the second half. Jones went up the middle through a gaping hole and made a cut to elude the final defender before taking it the rest of the way with open field in front of him.
“I hold my breath every time he touches it because I know there’s a chance he could go all the way,” head coach Clay Helton said.
USC outgained Oregon 270-85 yards on the ground, with the offensive line blocking effectively and the defense holding its ground against a Ducks squad that averaged a Pac-12 leading 248 yards a game coming into the night.
“I think my offensive line did a great job of making it look easy,” Jones said. “They were getting a great push off the blocks and I was just following their reads.”
It wasn’t just stopping the run; USC’s defense stood tall and limited Oregon well below its average of 40.5 points per game. The Trojans forced five three-and-outs and had one fourth down stop.
“We just came out and established what we were doing,” sophomore defensive end Porter Gustin said. “We challenged ourselves all week to stop the run game. We made it a goal of ours to come out and stop the run … and I think we did that pretty well.”
Jones’ third rushing touchdown gave the Trojans a 31-6 lead early in the third quarter. The Ducks, led by true freshman quarterback Justin Herbert, answered with a touchdown on the ensuing drive and had a chance to draw closer after defensive back Brenden Schooler intercepted Darnold near midfield. But Oregon’s drive stalled at the 11-yard line when Herbert’s pass attempt on fourth down was knocked down by Porter Gustin.
Darnold put the game away on USC’s next possession, finding redshirt senior tight end Taylor McNamara in the end zone for a seven-yard touchdown. The score was set up by a classic Darnold play — the quarterback scrambled and turned away from pressure before launching a deep pass to redshirt freshman tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe for a 37-yard reception.
“It’s like playing with a Steve Nash-type player,” Imatorbhebhe said on Darnold. “You’ve always got to be ready for the ball, even when he’s not looking at you. I’m super grateful to have him as my quarterback.”
Darnold finished with 309 yards on 28-of-40 passing and two touchdowns.
Jones scored once more early in the fourth quarter, pounding it in from a yard out after a 31-yard run set up first and goal at the 1-yard line.
“When he electrifies the Coliseum, there’s nothing like it,” Darnold said on Jones. “Just sit back and watch those holes open up and watch him do his thing. He’s hard to tackle in the open field and he’s super fast. Whenever you’ve got a guy like that, you’ve got to utilize him as much as possible and we definitely did that tonight.”
After settling for a field goal on their first drive, the Trojans scored touchdowns on their next two drives in the first quarter. Jones blasted through the Oregon defense for USC’s first touchdown, barreling up the middle at full speed from 23 yards out.
On the next drive, Darnold was perfect on all three pass attempts to set up first and goal. From the three-yard line, Jones appeared to be in the grasp of two Oregon defenders, but spun free and ran around the right side for his second touchdown of the night to give USC a 17-0 lead.
Oregon got on the board before the end of the first quarter. After redshirt sophomore punter Chris Tilbey’s punt from the back of his end zone went just 24 yards, Ducks wide receiver Charles Nelson took an end-around on the first play of the drive for a 25-yard touchdown.
A slow second quarter featured two punts for each team — until USC broke through before the end of the half on a 10-play drive that took under two minutes. Darnold hit sophomore wide receiver Deontay Burnett four times in the drive, including a 15-yard completion to the goal line. The pair finished the drive off on first and goal, with Darnold rolling to his left and finding Burnett for a two-yard touchdown.
Darnold said he and Burnett have “great chemistry,” but it also applies to the entire receiving corps. Nine different players caught passes for USC on Saturday.
“It’s a testament to all of our guys,” Darnold said. “All of our guys do a great job of running the routes and expecting the ball on every single play. Everyone is taking advantage of their opportunities.”
The Trojans took a 24-6 lead into halftime and wound up holding the Ducks to a season-low 288 yards.
“They’re very talented and very well coached,” Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich said on USC’s defense.
Herbert added that USC’s defense “brought a lot of stuff” that Oregon didn’t prepare for. The Trojans recorded three sacks and seven tackles for losses.
“Probably the different blitzes, coming from just about everywhere,” Herbert said on what gave Oregon problems.
USC is now 6-3 and will bring a five-game win streak into Seattle against the No. 5 Huskies next week in a game that could make or break their hopes in the Pac-12 South race. Washington is unbeaten this season and will be a test for the Trojans on the road.
“They’re a great team, a playoff contender,” Darnold said. “We’ve just got to look at them as another opponent [and] go in with the mindset that we’re able to beat them.”