USC is finally back on track

It was a wet and bitter cold September night at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Utah, but USC was weathering the storm. Taking a 10-point lead into the fourth quarter, the Trojans looked primed to upset the Utes to get back to .500 after a rough start to the season.

Instead, they were outscored 14-3 in the fourth, blowing the coverage on a game-winning touchdown in the final seconds to drop a heartbreaker and fall to 1-3 for the first time since Pete Carroll was a rookie head coach.

After the game, the players held a team meeting where several veterans spoke up, according to redshirt junior defensive back Chris Hawkins. Those who addressed the team included Hawkins, junior cornerback Adoree’ Jackson, senior linebacker Michael Hutchings, redshirt senior offensive tackle Zach Banner and even redshirt junior quarterback Max Browne, who had just lost his starting job to redshirt freshman Sam Darnold.

The common theme? Something needed to change.

Tal Volk | Daily Trojan Freshman on fire · Redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold has been a large factor in turning the Trojans’ season around. Darnold has thrown 22 touchdowns, the most by any freshman in the country.

Tal Volk | Daily Trojan
Freshman on fire · Redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold has been a large factor in turning the Trojans’ season around. Darnold has thrown 22 touchdowns, the most by any freshman in the country.

“Just our intensity on the field,” Hawkins said on what was discussed during the meeting. “It seemed like everybody wasn’t giving 100 percent. When you get attacked by your own teammates, then you start to look at yourself and ask how you’re giving 100 percent.”

Since that meeting, the Trojans have won all of their subsequent games — six in all — the most impressive being their stunning upset of then-No. 4 Washington last Saturday in Seattle. They went from receiving no votes in the AP Top 25 poll to a No. 13 ranking by the College Football Playoff committee this week. They’ve turned the corner for good, found arguably one of the best quarterbacks in college football and are back on their way to glory — and yet, the fate of this season may still end somewhat sour because of that blown lead in Utah.

In order to stay alive in the Pac-12 South, USC must beat UCLA on Saturday and hope that either Colorado or Utah lose. For the Trojans to win the division outright, both the Buffaloes and Utes have to lose at least one game — if they both win on Saturday afternoon, USC will be eliminated even before its game at the Rose Bowl starts at 7:30 p.m.

If USC had beaten Utah, it would be 8-2 and in control of its own destiny. But if it was indeed the team meeting following the loss that sparked a change in mindset and the six-game win streak that ensued, then the fourth-quarter collapse served a necessary purpose to the season. Though, with a cruel twist of fate mixed in, it might have cost the Trojans a shot at a Pac-12 championship and a spot in the Rose Bowl.

FiveThirtyEight gives USC a 20 percent chance of winning the Pac-12 if it beats UCLA and Notre Dame, a projection that seems about right. The Trojans’ most likely path to the Pac-12 South title involves three outcomes that must happen — beating UCLA, Colorado losing to Washington State on Saturday and Utah losing to Colorado next week.

But let’s not allow these hypothetical scenarios to take away from what the Trojans have accomplished since losing at Utah in September. Head coach Clay Helton’s job, which was in doubt after four weeks, is now as secure as it has ever been. Darnold, a name barely familiar to USC fans before this season, has an even brighter potential than the Kesslers, Sanchezes and Barkleys who have recently passed through this program. And as a whole, USC — which has become known more for off-the-field drama than actual football — is back to being a team that nobody wants to play.

Even if they don’t get the help they need to win the Pac-12, the Trojans’ future has flipped from bleak to bright, especially considering Darnold has three more seasons of eligibility. I’m not one to heap endless praise on players unless they’ve truly earned it, but Darnold absolutely has. His mobility keeps defenses on their toes, but his arm strength and poise in the pocket keeps them honest. His elusiveness makes him virtually immune to sacks, and his ability to both run and throw at an elite level is unfair.

To get a peek at the next three years of USC football, take a look at the nine-play, 82-yard drive Darnold engineered right before halftime of the Washington game that culminated in a rushing touchdown by sophomore running back Ronald Jones II. Darnold ran the up-tempo, two-minute drill to perfection, throwing surgical darts all over the field and barely giving the vaunted Huskies defense a chance to breathe. It quieted what had been an electric Husky Stadium crowd and convinced me that not only would USC pull off this upset, but also that Darnold will have many pieces of silverware in his trophy case before his playing days are over.

If Darnold’s career takes off, this was the game where he went from “shiny new toy” to “the next big thing.” And if this is the start of the revitalization of USC football, remember the Utah game for giving us our first glimpse of him, for giving the team the impetus to band together and, in Hawkins’ words, play “the best ball USC has seen in a long time.”

There are plenty of fun moments left in this season — the impending rivalry wins over UCLA and Notre Dame are a good start. But regardless of whether or not the campaign ends in the Rose Bowl, next season and beyond finally look like national championship-contending seasons for USC football.

Eric He is a sophomore majoring in print and digital journalism. He is also the sports editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Grinding Gears,” runs Fridays.