What a difference a week makes.
Seven days ago, in the aftermath of the Trojans squeaking by Western Michigan to open the season, their national championship hopes were dashed, redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold was no longer a Heisman trophy candidate and Stanford was going to march into the Coliseum to pummel them in Week 2 — supposedly.
After all, if USC struggled to contain Western Michigan’s run game, and Stanford had arguably a better offensive line and run game than the Broncos, then surely the Trojans would be no match for the Cardinal, right? At least, that’s the conclusion most college football pundits — including myself — came to last week. And in the process, we all underestimated Western Michigan, were too quick to panic at USC’s slip out of the gates and were pleasantly surprised when the Trojans suddenly switched to beast mode in a 42-24 win over Stanford on Saturday at the Coliseum.
The Week 1 overreaction was not lost on players, even after the big win.
“I don’t think the media really realized that Western Michigan is a real team,” junior linebacker Porter Gustin said.
If Western Michigan wasn’t a real team, then make no mistake: Stanford was a real team. The Cardinal came into the Coliseum ranked 14th in the country, fresh off two weeks of rest following a 62-7 beatdown of Rice in their season opener and ready to extend the good times in Los Angeles — Stanford had won seven of its last 10 games against USC and four of the last five at the Coliseum. And though notorious USC killer Christian McCaffrey was no longer on the roster to terrorize the Trojans, he had a formidable replacement in running back Bryce Love, who was bound to give USC fits on the ground.
So it was entirely plausible to give Stanford the edge heading into the game. The betting spread right before kickoff was just minus-4.5 in favor of USC, which is close to nothing considering the home team usually gets a 3-point cushion. Essentially, it would be a toss-up, and the Cardinal had a lot going for them, from history being on their side to a strong run game to being well-rested.
But the one thing they didn’t have was a dynamic quarterback. Keller Chryst is no Sam Darnold, and the Trojans’ quarterback, like the rest of the team, woke up on Saturday and shut up all the critics. His stats were of the video-game variety that we became accustomed to seeing from him last season. Darnold completed his first 11 passes, finishing 21-of-26 for 316 yards and four touchdowns — those numbers would get him selected first overall in any NFL draft. Unlike last week, when he looked out-of-sync with his receivers, taking sacks and throwing incompletions, Darnold moved around like a slinky, eluding pressure, running around, throwing deep balls and doing whatever it is that makes him so good.
“Great job by this guy,” head coach Clay Helton said, patting Darnold several times on the arm during the postgame press conference, “creating over and over and over. His ability to create and keep his eyes downfield was phenomenal.”
Of course, it helped that the Trojans’ run game — perhaps their lone bright spot in Week 1 — continued to excel against the Cardinal, opening up time and space for Darnold to operate. Freshman running back Stephen Carr and junior running back Ronald Jones II both ran for over 100 yards, with Jones scoring two touchdowns. Freshman Vavae Malepeai and junior Aca’Cedric Ware also chipped in, giving USC a four-pronged attack on the ground that few programs possess. In fact, Malepeai and Ware — the third and fourth options — could easily be No. 1 or No. 2 backs on other Pac-12 teams, but the Trojans are just that loaded at the position.
The running back situation serves as a metaphor for what the Trojans could be this season – talented and deep with sky-high potential. Helton said Saturday’s win “felt like” the most complete game USC had played under his tenure, and it probably was from the standpoint that the Trojans had an equally potent running and passing attack – 316 yards in the air and 307 yards on the ground – and the defense shut down the Cardinal when it mattered most in the second half, limiting Stanford to just seven points after halftime. After a poor performance on both sides of the line against Western Michigan, the Trojans saw vast improvement on Saturday, with the offensive line giving Darnold time to work his magic and the defensive line closing up gaps and pressuring Chryst.
However satisfying it was, though, this win shouldn’t be worth much of a celebration for USC. Not for a team now ranked fourth in the country, with national championship aspirations and a Heisman candidate under center. Not for a team that saw its hype train slow down considerably and its season nearly derailed in Week 1. Not for a team without a week off this season that, as the Pac-12 favorites, will surely get every opponent’s best shot.
“The thing we proved is we played to our standard,” Helton said.
On Saturday, we saw the USC team that we expected to see, that we will need to see every week if it is to compete for a national title.
Eric He is a junior studying print and digital journalism. He is also the associate managing editor for the Daily Trojan. His column, Grinding Gears, runs Mondays.