Grinding Gears: Two-point stop keeps Trojans’ year alive

Two yards.

That’s all that kept USC from its season being over, its College Football Playoff hopes narrowed significantly and national championship hopes dashed.

But instead, redshirt junior cornerback Ajene Harris dove and tackled Utah quarterback Troy Williams as he ran for the end zone. Williams fell two yards shy, failing to execute the two-point conversion and the entire Coliseum breathed a deep sigh of relief.

Every season has its defining moments — those moments that determine whether you win or lose, whether you walk away deflated or exhilarated, relieved or disappointed. And it’s how you perform in those crucial moments that separates champions from runner-ups, that either keeps your hype train running or grinds it to a halt.

So far this season, USC has had three of those moments. The first was the double-overtime win over Texas, when redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold led the Trojans on a miraculous game-tying drive and then delivered in the extra sessions. The second was in Pullman, Wa., where Darnold did not have similar luck, fumbling away USC’s final hope.

The third was on Saturday, when the Trojans overcame a 14-point halftime deficit and took the lead in the final minutes, only to see the Utes drive right back down the field, score a touchdown and then go for the win on a gusty two-point conversion attempt instead of just kicking the extra point and forcing overtime.

“I would not have switched the decision at the end,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said. “Darnold was on fire, and I thought that was the percentage play. And if I had to do it again, I’d to the same thing.”

In other words, Whittingham thought that the odds of his team scoring from three yards out were better than defending Darnold in overtime. He played those odds, and they didn’t work out.

But imagine if they had. Imagine if Harris didn’t wrap up Williams, if the Utah quarterback had scored, if the 13th-ranked Trojans had fallen to the unranked Utes. It would have been more than deflating, especially a day after Athletic Director Lynn Swann told reporters he was a little disappointed USC wasn’t undefeated. It would have drastically lessened USC’s likelihood of winning the Pac-12 South and playing for a Pac-12 championship, which Swann said was the goal for this season. And it would have lit a fire under critics already unhappy about the Trojans’ haphazard performance thus far, even in their wins.

Such as this one. The Trojans were, as Darnold said, “lackadaisical” in the first half. They had just nine fewer yards of total offense than Utah but entered the locker room down 21-7 because of three turnovers and several big plays by the Utes. It wasn’t a bad performance offensively, but Darnold could not stop fumbling, and junior running back Ronald Jones II let a backwards pass hit him in the face, resulting in a turnover.

There was no way USC should have had to dig this deep just to beat Utah, a team that was pounded by Stanford last week — and USC had routed Stanford in Week 2.

This has come to define the Trojans’ season — giving inferior opponents openings and opportunities to hang around, to grab an early lead and then suddenly be in control of the game. Instead of seizing on the home crowd and making an early statement, USC “beat themselves,” head coach Clay Helton said.    

“We’d like to not have these closer games if we can help it,” Darnold said.

But they can help it. That’s the frustrating part about this USC team. Sure, it is 6-1 and the highest-ranked Pac-12 team, but the Trojans are not playing like a team that belongs in the playoff. Almost losing to both unranked Texas and Utah at home does not bode well for when USC plays Notre Dame on the road next week, much less Alabama if it somehow makes the playoff.

Conversely, however, all the Trojans have to do is get there — as in, get to the Rose Bowl like they did last season and then count on Darnold to work his magic. Just get into the playoff, and perhaps Wonder Sam can do the same against the likes of Alabama.

Helton has a cliche that he repeats almost every postgame press conference, and that’s the goal of being 1-0 each week. It sounds corny — no, it is corny — but in all honesty, it’s probably the best assessment of USC to this point because no one knows what else to think right now. The Trojans are winning games, but not the way we expected them to. They are playing well, but not to the point that makes anyone remotely comfortable about the remainder of the season.

In essence, they are playing a lot of close games, where the result will often depend on a play or two. On Saturday, it came down to two whole yards. Six feet. Seventy-two inches.

So, you can probably count on it: This won’t be the last time USC’s season will come down to the wire in the final minute of the fourth quarter. Buckle up, if you haven’t already.

Eric He is a junior studying journalism. He is also the associate managing editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Grinding Gears,” runs Mondays.