Grinding Gears: USC has yet to string together a full game

If USC ever puts together a complete game, this team is going to be scary.

It’s a hypothetical that was repeated way too often last season, when the Trojans eased their way to a Pac-12 title behind quarterback Sam Darnold and a gluttony of talent that, despite the wins, could not produce a signature performance for 60 minutes.

This season has been much of the same, whether it’s freshman quarterback JT Daniels and the offense still finding their groove, the defense allowing big plays or special teams brain slips that prove costly. For now, at least one of the three has produced enough on a weekly basis for this season to still have hope.

In Saturday’s 31-20 win over Colorado at the Coliseum that vaulted USC into first place in the Pac-12 South ahead of a pivotal game at Utah next week, it was the defense. Colorado entered the game averaging 38 points and nearly 500 yards of offense per game. The Trojans just spit on those numbers, holding the Buffaloes to 265 yards. Laviska Shenault, one of the top receivers in the country, ran for a 49-yard touchdown for the first score of the game but was otherwise bottled up. USC recorded 16 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, harassing quarterback Steven Montez with a swarming pass rush and bottling up rushing plays even before the handoff.

And they did it without their leading tackler, senior linebacker Cam Smith, out with a strained hamstring. In his place was freshman Palaie Gaoteote, who looked like Smith with a team-leading nine tackles despite leaving during the third quarter with concussion-like symptoms.  

It was a standout defensive performance, enough to show that Colorado’s offensive stats, as a 5-0 team that hadn’t faced real competition before Saturday, were inflated. It was enough to extend USC’s home win streak under head coach Clay Helton to 19 games, enough to — in Helton’s words — put the Trojans in control of their own destiny in the Pac-12 South.

But it wasn’t entirely enough to satiate the critics, who will point to the offense’s lackluster performance. Aside from a 21-point spurt in the second quarter that would prove to be enough, Daniels and Co. did not impress. Daniels finished with three touchdown passes and 272 yards, but the freshman passer looked out of sorts early on, and the offense produced nothing but a field goal in the second half. If not for redshirt senior cornerback Ajene Harris’ late pick-six, it would have been a much more uncomfortable win.

Nothing much came on the ground, either. USC rushed for no net gain on 11 first half carries, and its leading rusher, senior Aca’Cedric Ware, had just 23 yards on six carries. The offensive woes were best epitomized by sophomore Stephen Carr’s first half rush that went for a loss of 11 yards, a play where he attempted to cut across the field after being swarmed by defenders, but wound up running backwards. Like a basketball coach trying to stop negative momentum, Helton immediately called a timeout after that befuddling play.

These setbacks have hurt USC in its losses, and dampened its wins. The Trojans can do better, and the players know it, too.

“We’re slowly putting that big game together,” redshirt freshman defensive lineman Jay Tufele said.

They’ll need to put it together in a week against Utah in Salt Lake City. The winner takes control over the Pac-12 South, and Utah is on a roll, coming off back-to-back thrashings of Stanford and Arizona. The Utes have a stingy defense that will bother Daniels more than Colorado did, and they’ve suddenly found a high-powered offense to boot, racking up 40-plus points in their last two games.

“We haven’t put together a complete game,” senior safety Marvell Tell said. “We haven’t reached our potential yet.”

Halfway through the season, the jury is still out on USC, and next week will tell us a lot about whether this team can put together an all-around performance in its biggest game to date.

Eric He is a senior majoring in journalism. He is also the managing editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Grinding Gears,” runs Mondays.