Three months after being left for dead, the 2016 USC football team proved the doubters wrong with a resilient win in the Rose Bowl over Penn State.
On September 23rd, USC suffered their third loss in the first four weeks of the season. It signaled an 0-2 start in Pac-12 play and a lost tiebreaker to South division foe Utah, practically ending their conference title hopes.
They were being outscored by 67 points by Power Five opponents, and netted a single touchdown against Alabama and Stanford combined. As a result of poor coaching and poor play, the season was virtually over.
Every media outlet covering the Trojans or college football in general had head coach Clay Helton on the hot seat, with nothing but criticism flying in his direction.
Here at Reign of Troy, I wrote how USC’s worst start since 2001 looked nearly impossible to turnaround, even if Pete Carroll’s first team found a way.
This squad couldn’t possibly do the same. Nothing other than a soft October schedule seemed encouraging.
"The reality is that you can’t just make the game-deciding troubles disappear overnight, with a coaching staff married to their bad strategies. Pete Carroll’s 2001 team saw new ways of thinking instilled from Day 1, before the hard-fought losses to good teams. Clay Helton’s staff needs to look at themselves in the mirror and create alter egos if USC’s going to turn it around after getting embarrassed. Because new philosophies are the only thing that can prevent this cursed ship from sinking."
Calling a team a cursed ship isn’t fun. Being called that is worse.
“Those are your hardest times,” Viane Talamaivao said. “Those are depressing times as a team. How we rebounded was that instead of explaining ourselves, we confided in each other. We always worked, played for each other, and never gave up on one another.”
They didn’t. And three months and change later, USC walked off the Rose Bowl turf as champions of the grandest bowl game, winners of a legendary thriller over Penn State.
The Trojans, led by the same Helton deemed incompetent some 100 days ago, became an entirely new team to make a whole lotta of people –me included– gobble down a heathy bit of crow.
“Everybody doubted us, nobody believed in us, and we proved everybody wrong,” Uchenna Nwosu said after the Rose Bowl. “So I think that itself, the drive that we have, all the adversity, all the people against us, that’s what fueled us in our emotions to come out here and do what we do.”
The victory over a Penn State, a furious comeback that saw the Trojans outscore the Big Ten champions 17-0 in the fourth quarter, was just the icing on the cake. It was the final straw for one of the most unexpected turnarounds in college football.
After a disastrous first month, the once-anemic offense came alive in October as redshirt freshman Sam Darnold fit the scheme molded for a quarterback like him, not a pocket-passer like Max Browne.
Ronald Jones, who averaged 2.86 yards per carry in September outside of his 46-yard jaunt vs. Alabama, looked like the best running back in the Pac-12 down the stretch of the season.
A defense that imploded against Utah turned into a stout unit that held the likes of Arizona State, Colorado, and Cal in check.
Everything fell into place, with the players buying into the belief instilled in them from their head coach.
“I kept telling them by November, you’re going to be really, really happy,” Helton said. “And then all of a sudden, we get a little confidence, we get some wins, we get some great defensive play in the second half, great offensive play, and a quarterback that’s just on fire, and it kind of snowballs.”
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Dominant performances in the final month, including holding playoff-bound Washington to just 17 rushing yards, had national pundits arguing for the Trojans’ place in the College Football Playoff.
It wouldn’t come to be, but they didn’t need a rematch with Alabama to validate themselves. Getting to the Rose Bowl, even as an at-large team, did all the talking.
USC not only took a hacksaw to the 2001 comparison, they out-did the stunning 2011 turnaround, surpassed the miraculous 2007 finish and have been cast as a clone to the Orange Bowl-winning 2002 season with a major bowl win of their own.
“Coach Helton always preaches to us that we are Trojan men,” Deontay Burnettt said. “Trojans keep fighting on, and what happened out there was the definition of fighting on.”
And so two months to the day after the Chicago Cubs ended all talks of their curse, USC’s brotherly crusade forever silenced the external noise by sailing to a Rose Bowl win on an exorcised vessel of togetherness.