USC committed to themselves in familiar comeback win over Utah

Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images /

USC’s 28-27 win over Utah at the Coliseum was an instant classic, with the Trojans storming back and holding on in dramatic fashion over the Utes. How’d they do it?

If you watched Saturday night’s USC game with Utah and thought it looked familiar, it should have.

Just like last Sam Darnold’s first career start against the Utes last September, the Trojan offense turned the ball over three times in the first half.

Just like seemingly every game this season, the Trojans fumbled away promising drives and lacked any sort of a consistent rhythm on offense.

Just like last year, Troy Williams led Utah on a last-minute touchdown drive to seemingly break USC’s hearts all over again.

But this time was different.

The Rose-Bowl-winning team that learned from the 2016 Utah loss showed up. Not the one that lost it.

The Darnold who dazzled Penn State to overcome a 14-point deficit showed up in the second half. Not the one who put them in that hole in the first place.

The Rose-Bowl-winning team that learned from the 2016 Utah loss showed up. Not the one that lost it.

And as they did in Pasadena, the Trojans’ defense got the stop they needed, just when they needed it most.

A game which looked as though USC had thrown away any semblance of a chance at a national championship, suddenly became the prime example for why they still have their hat in the ring.

They just answer the bell.

Ajene Harris’s tackle of Williams on a potential go-ahead two-point conversion with 42 seconds left won the game.

It completed a spirited second-half comeback in which the Trojans defeated the Troy who plagued them with a 95-yard drive in 2016,  with scoring jaunts of their own for 98, 88 and 93 yards on Saturday night.

Sometimes it takes seeing life flash before your eyes to buy in.

“We talked about the second half and decided who we are as a team,” head coach Clay Helton said of the halftime break.

And right on cue, USC chose they weren’t the group who trailed 21-7 to a backup quarterback.

“We just weren’t playing like us,” defensive back Chris Hawkins said. “It was simple as that. Coach Helton brought us up and told us that he can’t wait to see us go out there and play full speed.”

More accurately, they weren’t going to let mistakes slow them down.

Helton met with offensive coordinator Tee Martin and Clancy Pendergast and told them not to change a thing. USC was committing to themselves. They were challenging themselves to correct themselves to be themselves.

“The defense knew we had our backs on the wall and we couldn’t let them score again,” defensive back Jack Jones said. “We just said, ‘Play up here, play up here. Come out zero-zero and don’t let them score any tubs.’ That was our mindset.”

Right on cue, a unit who had been gashed by Utah early on used big late plays from Christian Rector, Hawkins and company to force four-straight punts to give the Trojans a chance on offense.

They capitalized.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images /

Darnold was simply magical at times in the second half. He scrambled to extend plays. He found tight ends when he needed yards. He looked like the Darnold of old.

Ronald Jones was Ronald Jones. His 11-yard touchdown flip into end zone clinched his 13th-straight game with a score to tie Penn State’s Saquon Barkley for the nation’s longest streak.

All told, after just 49 rushing yards in the first half, USC ran for 125 yards in the game’s final 30 minutes. Freshman Vavae Malepeai accounted for 42, including an impressive 26-yard run to establish a new career long.

“Our players made decisions to define our football team there in the second half,” Helton said.

They defined themselves by playing USC football.

It’s cheesy. It’s cliche. It’s annoying to hear.

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But Saturday night wasn’t about schematic adjustments. It wasn’t about crafting up advantages  with X’s and O’s and finding a way through their struggles.

The Trojans had to do it by doing it.

They had to execute. They did. And they looked like a playoff team while doing it.

That’s what makes USC so frustrating.

For as beautiful as their play in the second half was —even with a near-deadly two-point conversion— it was in sharp contrast to the dysfunctional overtones of the first half.

USC has been tied or trailed in five of seven fourth quarters this season. It shouldn’t take a 21-7 deficit to find themselves.

And having been burned once by Washington State already, they can’t avoid a second scar. But Saturday has to give you hope USC can hit their top gear.

Maybe, just maybe it really is what ultimately defines the season, with a win over Utah serving as the light switch this year, rather than a loss.

Next week at Notre Dame is when they can prove it is. Getting Stephen Carr and Porter Gustin back certainly won’t hurt.