USC Survives #21 Colorado in Up-and-Down Game
The Trojans cough up the ball four times, but hold on against the Buffaloes thanks to their staunch defense
College football thrives on the unexpected. Every week, it comes in the form of single plays, game results and shocking upsets.
On Saturday at the Los Angeles Coliseum, the unexpected was seen in the form of both the pre-game circumstances and the post-game result. Before the season began, no one expected Colorado to be 4–1 and ranked №21. Consequently, no one expected that USC’s biggest win so far would be a 21–17 result against a team that finished last in the division just one year ago.
A win’s a win, but what transpired on Saturday was more a test of survival, wherein the Trojans eked out a victory thanks to their defense and despite their turnover-laden offense.
“I have to give credit and the game ball to our defense,” said head coach Clay Helton afterward. “Without them, I don’t know if we get it done.”
Getting it done was a problem for USC against a sound Colorado team that was unexpectedly 4–1 heading into this matchup. In similar fashion to the game in Utah where the Trojans squandered away a game they should have won, turnovers and unfinished drives haunted them throughout.
Four fumbles, three of them lost. One interception and a stretch of six drives that went scoreless after USC dominated the first half, 14–0, looking well on their way to a commanding victory.
“There’s no excuse for that,” said Darnold on the field following the final whistle. “As an offense you’re not going to win a ton of games turning the ball over four times.”
Against ASU, Sam Darnold thrived by making the offense his own, targeting JuJu Smith-Schuster in an successful effort to revive him, while turning broken plays into gains on a consistent basis. The Sun Devils, however, were the worst defense in the conference.
Against Colorado, who arrived at the Coliseum boasting the top defense in the Pac-12, Darnold had to be picked up by his teammates on both sides of the ball in what became a messy, gridlock of a game.
Turnovers abounded, but so did the special performances from a few of those wearing cardinal and gold.
Adoree’ Jackson once again left his stamp on the game in a way only he could. Though he racked up nearly 100 yards in the return game, on Saturday, the cornerback who adorned his feet with ‘Jumpman’ cleats made the difference with his hops instead of his speed.
As quarterback Steven Montez scrambled away from pressure in the third quarter, he launched it toward the sideline, where Jackson had already been prepping for a play that was as unbelievable as it was impressive. The cornerback leaped toward a ball headed way out of bounds, corralled it and somehow stretched out his foot to tap it inbounds.
“I was thinking about Charles Woodson and how he did it against Michigan State,” Jackson said postgame. “My whole mentality is just when I touch the ball to get the party started.”
In the fourth quarter, it was Darreus Rogers who saved the game with his hands, using them to grapple away an under-thrown ball from a Buffs cornerback, instead turning the pass into a first down that would lead to a score and the difference-maker in the game.
“We like to say he’s a great basketball player and he got the rebound” said Darnold of Rogers’ height and hands. “It was huge.”
“That’s mine. 110% that’s my ball,” said Rogers of what he thought upon seeing the pass. “Those are the plays I need to make to separate myself as a receiver.”
And all throughout the game, it was the aggressive USC defense that bent, but didn’t break, carrying the offense when it tried its hardest to inadvertently throw the game away.
“Our defense coming together and communicating a lot more is really helping us,” said linebacker Uchenna Nwosu. Nwosu led the team with 10 tackles, while also tacking on a sack and two pass breakups to his stat line.
The Trojans’ unit under Clancy Pendergast held a Colorado team that had been averaging 43 points a game to under 20 points, while also stopping them on 11 of 17 third downs.
“It’s our job to pick up the offense and get the ball back for them,” said linebacker Cam Smith.
Despite his deficiencies and the offense’s lack of finishing, Darnold did once again show some of the same tantalizing talent that he had displayed against Utah and ASU.
The brightest of these came In the second quarter, with USC in the red zone. He was flushed out of the pocket to his left on what seemed like a lost play where Buffalo defenders swarmed him. He rolled around to his right evading the outstretched arms of a lineman before heading in the opposite direction where he flung a pass to Tyler Petite, who finished with two TDs. Petite’s run and dive into the end zone was the only fitting conclusion to the Houdini-like escape and throw Darnold had orchestrated.
“When you have a kid with instinct and creative ability, I don’t think you handcuff him,” Helton said. “I told him, ‘Drive it like you stole it.’ You play the game with no fear and he does.”
For better or for worse, USC now has a quarterback to put its season on his shoulders — the first since Todd Marinovich in 1989 to throw for back-to-back 300-yard games. Perhaps more importantly though, they also possess a talented, surrounding roster to help him lead them to their hopeful objective.
“Our goal is to go undefeated in the Pac-12 South,” said Chris Hawkins. “You go undefeated in the South, you’re in the Pac-12 Championship.”
Now back at a .500 record, the season has taken a different tone than the one that rung in the first slate of games. With Darnold scrambling and slinging away to savvy skill players, and an aggressive defense ready to pick up the slack, a flawed, but resoundingly positive USC team will look to reach a lofty goal amid a season that once seemed all but lost.