SEATTLE—As you drive on the 520 Bridge on your way into downtown Seattle from the East, the high winds along Lake Washington create a stunning visual. On one side of the bridge, the water is as calm and placid as can be. On the other, the waves chop with a movement and force that spells the foreshadowing of an incoming storm.
On Saturday at Husky Stadium, the tale of the tape resembled the contrasting waves of the nearby lake, perfectly symbolizing the two teams that would face each other on the field that had been soaked with Seattle rain throughout the morning.
Washington, unbeaten and ranked fourth in the country, was barreling into the game with the ferocity of a storm that could not be stopped. That made USC the underdog that would have to weather the oncoming tempest in order to return to sunny Southern California with a sixth straight win.
Just like the forecast flipped from rain to wind in the morning to afternoon, the expected narrative of the game was inverted by the visiting Trojans, who successfully took on the weather, the noise and one of the most complete teams in the country to emerge out of Washington with a 26-13 upset victory.
"They're a wonderful team that won't be denied," head coach Clay Helton said afterward. "I watched a team that played team football. That was a full team win."
The postgame declaration by Helton was not merely a futile cliche, but rather a full and accurate representation of how USC executed its game plan and overcame even their own deficiencies in attaining their vindicating victory.
The foundation was laid by the defense that knew what it was getting into, what it was trying to stop and what it needed to do to fulfill the requirement: Bend, bend, bend, but never break against an offense known for its explosiveness.
"We come into an environment that fuels emotion, and when we execute early that also fuels emotion," linebacker Michael Hutchings said. "We had success early and that just gave us confidence to build on."
The Trojans defense may have bent to its limit, but it also reverberated back to its form with authority, halting a rampant Husky rushing attack to just 17 yards after they had averaged over 230 yards per game. A Top 10 offense that had run over Stanford, Oregon and Utah accumulating an average of 499 yards per game, finished its most competitive game with a mere 276.
Washington's offensive prowess included Heisman contender, who spent more time being rushed at and out of the pocket than he did completing passes. USC's front was relentless from the start, accruing three sacks courtesy of Porter Gustin and forcing Browning out of his comfort zone and into two game-changing interceptions by Adoree' Jackson.
"We knew how good he was as a quarterback, and we just wanted to limit him," Jackson said. "I thought we did that."
Though the bedrock of success was the defense, the force that solidified the upset came once again at the hands of Sam Darnold and two key drives he engineered on his way to 287 yards and two touchdowns.
With 2:27 left in the half, Darnold formally introduced himself to the country by surgically threading passes throughout the Husky's scintillating secondary, finding Darreus Rogers on two key third downs and utilizing tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe to vault the offense down the field 20 yards at a time.
“I don’t question Sam anymore. He’s a beast,” Imatorbhebhe said afterward.
The 82-play drive ended with a five-yard scoring run by Ronald Jones, culminating the half and eventually posing an insurmountable lead for their highly ranked opposition.
"To play that game, at this age, in that atmosphere, it's unbelievable," Helton said.
Darnold did throw two interceptions, but it would be two mistakes that he would shake off with the ease of a veteran, and make up for them with the skill and poise of a pro.
"I think you have to stay calm," Darnold said. "You can't show too much emotion … That's when you really have to stay calm and show your team that we can win this one."
Late in the third quarter, needing a score that would them ahead by 11, Darnold delivered again, forging a 60-yard drive where he would eventually find Imatorbhebhe again in the end zone on a third down that had Husky Stadium shaking and roaring.
The touchdown pass was as physically incisive as it was emotionally demoralizing for Washington, who could not muster any form of a comeback in their desperate attempt to keep their season perfect.
USC came into a hostile environment and played both spoiler and the better team amid the storm that had welcomed them.
"This win tops them all," safety Chris Hawkins said.
Hawkins remembers the turnaround well. He can pinpoint when everything changed back to the team meeting USC players had after Utah. There, he and other players, including Max Browne, gave the team a talk about being physical and taking on the rest of the season with a different mentality.
Six games later, the Trojans haven't lost a game. Moreover, they have won one of their best.
“Everybody was smiling,” linebacker Porter Gustin said of the scene in the locker room afterward. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen us that happy before.”
The emotion was as rare as the victory itself, for the Trojans' last win this meaningful transcends recent memory and the way they dominated an opponent of this caliber provides this group of players with a signature victory to their tenures in cardinal and gold.
"This one is pretty big for us," Jackson said. "I feel like we're taking those steps to make justice for our season."
There is no erasing the embarrassment in Dallas, no forgetting the disappointment in Palo Alto or redeeming the letdown in Salt Lake. But with USC's successful trip to Washington comes a win that defines their season, leaving with a note of success no matter what the finish line brings.