In practice following the Western Michigan game, USC quarterback Sam Darnold said he "just felt weird" during week one. Whatever he did to calm the nerves heading into week two, worked. Darnold sliced and diced the Stanford defense like it was his job, leading the Trojans to a 42-24 victory against the 14th ranked Cardinal.
"I felt a little bit better [today]. But honestly we take a lot of energy from the fans too," Darnold said after the game. "When they come out and they're loud, it helps us as players to have that energy and to go out and play to the best of our ability."
Darnold came out guns blazing, completing his first 11 passes of the game and ending the first half 14 of 17 for 225 yards and three touchdowns and one interception. While he was by no means perfect, his interceptions coming on poor decisions thrown off the back foot, Darnold didn't let his mistakes snowball and took apart the Cardinal both methodically and aggressively.
After much of the first half was marked by incredible efficiency and balance for the Trojan offense, Darnold showed why scouts are salivating over him at the end of the first half. On three consecutive throws he showed poise, vision, aggressiveness and touch.
On the first, he showed great pocket awareness before finding Deontay Burnett in the middle of the field for 16 yards. Darnold followed that up by throwing an absolute dime down the left seam to Steven Mitchell for 49 yards. The cherry on top of the sundae was Darnold's signature: his ability to throw on the move. After rolling out of the pocket to his right, he lofted up a beautiful touch throw to a fully-extended Burnett for a 25-yard touchdown.
Darnold striking quickly in an end-of-half situation. Sounds familiar.
"I can't comment enough on how fun it is to watch our offense play," linebacker Cameron Smith said with a smile. "When we're out there, we're like fans."
Just as Darnold was dynamic in the first half despite one horrendous throw, the USC defense did a mostly solid job against the Stanford offense, except for one play.
After the USC defense forced a punt on the opening drive of the game, the Stanford offensive line created a hole a midsize vehicle could drive through on the second one. Bryce Love, who averaged 13.8 yards per carry in Stanford's first game, went untouched for a 75-yard touchdown and eclipsed 100 yards after just the first quarter.
"That was the first couple series' of the game, but our saying right now is to stay up here," Smith said, motioning to a level at his eyes. "Stay up here for four quarters, and everyone's kind of buying in on that."
While the Trojan defense was settling down, the Trojan backfield was just revving up. The automobile duo of junior Ronald "Texas Tesla" Jones II and freshman Stephen "Start the" Carr drove through the Stanford defense like they were a Maserati.
The two combined for 235 yards on 35 carries, good for 6.7 per attempt. It was an interesting change of pace, as Jones, normally good for a breakaway or two, was the workhorse, muscling out 23 carries with a long of 23. Carr, meanwhile, was a highlight machine, juking Stanford defenders left, right and back left again.
Carr was asked after the game if he expects to beat defenders in one-on-one situations and he responded with an honest confidence, "Yes sir. I love making moves in the open field, the open field is my specialty."
The offensive line improved on an already solid first game, opening up massive holes for the running backs and providing Darnold time to navigate and find his receivers. USC's offense moved with the efficiency that many expected coming into the season, and much of that is due to the play of the offensive line.
It's a symbiotic relationship. The skill players need the offensive line and the offensive line needs the skill players. When both facets are working, the offense is nothing short of a highlight factory.
"We don't know where they're running, but we just wait for the crowd. As soon as we hear a little roar, we know it broke," a laughing Talamaivao said.
Carr echoed the statement when asked what his absolute favorite thing about being in a one-on-one situation is, "Let's see what this highlight is gonna be like."
USC's 623 total offensive yards is the most ever scored against a David Shaw-coached Stanford team. Head Coach Clay Helton preaches offensive balance every day during practice, and the Trojans could hardly be more balanced on Saturday with 307 rushing yards and 316 passing yards.
Helton was asked if this was the most complete game USC has played since he's become the head coach, and he gave all the credit to his players.
"It felt that way. There was an energy about our kids and a confidence about our kids. I thought they truly believed in the plan that was put together, but then it's another thing to go out there and execute. To watch a bunch of guys go out there and play like they did, with the emotion that they did, I'm incredibly proud of our players."
USC answered the bell after there was skepticism following the team's 18-point victory over Western Michigan. This looked like the team that was put in the preseason top-4. It looked like a team that has a chance at running the table.
Their next test will be at home against Texas, a highly-anticipated rematch of the famous Rose Bowl game from 11 years ago. If Sam Darnold is "feeling a little better" and the ground game continues to be this dynamic, there's no reason to expect anything other than a supernova on offense. Add that to a defense that was able to hold the always-strong Stanford ground game in check, despite being thin on the defensive line, and USC is rounding into the form it needs to be if it wants to contend for a title.