Sam Darnold made his first-ever collegiate start against Utah in 2016. He had one fumble, as did Ronald Jones and Justin Davis, and USC was unable to escape Salt Lake City with a victory. Darnold had three fumbles by himself in the 2017 version of the contest, but the end-of-2016 version of Darnold appeared in the second half of the game, leading the Trojans to a 28-27 win over the Utes.
“Our players made a decision to define our football team in the second half,” Head Coach Clay Helton said after the game.
USC played painful offensive football in the first half of Saturday's game, not doing its defense any favors either, and leading to a 21-7 halftime deficit. Aside from one long run, Ronald Jones couldn't get going. Darnold made a few nice plays but couldn't hold onto the ball worth a lick. USC's only score in the first half was a busted coverage leaving tight end Tyler Petite wide open for a touchdown in the middle of the field.
"We had 262 yards of offense and only seven points," said Coach Helton. "We were beating ourselves."
After allowing 14 points in the first half (seven of Utah's 21 came on a defensive score), the Trojan defense put a boot on Utah's driving offense. The Utes only scored six points in the second half and whenever it seemed like they were driving again, the USC defense put the clamps on. Whether it was a Christian Rector sack, he had two, or a Cam Smith run stuff, he had several, USC's big time defenders made big time plays in the second half to allow the offense time to get things turned around.
"Getting timely stops was big," said safety Chris Hawkins. "Getting stops gets your offense back on the field. The best place for a defense to be is on the bench."
Utah's only second half points came on its last drive of the game, scoring a touchdown with less than a minute remaining. Utah's head coach Kyle Wittingham decided to go for two, giving his team a chance to either win or lose the game on one play, instead of opting for the more conservative approach of an extra point and playing for overtime.
"It was never a surprise with Kyle, he's a very gutsy coach," Helton said after the game. "We knew last year, them going for fourth and one four times to win the game. That's Kyle's mentality…it's an aggressive mentality."
Before the two-point conversion attempt, Helton called a timeout, allowing his defense to get properly set. This move had some risk; if Utah was able to get the conversion it would've left USC with no timeouts and only 42 seconds to drive down and kick a field goal to win. But the gamble paid off, and USC's defense was thankful for the extra time to get set.
"It was huge for us," said linebacker Cameron Smith. "It's nice to not have go down and have Sam make a play and kick a field goal, so the defense put it on their backs there and owned up to them scoring on us."
After struggling in the first half, USC's offense completely flipped the script in the second half starting with its first drive. After forcing a Utah punt to open the half, USC was pinned back on its own two yard line to start the drive. Fifteen plays and almost six minutes later, Sam Darnold did his best Sam Darnold impersonation and scrambled around several Utah defenders before finding Tyler Petite in the back of the end zone for his second score of the game.
Two drives later? Eighty-eight yards in 11 plays, capped off by a Josh Falo touchdown. The drive after that? Ninety-three yards with Ronald Jones putting an exclamation on it, flipping into the end zone for an 11-yard touchdown. After only having one drive over 60 yards in the first half, USC had three over 85 in the second half.
“We just trusted the process,” Darnold said in regards to the slow offensive start.
After struggling to run the ball in the first half, Ronald Jones started gashing the Utah defense for big chunks in the third and fourth quarters. With the Utes' defense wearing down, Jones was able to get going which, in turn, helped Darnold and the passing game. Jones and Darnold came up big when they needed to, Jones extending his touchdown streak to 13 consecutive games and Darnold grinding out a 50-pass-attempt effort to improve to 10-0 at home.
"I thought the balance of the run game coming together," Helton said about what changed in the second half offensively. "And you feel just the start of wearing down the defensive line. It was hard-sledding early in the run game and all of a sudden they started to pop."
While it's a painful cliché, a win is a win for this team. By taking down its biggest Pac-12 South rival, USC continues to control its own destiny in terms of a Conference championship. While it's certainly been a rockier road than most predicted coming into the season, the Trojans have their goal of winning the Pac-12 in their sights, with dreams of a big-time bowl game feasible as well.
Helton was asked after the game whether he has any thoughts about next week's matchup with Notre Dame. He laughed and said simply, "no."
After keeping its Pac-12 Championship hopes alive with a win on Saturday night, there's no rest for the weary as USC faces likely its toughest game of the regular season in South Bend next Saturday.