“Outside the Pocket” is a column by Sam Arslanian about USC football.

A three-point loss in a fourth-quarter thriller against Notre Dame was not only unexpected from USC; it seemed impossible. Anything less than a blowout was a win for USC.

Hate on head coach Clay Helton; hate on offensive coordinator Graham Harrell, but USC showed a lot of promise in the second half. Trojan fans should have hope for the team’s upcoming conference matchups.

It’s tiring hearing about hope and promise week-after-week, especially when that promise is seldom converted into a win. Look at USC’s last two games with a critical eye: A loss to then-No. 17 Washington with the third-string quarterback and a severely hampered defense, followed by a post-bye week tight loss to No. 9 Notre Dame.

What do those two games mean for USC? USC was never going to be a playoff contender this season. The only goal that matters for them is a Pac-12 Championship and Rose Bowl berth. Both of those goals are still in the realm of possibilities for USC; one Pac-12 loss will not close that door.

The takeaway from USC’s game against Notre Dame is that when the Trojans get all of the pieces moving, they can beat just about any team. USC showed improvement and potential against Notre Dame. Committing just two penalties is an impressive feat for the Trojans who, coming in, averaged 7.2 penalties per game. Moreover, the Trojans didn’t allow a turnover.

USC has struggled in both of these areas. Helton shouldn’t get a gold star for finally instilling an ounce of discipline in his players, but these improvements should be a welcome change for Trojan fans. The Notre Dame loss is still a “moral victory” for USC. Having the ability to claw their way back against a top-10 team on the road is a good look for the Trojans.

The reality is that moral victories don’t matter, but this shows that USC can adapt and compete with elite teams. The so-called “air-raid” offense has an even split with 35 rushing plays and 35 passing plays. Harrell’s willingness to stray away from the pass-heavy offense should prove to be a valuable asset for the Trojans.

Redshirt freshman running back Markese Stepp has shown flashes of greatness in the past, but he hit his stride against Notre Dame. He looked fast. More importantly, he looked strong – fighting for extra yards every carry. On one rush, he gained five yards untouched then tacked on another 14 while carrying the Fighting Irish roster on his back.

From what it sounds like, Harrell plans to use Stepp more often. Stepp’s ability to brawl for yards will complement the strong passing game magnificently.

The bottom line is USC needs to figure out how to close drives. They did a really good job getting to the 40-yard line in the first half on Saturday. Four of the Trojans’ first-half drives ended between the 40-yard line and midfield. If just one of those drives goes 10 yards further, USC can attempt a field goal and possibly see a different end result.

Looking forward for the Trojans, they control their own destiny – as Helton always says. USC is “at the top” of the Pac-12 South with a 2-1 conference record, tied with the Arizona schools and Utah. If the Trojans run the table (which is unlikely but not impossible), they will find themselves in the Pac-12 Championship.

More likely, the Trojans will drop a game along the way. The two key USC games to look out for are against No. 12 Oregon and No. 17 Arizona State. The Trojans proved they have the talent and ability to beat both teams, but consistency is always a problem.

In terms of Pac-12 standings, it looks like the South title is going to be a battle between USC, Utah and Arizona State. The Trojans hold the tiebreaker over Utah. USC will meet Arizona State in Tempe on Nov. 9.

No. 15 Utah and No. 18 ASU meet in Salt Lake City on Saturday. That game will be a huge factor for USC’s season. A Sun Devil win would provide cushion room for USC to drop a game to Oregon. A Utah win essentially means USC has to win out; as Utah won’t likely drop another conference match.

USC figured things out this weekend. A three-point loss to No. 9 Notre Dame is nothing to sulk about, but now USC needs to channel its second-half intensity and find consistency. Pac-12 play is critical, and USC can’t afford to drop a game to a mediocre team.

“Outside the Pocket” runs every Monday.