And so it begins. The Sam Darnold Era. Or maybe that was last week when USC should have started it in Salt Lake City.
It took a while even on a night when USC (2-3, 1-2 in the Pac-12) would run off for a 38-3 romp in a mere 17:34 over the second and third quarters on the way to a 41-20 crushing of formerly unbeaten Arizona State (4-1, 1-1 in the Pac-12).
Four plays in USC's first series -- three of them losses for seven yards against a single Sam completion -- netted a fourth-down stop on an ill-advised go-for-it move by Clay Helton. And it didn't matter at all.
In a game where the defense stepped up, nickel back Jonathan Lockett made the first move in picking off ASU quarterback Manny Wilkins, after he'd led the Sun Devils on a 12-play opening drive for a field goal and a 3-0 lead. That's all it took.
And as much as USC aims to be a run-first, physical team, or at the very least, as Clay reiterated after this game, a team of "balance," that's not what got USC going. Sam did. With career highs in completions (23), attempts (33), yards passing (353) and TDs (three), the redshirt freshman from San Clemente put the Trojans on his back and carried them back into this one.
"Sam's a baller," senior Justin Davis said. "As long as he's dropping dimes like that, I'm proud to stand beside him." Proud and grateful as Davis benefited a second straight week from Sam's presence, rushing for 123 yards on 14 carries (an 8.8 average) with a touchdown.
On USC's second series, all Sam did was hit JuJu Smith-Schuster, who would get back on track with seven catches for 123 yards and a career-high three TDs, to start things off for 15 yards on a third and 10. Then it was Deontay Burnett, quickly becoming USC's No. 2 receiver at worst, for 17 of his 93 yards on seven catches. Then a couple of five-yarders to Deontay and JuJu for a TD wrapped around Justin's 49-yard run to the ASU 9.
Funny how things open up for the running backs when Sam is throwing the ball the way he can. And how things open up for the receivers when the defense knows that Sam can run the ball, which he did to close out USC's scoring on a read-option keep from the 3 that was as easy as it looked.
Sam said last week's "experience definitely helped" him in this game. He prepared the same just was able to make the Utah week work for him after what he learned there about himself and his teammates. "We have guys who can make great plays even when JuJu is covered." As they did Saturday.
"Sam really keeps guys focused in the huddle, he's such an upbeat guy," said Chuma Edoga, as he and Jordan Simmons subbed for a sidelined Zach Banner at right tackle.
With the numbers showing USC with a 523 yards to 303 advantage over a high-powered ASU offense averaging 48.8 points a game, the Trojans were the team to watch here.
"It really gets on my nerves that this is the team I was seeing all through fall camp," Davis said. "But Coach [Helton] says this is the start."
And yes, these Trojans were psyched to hear that Cal upset Utah, knowing they have to have the Utes lose a couple or three, and that Colorado, unbeaten in the Pac-12, and Cal, loser to ASU, will be coming in here by the end of October. Don't forget, the Trojans were saying. they like playing in the Coliseum.
Sure, it's been, as Clay said, "a September not to remember." But games like Saturday in front of an announced attendance of 71,214 but surely 20,000 short of that with actual people in the seats, will be easy for this USC team, should it get things turned around and start a run, to recall.
One of the reasons to remember will be the way the USC defense, after falling flat at the end in Utah, allowing a game-losing 17-play, 93-yard drive, stepped up here and essentially held ASU without a touchdown until mopup time in a game that was 41-6 until late with the backups in the game.
Give this one to Clancy Pendergast, who in his last time going against his homestate Sun Devils, saw them put up 62 in Lane Kiffin's last game. Not so here.
The 303 yards USC held Arizona State to was a season-low, 153 yards below their next lowest offensive total. And the fewest points ASU had scored was 32.
"Clancy really challenged his guys," Clay said, with a game plan that had to both contain and pressure athletic QB Manny Wilkins, who was knocked out of the game right before halftime never to return.
"They have weapons all over the field," said defensive captain Michael Hutchings of Clancy's "clean game plan" to limit the explosive plays. "I think we did that successfully."
But we'd be remiss if we didn't mention USC placekicker Matt Boermeester, who hit on 49- and 46-yard field goals before just missing on a 52-yarder and a final 37-yarder to go eight-for-11 this season with four touchbacks on his kickoffs including three out of the end zone and unreturnable. What a weapon he has become for a team that is getting the job done -- at least on this night -- in all three phases of the game.
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