Late in the second quarter, Justin Davis took a handoff right and found a seam. He cut outside and had a lane up the sideline to run in for a 37-yard touchdown thanks to the work of JuJu Smith-Schuster on the outside.
The Trojans’ workhorse receiver scored the first two touchdowns of the night, but was willing to spring Davis with a block on cornerback Kareem Orr. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Smith-Schuster got his hands on the 5-foot-11, 195-pound defensive back 10 yards from the line of scrimmage and then shoved him backwards another nine yards.
After Smith-Schuster’s block, Orr’s only hope was to try to nudge Davis out before he got across the goal line. He pushed at Davis, knocking him off balance, but Davis still tumbled into the end zone for a touchdown. Davis went to the ground out of the corner of the end zone and the jubilant JuJu followed right behind Davis with a headfirst slide beside him to help celebrate.
Davis and Smith-Schuster both starred in USC's 41-20 victory over Arizona State Saturday night at the Coliseum. Davis had 123 yards rushing on 14 carries. Smith-Schuster’s 123 yards and three scores came in the air.
“I really think that it's a balanced offense. I think one takes care of the other and that's what you want,” head coach Clay Helton said. “To have Justin Davis running the ball like he's done back-to-back weeks, it helps us open up JuJu Smith and a number of receivers.”
Smith-Schuster was quick to credit Davis and the offensive line for his big night.
Center Nico Falah hoists JuJu Smith-Schuster in the air after his second touchdown. (Shotgun Spratling)
“That's what you can make with the run game,” Smith-Schuster said after the game. “You get it going, then you get explosive plays down field, so it helps out a lot.”
USC had five passes that went for 20 or more yards and another 10 completions that gained at least 10 yards. The run game also produced a two 35+ yard runs and another pair that went for at least 10 yards.
“The main thing was patience -- letting everything develop,” Smith-Schuster said. “This whole week we talked about just doing the simple things. The little things is what makes it count. It's those blocks downfield, knowing your read, knowing who you have to have and being able to read coverage.”
Those little things led to a whole lot of fun.
The fun-loving smile was back on Smith-Schuster’s face. Along with his end zone dive to join Davis, he also got a chance to celebrate each of his three touchdowns. On his first score, he struck a pose while fellow receiver Steven Mitchell, Jr. pretended to snap his picture and then Darreus Rogers came over to pantomime taking a selfie with Smith-Schuster.
The Long Beach (Calif.) Polytechnic product was so open on his second touchdown grab that he considered sitting down to make the catch. Instead, he chose to go with a double dab. His final score saw him shake a tackle and then cut across the field and all the way to the end zone for a 67-yard touchdown.
“I knew I could get it out to him and whenever I have a chance to get it out to him, I know he's gonna do something special with it,” quarterback Sam Darnold said in the post-game news conference.
Afterwards, Smith-Schuster showed he was a man of the people, taking the time to throw some high fives with the front row of the student section.
Smith-Schuster broke a streak dating back to last season of nine games without 100+ yards receiving. He had six in the eight games prior. After being held under 100 yards combined in the first three games, Smith-Schuster has averaged 110.5 yards per game since Darnold took over the starting quarterback role.
The duo has quickly found a solid connection and seem to always be on the same page, as Smith-Schuster explains:
“There was a play where I ran like a post curl, but he saw that the corner came inside and the linebacker played underneath and I had to run out. I was like, 'Man, I hope he sees this.' And he runs out too and he throws it. So it's just kind of like that connection, just playing back and forth. You've built that chemistry in practice for five days and you come out here and perform.
“It’s great. It’s not even just me. It’s all the boys, all the receivers. He has all of us [on the same page] and it’s rolling right now.”
The Trojans’ once plodding offense that couldn’t get out of its own way because of mistakes and miscommunications is now moving the football efficiently and effectively. USC averaged 7.8 yards per play in Darnold’s first start and 7.6 against the Sun Devils on Saturday.
Smith-Schuster has noticed two distinct differences with Darnold in the lineup — how quickly the ball gets to him and defenses having to defend against his ability to run or throw. The wideout is also enamored with the redshirt freshman’s creativity and willingness to ad-lib whether it is on scrambles where Smith-Schuster knows to “just try to find an open window” or a broken play, such as a quarterback run call against Arizona State that turned into a 15-yard reception to Deontay Burnett.
“One of the best plays I saw was a bunch to the right and he ran a quarterback sneak. He was like 'Aww...nah. This is not working,’” Smith-Schuster said. “He runs back out and he runs like two more yards at the defender and then he throws it to Tay.
“It's a great play because he throws the ball behind [the line of scrimmage], so the ball is still live. Tay got an extra 8-10 yards. Gets us the first down. It's little stuff like that that shows that man, this kid is really special.”
One September win doesn’t make a season, so JuJu and the Trojans will have to build on the win against Arizona State. They’ll get another chance to prove themselves this weekend when No. 21 Colorado — USC’s fifth ranked opponent in six games — comes to Los Angeles.
“Man, we just keep going. I’m just glad that we’re home again,” Smith-Schuster said. “The home Coliseum is where it’s at and our fans have supported us 100 percent.”
The Trojans are also undefeated at home this season and under Helton.
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