Clay Helton was almost giddy running off the Coliseum turf after USC's 21-17 win over a high-flying, 21st-ranked Colorado team the Trojans clearly outclassed for more than half the game looking like they could name the score.
Stopping for a moment and shaking his head, Clay said "I don't know how many wins you get after four turnovers."
The answer for this USC team for now is one -- this one.
Just when it looked like a game that USC should have been winning 28-0 was instead slipping away, holding on to a 14-7 lead over the gathering-confidence Buffaloes (4-2, 2-2 in the Pac-12 South), Clay was telling himself to "stay poised, don't get over-emotional . . . if you get over-emotional or start panicking, the team feels that."
He didn't. Until later, maybe. Although he probably should have the way this thing had turned around on USC's three lost fumbles and an interception -- two of the fumbles and the INT by quarterback Sam Darnold in his third start, the other by leading rusher Justin Davis.
But these are the lessons you learn in only one way, by experiencing them. It's the part of the rookie coach's resume he must fill in week by week.
This week Clay could pencil a second straight Coliseum "W" over a ranked Pac-12 visitor with a high-powered offense. And for the second straight week, the USC defense stepped up to stop someone in their tracks to even their record to 3-3 (2-2 in the Pac-12).
They're not dead yet even if they almost were.
"Give great credit and the game ball to our defense," Clay said. All they did was hold Colorado, a team averaging 43.2 points a game, to 17, their lowest output of the season, The Buffs scored 28 against Michigan. And held a team averaging 218.6 rushing yards to 96. And a team averaging 531.2 yards to 371.
And without the double pass flanker cross-field throwback scoring play for 67 yards that USC went brain-dead on, those numbers would have been far below that. And it's also the first time all season Colorado did not lead in a game and first time it did not score in the first quarter or first half.
Credit that to "Clancy [Pendergast]'s calls being ultra aggressive," Clay said, "and mixing it up as a play-caller . . . keeping play-callers in check and confusing quarterbacks."
"They did a few things we didn't expect them to do," said CU freshman quarterback Steven Montez, who finished 25 of 40 for 197 yards and one TD, one INT. "They played really well defensively," Colorado coach Mike Macintyre said. "They pushed us around a little bit in the first half."
But they weren't the only ones getting pushed around at times. "We'll learn from it and get better," Sam said as he ran by afterward. In a game that looked like the Utah loss when no one was able to step up and bail the Trojans out, several someones did. Start with Adoree' Jackson's sideline-defying acrobatic third quarter interception that had his foot coming down closer to the line than the cameras could catch.
Adoree' said when he's in the air like that, he has two "mindsets" actually. One to get my foot in, he said of doing a Charles Woodson-like body "torque" in the air to accomplish that. His other: ". . . when I touch the ball, get the party started. I see myself as lighter fluid to a barbecue grill."
In this game, with those four lost turnovers and at least three score-erasing moments, the only place the playing-with-matches Trojans were putting the lighter fluid was on themselves.
And then as Clay said in describing this whole season that had them off to a 1-3 start, USC stopped digging. "We were in a hole," Clay said. "To get our second Pac-12 win puts us in . . . a playoff mentality and every week is like a championship game" as the Trojans head to Tucson for Arizona next week.
"Like" is the operative word there. It will take stringing a few more of these for that to become any sort of reality. But it's there now as a possibility. And that's more than USC had two weeks ago. And for Clay, who improves to 6-0 lifetime at the Coliseum as an interim and head coach, it was a necessity.
A loss in this game, after that first half when USC could have, should have, been up by four scores, would not have been survivable for this staff.
Now they live to play another day. Thanks, of course, to a defense that recorded four sacks and sent another starting quarterback out of the game after a first-half Porter Gustin rolled through Colorado freshman Montez, a tough cookie who did return in this battle of freshman prodigies.
And yes, despite his three turnovers, Sam made up for it in ways it's easy to number. His 25-of-37 passing produced a career-high 358 yards and all three USC TDs, two to his roommate Tyler Petite, one on a super-scramble one direction after a scooped-up fumble on the left sideline produced maybe the longest 11-yard scoring play in history as the ball, and Sam, went all the way across the field one way, then the other. before he saw his roomie wide open and lofted it back to him for the first of his two scoring catches.
It was one of three by the tight ends with Daniel Imatorbhebhe getting the game's first on a great seam read and throw by Sam from 32 yards out. But if there was a play that won this game, it was the Darreus Rodgers come-from-behind 46-yard pick of a pick with less than 10 minutes left in a game all tied up at 14 that left USC on the Colorado 24 from its own 30.
"It was a pick all the way," Darnold said, "I didn't throw it far enough." Said Clay: "I was with Sam on that -- it was a pick." Ditto for CU's Macintyre: "I thought he had it picked." So almost surely did Buff corner Ahkello Witherspoon. He had two hands on the ball thrown right to him and then it was gone.
That's because there was one other opinion that mattered here -- that of Rogers'. And what was he thinking?
"That's mine," he said, "110 percent mine." And so it was as with one strong hand, he reached in and took it. Just like that. And took off with it down to the 24. In fact, he was following a principle Clay had offered to Sam when he said he didn't want him "to play in handcuffs." Clay's advice to Sam was "to drive it like you stole it."
Only in this case, it was Darreus who stole it. "I didn't want another turnover," Darreus said. "It was up to me."
Indeed it was as four plays later, Darnold would hit Petite from seven yards out for the game-winning score.
So unselfish of a winning effort was this for USC, JuJu Smith-Schuster caught a 25-yard pass with a minute left that he could have easily scored on but downed it at the 14 after getting the first down knowing Colorado could not kill the clock enough with just one timeout.
"I decided it on my own," JuJu said. "I think they wanted me to score but that was smart football."
Winning football, at the very least, which is all that mattered here Saturday for a crowd announced at 68,302.
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