SEATTLE -- And now we know. This USC football team is pretty good. It was not just a mirage. Not just a matter of playing a bunch of nobodies. They were beating everybody they played the last five weeks but what else could they do. You play the teams on your schedule.
But they were getting better. Making it much tougher for teams to run their offense. They weren't giving in and giving up. They were practicing hard and playing harder. They were believing in what they were doing.
And then it happened -- 26-13 over Washington happened. In front of a stunned record crowd of 72,364 at renovated Husky Stadium that tried to shout the Trojans out of Seattle to no avail.
And by the end of this one, it was hard to tell who was having more fun. Lynn Swann, waiting outside the USC locker room, was grabbing players and pounding them with both hands on their shoulder pads. "That is how you do it," Lynn, who knows, was yelling into their ears..
Max Nikias had been grinning broadly in the press box by halftime. Keep smiling, he was told. "There's a long way to go," Max said. But he'd try as his Trojans made an 11-point lead stand up the rest of the way no matter how their fortunes turned or how loud the crowd got.
They loved it, these Trojans did. Let it be loud, they said. This was their chance to show how far they'd come, how much better they were, how they can play with anybody now. And how they would play for Clay Helton.
"Best coach I've ever played for," a coming-home Zach Banner said before heading off to greet some 50 family and friends over from Tacoma. So how does that feel, Banner was asked about his triumphal return waving his Guam flag -- a salute to his grandfather. "It feels great," Zach shouted.
And indeed it did. For the Trojan fans, for the doubters, for the national media here seeing Sam Darnold for the first time, mostly here to write about the Huskies and Heisman Trophy candidate Jake Browning, it was both puzzling and revealing.
"Did anybody expect that?" Sports Illustrated's Pete Thamel asked. He certainly didn't.
Not that anybody should have been expecting it. How do you hold the unbeaten No. 4 team in the nation with a clear path to the college football playoffs, a team averaging 48.3 points a game to a single offensive touchdown scored only because Adoree' Jackson lost his footing as a 70-yard score fell into the Huskies' laps.
And how do you expect to hold the the top rushing team in the Pac-12 to 17 yards on 27 rushes -- an 0.6 average. Helton was reading that number off the stat sheet and just shaking his head. "That's unbelievable," Clay said, stating the obvious. "It started with our defense."
But it didn't end there. It ended with Sam Darnold, as the redshirt freshman so often has done in this six-game USC win streak for the 7-3 Trojans (6-2 in the Pac-12) dominating -- dare-we-say-it -- this matchup of Heisman mentionables even if it's not this year for Sam. Although who knows the way he's been playing. On this night, he was 23 of 33 for 287 yards and two TDs with two interceptions although just one of them was his fault, the other on a Darreus Rogers slip and fall.
And just one sack, only his fourth of the season. And at all times, he looked unflappable as he most always does. Browning meanwhile, looked flappable. Pushed off his spots and pursued by a Porter Gustin-led USC rush, Browning hit on 17 of 36 with two INTs for 259 yards and one TD with two interceptions courtesy of Adoree'.
But ask any of the USC secondary and they'll credit the push up front from an incredibly courageous effort by Stevie Tu'ikolvatu coming off a sprained MCL that limited him to less than one full practice this week. Or to a rapidly maturing Rasheem Green, playing his best game as a Trojan.with a sack and a blocked field goal.
"We put all the tools in their toolbox," special teams coach John Baxter said explaining just how many people had to do their jobs on that play. "I'm just excited because they're excited about what they're doing."
Gustin and Uchenna Nwosu on the edge surely were playing like their hair was on fire. Porter had two sacks among his five tackles, Uchenna a tackle for loss that may have been the big defensive play of the game on a reverse where he was out in space and made the play.
On offense, USC really had just Ronald Jones to pound it in there with both Justin Davis, who played a bit, and Ced Ware, who didn't, not back all the way from ankle sprains. RoJo ran it 23 times for 93 hard-earned yards (4.0 average). But that kept the Huskies honest.
And gave the USC receivers, led by Rogers, with six catches for 84 yards and a TD with one of those take-it-away-from-the-DB steals and tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe's career day of five catches for 78 yards and a TD to fill in the offense. Deontay Burnett had four for 67 and JuJu Smith-Schuster, still battling back spasms, had three for 41.
So that made it the Sam Darnold Show. "We were very confident with the way our team was responding to all the punches that Washington threw at us," Darnold said. "I thought we responded very well."
Daniel Imatorbhebhe, on his stop-and-go TD catch from Darnold with 13:33 left to put the game out of reach, said he had no doubts. "I don't question Sam. He can pretty much make every throw."
And tonight, he did.
But he did more than that. He stayed cool and calm, didn't let the setbacks set him back and just kept making plays. "I thought the blocked field goal took the air out of them," Cameron Smith said. Just when it looked like good fortune was about to bring the Huskies back, down just 17-13, Rasheem Green got to it and Adoree' scooped it up and USC took it down for a score 10 pays later. And that was pretty much it.
"That was a good football team we played tonight," Chris Petersen said. "We knew that going in. They were better than us. They were physical They made plays when they had to . . . in this league, you have to have your fastball going every week."
The Huskies didn't. Good pitching beats good hitting. But in this one, the hitting was done by the Trojans. And all the Huskies fans could do was watch in increasing silence.
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