Up and down and up and down, USC went through its first month of the season, on an emotional rollercoaster of its own creation. One week, there was disaster. The next, redemption. Each game proved more dizzying and disorienting than the last.
By that pattern, it stood to reason that USC should walk over Colorado, this season’s conference doormat, a team that scored just 20 points combined over the past three weeks. On its way to a resounding 37-14 road victory Saturday afternoon, USC (3-2) not only avoided another humiliating loss and stopped a potentially catastrophic slide, but also finally seemed to find the stability for which it had desperately been searching.
Whether it’ll stay that way is another question. But for one afternoon, the run game found its footing, surpassing the 200-yard mark for the first time in two seasons. The run defense, fresh off its worst showing in years, stood tall in the trenches, holding Colorado to a mere 72 yards on the ground. And a number of the Trojans’ top playmakers stood out in a way they hadn’t all season, from freakish edge rusher Drake Jackson ( two sacks and a fumble recovery) to emerging freshman tight end Michael Trigg (51 yards and a touchdown).
It wasn’t perfect, as evidenced by USC’s 12 penalties for 115 yards. It was, however, the sort of performance USC should put on against one of the worst teams in the Pac-12.
“That’s how we’re supposed to come in,” Jackson said.
“That’s what we expect to do,” interim coach Donte Williams added.
But through September, USC hadn’t offered much evidence that this caliber of performance could be expected. Just a week earlier, the run game had been completely stymied, its run defense totally trampled by a team that had suffered seven straight losing seasons.
Both units managed to bounce back in a big way, beginning with a defensive front that refused to bend to last year’s Pac-12 offensive player of the year, Colorado running back Jarek Broussard.
A week spent zeroing in on the conference’s most run-heavy offense paid dividends, as USC kept Colorado under zero yards rushing until late in the second quarter. Broussard eventually found room, finishing with 68 yards. But without a consistent ground game, Colorado was never able to establish any consistency, failing to exceed six plays on a single drive. A season-high five sacks by USC, with Jackson and Jacob Lichtenstein each getting two, also boosted the Trojans defense.
The kind of rhythm found Saturday had mostly eluded USC’s offense this season. But all of its pieces finally seemed to come together.
It started with a dominant opening quarter from wideout Drake London, the only Trojan whose expectations actually soared higher over the season’s first month. Before Colorado even secured its second first down, London, the NCAA leader in receptions and receiving yards, had five catches for 96 yards.
With Colorado unable to contain him in man coverage, London led one USC scoring drive on his own, reeling in an errant deep ball from 29 yards, a high-flying jump ball from 28 yards, and then a one-handed, back-shoulder grab in the corner of the end zone that no mortal being should’ve been able to corral.
Even London couldn’t fully explain it, calling his catch “a play where your body just takes over.”
“He wasn’t open, and he made some unbelievable catches, but that’s just Drake,” offensive coordinator Graham Harrell said. “That’s the thing. We almost expect that now. I think the expectation is so high for him, it’s probably unfair. But when he makes plays like that and you see it every week, it’s like, ‘Well, if it’s close, he’s going to make it, so let’s just keep throwing it to him.’”
And they did, until Colorado was forced to throw the kitchen sink to defend London, bracketing him with safeties and helping with additional corners and linebackers. That’s when USC turned to the run game, and Keaontay Ingram took over.
With Colorado focused on keeping USC out of the air, Ingram rolled for 124 yards in 14 carries, his best performance as a Trojan. He wasn’t the only transfer back to play a major role, as Darwin Barlow provided a spark with 61 yards in 10 carries.
“We ran for 200, threw for almost 300 — that’s pretty ideal,” said quarterback Kedon Slovis, who passed for 276 yards and three touchdowns. “It was a good day, but there’s still a lot to build on. We left a lot out there still, but it feels a lot better coming off a win, putting up almost 40 points, knowing that there’s still more out there.”
That didn’t feel like the case a week ago. But after an up-and-down month to forget, USC finally found solid ground to stand on.
For one week, at least.
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