USC reached its low point three weeks ago in the aftermath of a humbling loss at Notre Dame.
The Trojans have since pieced together three consecutive victories, capturing the Pac-12 South championship Saturday with a 38-24 triumph at Colorado. Several reasons explain the turnaround.
Running back Ronald Jones has averaged almost 200 rushing yards per game, providing an explosive and consistent presence in the backfield. The Trojans’ defense has been formidable, tallying 13 sacks and forcing six turnovers in the past three games.
Then there’s Sam Darnold, the third-year sophomore quarterback who has also enjoyed one of the best stretches of his college career. Since USC stumbled against the Fighting Irish, Darnold has thrown for 906 yards and seven touchdowns with one interception, completing 63 percent of his passes.
“Sam is the reason we’re here today,” USC coach Clay Helton said Sunday evening on a teleconference with reporters. “In the last 20 games, we’re 18-2, and that’s because of how he plays and how he leads this football team.”
Helton believed, in fact, Darnold’s turning point of this season came earlier, after a loss at Washington State to end September. While he has thrown 11 interceptions this fall, only three have come in the past six games since the loss to the Cougars.
Part of that remains tied to health and experience. Receivers Tyler Vaughns, a redshirt freshman, and Michael Pittman, a sophomore, have started during the stretch and made several tough catches along the sidelines against the Buffaloes.
Helton remarked on a 10-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter, when Darnold connected with Pittman on a fade route in the end zone, “placing it on the rim and letting Pitt go up a high and take it away from a good defender.” Darnold has looked more comfortable throwing to targets outside the numbers.
USC’s offensive line has also allowed five sacks in the past three games, a slight improvement.
“When you’re being protected and you have a good chemistry with your receivers, and you develop that chemistry, man, it goes a long way,” Helton said.
Against Colorado, Darnold did not fumble either, marking the first time this season he had not registered a turnover in a game. He smiled when a reporter pointed it out during a postgame news conference.
“Whenever I play a really clean game, it’s always nice,” Darnold said. “I’m sure the defense loves it too, just not having any quick turnarounds….