LOS ANGELES – Never mind USC’s 1-3 record and 0-2 hole in the Pac-12 Conference entering Saturday’s 41-20 defeat of Arizona State. Why not pick the Trojans for repeat Pac-12 South Division titles?
They have been here before, rallying from a sluggish first month a year ago to reach the first Pac-12 Championship Game in program history.
“We was in this position last year,” cornerback Adoree’ Jackson said. “We can use that as motivation from last year. Draw the line and not look back [on the 1-3 start].”
At the Game Five mark of 2015, the Trojans fell to a similar 1-2 mark in Pac-12 play with a home loss to Washington — coincidentally, the last loss the Trojans have taken in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
That also marked the end of Steve Sarkisian’s abbreviated tenure as head coach. Current head coach Clay Helton stepped in, and USC went on a 5-1 tear to win the division.
One day into October, the Pac-12 South looks like the biggest mess in college football. USC’s thrashing of the previously undefeated Sun Devils, coupled with Cal’s goal-line stand to topple similarly unbeaten Utah, leaves every team in the division but Colorado with at least one league loss.
USC recovering from its 0-2 start isn’t just possible; it’s realistic, particularly if the Trojans that showed up against Arizona State continue to represent for the remainder of a much more manageable slate.
A week removed from drawing criticism for a more conservative approach in a loss at Utah, Helton talked about aggression as a theme for Saturday’s performance.
“I went into this game saying, ‘Let’s be ultra-aggressive,'” Helton said. “Everything in this game, from pushing the ball downfield with the passing game, to special teams…we wanted to be ultra-aggressive.”
That mindset might have shown most with the play of the defense, which had put together a few impressive performances despite a 1-2 start, but gave up a 90-plus yard drive that proved the decider against Utah.
Linebacker Michael Hutchings said the defensive Trojans took the Week 4 loss to heart.
“Last week, the offense worked together and [the defense] let [Utah] drive 90 yards,” he said. “It was great for both sides of the ball to play together, and get it rolling, and see what it’s like when both sides are clicking.”
A season-high in yardage showed an offense clicking, and an overwhelming presence run defense that allowed Arizona State just 75 yards showed a defense clicking.
Freshman quarterback Brady White, who was thrown into the Arizona State lineup after starter Manny Wilkins came out with a leg injury, credited USC’s defense for making yards difficult to come by on first and second downs.
The Trojans did so by swarming to the ball, both with tenacity and discipline, not over-pursuing in the backfield.
The defensive aggressiveness held Arizona State out of the end zone all night until garbage time. The dual-threat Manny Wilkins wasn’t just neutralized, but took so many hits, he had to come out.
Defensive back Chris Hawkins was responsible for delivering the final big hit on Wilkins, a stiff tackle from a delayed blitz that elicited an eruption from the Coliseum crowd louder than any thus far into the young season.
Hawkins stepping up as he did is just the kind of jolt USC needs from role players in the next two months of regular-season play. Starring performances from the supporting cast must supplement the usual names, such as wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who continued to perform at a high level.
Smith-Schuster’s seven receptions for 123 yards and three touchdowns made life easier on quarterback Sam Darnold, whose presence in the starting lineup the last two weeks provided a spark. Darnold’s impressive play against both Utah and Arizona State set a foundation for a second-half push.
Along with an aggressive approach on both sides of the ball, USC also seemed to show another quality that had been missing from September’s games: joy. The Trojans celebrated big plays yet lined up for the next snap with a sense of purpose.
“That was one of my message: Go out there and have fun,” Jackson said, adding USC had “nothing to lose.”
“We were having fun and just playing ball, and it showed out there today.”
The looser attitude, combined with better execution, kicks off an important run with 4-of-5 games played at the Coliseum, where Helton said the Trojans “love playing.”
By opening with back-to-back road games against Stanford and Utah, the latter half of USC’s Pac-12 docket features more home games than roadies. The homestand continues next week, when a critical visit from Colorado looms.
Re-read that last sentence and process it, because it perfectly crystallizes the unpredictable madness of the Pac-12 South.
“Colorado’s out there handling its business,” Jackson said. “That’s one thing about the Pac-12, everyone can be a contender.”
Everyone, including USC.