LOS ANGELES — For members of the Trojan football team, a championship-caliber game “is what we came to USC for,” according to wide receiver Deontay Burnett.
At September’s end, when the Trojans fell to 1-3, their chances of playing in a November game with both Pac-12 title and College Football Playoff implications seemed null and void.
But with USC rolling to its fifth straight win Saturday — a 45-20 rout of Oregon — the Trojans turn their attention to one of the most important Pac-12 games of the 2016 season, a Week 11 date with Washington.
The Huskies improved to 9-0 Saturday, blowing out Cal just a few hours after USC completed its 25-point thumping of the Ducks. With fourth-ranked Texas A&M losing earlier in the day at Mississippi State, Washington will almost assuredly move into the top four of Tuesday’s Playoff rankings.
“It’s going to be a great game,” Burnett said. “We can’t wait to play ball.”
USC’s preseason aspirations of reaching the Playoff may have evaporated with the sluggish start, but the Trojans can shake up the championship landscape with a win at Husky Stadium.
Washington is positioned as the only Pac-12 team with a realistic shot at the Playoff, barring unprecedented instability across the entire college football ecosystem for the next four weeks. USC can send such shockwaves through the West with an upset next week.
“If we aren’t going [to the College Football Playoff], nobody [from the Pac-12 is] going,” linebacker Uchenna Nwosu quipped — though for USC to reach its goals, denying Washington a path to the Playoff is a necessary byproduct.
USC’s own pursuit of a conference title is very much alive, and the road to Santa Clara is clear: Win out, with South Division rivals Colorado and Utah each losing once more apiece.
“Coach [Clay] Helton preaches that November is the month we have to go. That’s what we’ve been doing so far, and it’s working,” Burnett said.
Things had been working for the Trojans before November. They are undefeated since the end of September, and any talk of Helton being on the hot seat in his first season as USC’s full-time head coach feels like ancient history.
“I think we were loose at the beginning season,” cornerback Adoree’ Jackson said, who emphasized “having fun” as one of the Trojans’ keys for Washington week. “Now, it’s more about us understanding each other and our roles, and what everybody’s got going on to the left and right of us.
“We don’t have to worry about brother making a play,” he added. “We understand he’s going to do his job, and I think that’s what’s happened. We have a coach like [defensive coordinator Clancy] Pendergast, and he instills that confidence.”
USC isn’t just winning amid this streak; it’s winning big.
Saturday’s 25-point margin of victory puts USC at plus-105 since the start of this streak, with a four-point win over nationally ranked Colorado the only victory of fewer than three touchdowns.
The Trojans are also winning with style. Quarterback Sam Darnold, whose first career start came Sept. 23 at Utah, has two games with five touchdowns. On Saturday, running back Ronald Jones II became the program’s first rusher to score four times in a single game since LenDale White in the 2005 season.
USC’s resurgence contributes to the high stakes and national attention for Week 11 in Seattle, which includes the spotlight of ESPN College GameDay.
USC is only one part of the equation.
Over the same stretch since the Trojans caught fire, Washington has won by an average of 31.4 points per game. The sole outlier is a one-score defeat of Utah in Week 9.
Washington’s blowout wins have not been lacking for style points, either. Quarterback Jake Browning is a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender, while running back Myles Gaskin has raced to the Pac-12 lead in rushing yards.
“We can’t worry about matchups,” Jackson said. “We have to go out and do what we’re capable of doing… Go out and play our ball.”
That kind of ball is now looking like Pac-12 championship-caliber ball. A lot can change in a month.