LOS ANGELES — Southern California hopes a comeback from a 21-7 halftime deficit against Utah was all it needed to get its offense on track.The Trojans' rally for a 28-27 victory last week featured quarterback Sam Darnold improvising and scrambling, running back Ronald Jones II scoring a touchdown for his 13th straight game and the offensive line standing up to a stout Utes defensive front.
No. 11 USC hopes to continue that momentum at No. 13 Notre Dame on Saturday and keep its hopes of reaching the College Football Playoff intact.
"I've always told them never get comfortable, never be satisfied, and the reality is we're still a work in progress," head coach Clay Helton said. "To execute on long drives like the offense did in the second half while protecting the football, I thought it was our best half of football. We've challenged ourselves. That's what you are going to have to do when you go up and play a Notre Dame team that's as talented as this group is. Put a full 60 minutes of that brand of football out there."
That brand of football carried USC to a win in the Rose Bowl last season, but has been in short supply since. There have been moments where USC has seemingly found its offensive identity, whether it was in the fourth quarter against Western Michigan, in the second half against No. 22 Stanford or in the fourth quarter at California, only to sputter again as injuries and pressure mounted.
Even against an Oregon State team that has yet to beat an FBS opponent this season, Darnold and the offense never found a rhythm remotely comparable to that of its nine-game winning streak to close out last season.
But in rallying against the Utes, USC saw signs that it is finally putting the pieces together at the right time. They cut out the costly turnovers, stuck to the run, and saw receivers making plays for Darnold.
"We just came out making a statement," Jones said. "In the first half we were shooting ourselves in the foot, you know, so we just had to bounce back."
Still, the biggest difference was how Darnold played. While he actually threw for more yards in the first half, the redshirt sophomore looked more comfortable going 13 of 25 for 145 yards and two touchdowns without a turnover in the second half. Darnold used his legs, extending plays to buy time in the passing game and running for a critical first down on third and 10 to start the game-winning drive. And Darnold featured his different wide receivers and tight ends instead of locking in on one or two.
"It's crunch time. I think that's what makes him so great is when he needs to be on he's on," tight end Tyler Petite said. "A lot of people put pressure on him to make all these big plays all the time and, look, he's going to make those big plays, but he's human, too. He's going to have those off days or he's going to throw a pick during the game, but the bottom line is if we come out with a win that's all we really care about at the end of the day."
Darnold delivering the win quieted some of the criticism inevitably directed at the starting quarterback and offensive coordinator when the offense is struggling.
Tee Martin understands that better than most, having played quarterback at Tennessee and now serving as the offensive coordinator at USC.
"I want to win, too," Martin said. "And some of it I say, 'Man, you're right.' Some of it I'm like, 'You have no clue.' We want to go out and win every game. It's not going to always happen. It's not going to always be pretty, but it comes with the territory. I understand it. Keep moving."