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Now it can be told for sure: USC is back to its grand ways

A huddled, helpless crowd saw it. Their bouncing, banging visitors felt it.

A swarming defense outrunning a stiff wind started it. A nervy quarterback zipping heaters through a deep chill personified it.

OK, enough, we’re just going to say it.

USC is USC again.

On a cold, wind-swept Saturday night on Lake Washington, with black shirts on the field, darkly dressed fans in the stands and throaty roars blanketing the sky, the sun began rising on a new era in Trojans football.

USC is USC again, because they beat it all back with such skill and swagger, you would have thought nearby resident Pete Carroll was on the sidelines.

He wasn’t. It was Clay Helton. And forget it, you’re no longer getting his job, and you’re no longer doubting his football team after its 26-13 victory over previously unbeaten and fourth-ranked Washington.

“A wonderful football team that won’t be denied,” said Helton of his Trojans, and he was right on both counts.

When the game began at Husky Stadium, with the deafening sellout crowd vocally climbing on the Trojans’ backs in gleeful anticipation of a coronation, the Huskies assumed they were just one victory — this one — from winding up in college football’s Final Four next month.

When the game ended, with the Husky stands empty, with Trojan Keyshawn Young doing backflips across the field, with the hundreds of hearty USC fans chanting, “We-Are-SC,” it was the Trojans who looked as if they belonged in the Final Four, and don’t laugh.

This was their sixth consecutive victory, the most by a Trojans team since Carroll ran the joint in 2008, and none of those games have really felt close. Besides Alabama, are there many teams in the country that would be more feared right now? If this were college basketball, wouldn’t USC be working its way into a No. 1 seed right now?

Just ask Washington. Nah, maybe not, at least not until they’ve pulled the raw steaks off their swollen eyes.

The Huskies began the game as the second-leading scoring team in FBS. They ended it after scoring one lousy touchdown, and that was on a 70-yard pass from battered Heisman Trophy hopeful Jake Browning to John Ross that only worked because defensive back Adoree’ Jackson fell at the line of scrimmage.

The Huskies also began the game as the 17th-ranked defense in FBS. They ended it flattened under 400 yards of Trojans offense, 82 of which were racked up at the end of the second quarter after quarterback Sam Darnold led USC on a soul-crushing touchdown drive that barely required two minutes.

“We know the season didn’t start how we wanted,” Jackson said. “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.”

This one finished with Jackson intercepting a Browning pass for a second time and carrying the ball 20 yards downfield after the whistle in a frenzied, limb-pumping celebration filled with equal parts joy and amazement.

“This one is pretty big for us,” Jackson said.

Indeed, who would have thought this moment was possible earlier this season when the Trojans were losing by 46 points to Alabama, 17 points to Stanford, and stumbling in the final minutes against Utah? Who would have thought that, while they regrettably have lost their shot at the Final Four with three losses, the Trojans can still wind up in the Rose Bowl?

They have to get back to the Pac-12 Conference championship game first, and for that to happen they need losses by Utah and Colorado, and it’s a bit complicated, and somewhat of a longshot, but who knows?

On a Saturday when the second-, third- and fourth-ranked teams in the country lost, USC seems at least Rose worthy, and anything seems possible

“We have continued to grow and continued to get better,” Helton said. “We have the opportunity to continue our dream of winning a Pac-12 title and that wasn’t going to happen without a win tonight.”

As crazy as it sounds, that win seemed like a certainty from the start. The Huskies had gained 31 yards on their first two plays of the game, the fans were already screaming themselves hoarse, and Browning took off for a big stretch of empty green. But somehow, Uchenna Nwosu caught him the backfield for an eight-yard loss and one could feel the air instantly slipping out of the giant purple balloon. One play later, the Huskies punted, and they never really had the momentum again

“You feed off the energy,” linebacker Michael Hutchings said. “We were just out there having fun.”

Although you can’t tell it from his poker face, nobody is having more fun than Darnold, who again proved he is the biggest difference between the early losses and this recent pile of wins.

He missed on only 10 of 33 passes, threw for 287 yards, and connectd on two bullet touchdown passes in the back of the end zone to the flying Darreus Rogers and acrobatic Daniel Imatorbhebhe.

Every time the Trojans needed a big play, Darnold would dance around long enough to give it to them, going eight for 11 for 80 yards on third-down plays.

“When [Darnold] is playing like this, there aren’t too many teams in the country that want to face him,” safety Chris Hawkins said.

The game was epitomized in Washington’s last gasp, a field-goal try late in the third quarter that could have closed the gap to one point. Rasheem Green blocked the kick, Darnold led USC 60 yards for a touchdown and what eventually happened in the Trojans locker room was the same thing happening all over Trojans nation.

“Everybody was smiling,” linebacker Porter Gustin said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen us that happy before.”

It’s been awhile. It’s been a long while. Somebody find Pete Carroll and ask him.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

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