USC running back Ronald Jones II launched himself into the air, flipped forward over Utah safety Marquise Blair with a neat half-twist, and came down in the end zone, cradling the ball in his right hand as he landed on his right leg and thigh. The crowd at the Coliseum roared its approval, even though he didn't stick the landing of his vault. "Not even close," he said laughing.
But he did score the touchdown that held up as the difference in USC's nerve-jangling 28-27 victory over the Utes, so his form mattered less than the fact that the Trojans (6-1, 4-1 in the Pac-12 Conference) held on to avenge a defeat that had kept them out of the conference championship game last season.
"I was trying to jump over him completely," Jones said of the acrobatic move he made with 4:54 left in the fourth quarter, "so I've either got to jump quicker or higher. It was cool though."
It's no coincidence that the more touches Jones got on Saturday against a gradually weakening Utah defense, the more effective USC's running game became and the better the team became overall.
Jones, a junior from McKinney, Texas, who is blessed with explosive speed, averaged nearly 20 carries per game over the Trojans' first three games but developed thigh and ankle injuries that kept him out of their fourth game at California. After his return he carried the ball 14 times in USC's loss at Washington State and only 12 times for 79 yards in the Trojans' home victory over Oregon State last week.
On Saturday he carried the ball seven times for 33 yards in the first half but got it 10 times in the second half. He finished with 17 carries for 111 yards and that decisive touchdown, giving him a touchdown in each of the last 13 games he has played. "We always want the ball more," Jones said, "but as long as we get the Ws it doesn't matter if I get five or 35 touches."
It will help if he has more. "It was hard sledding early in the run game and all of a sudden they started to pop," coach Clay Helton said. "It just started to feel like all of a sudden those runs were starting to hit."
Giving Jones the ball more often in the second half might have been one of Helton's best decisions all night.
"He's an extremely special player," Helton said. "We had talked about early that this is a very, very good run defense and to walk off the field and average 6.1 per carry I thought was a credit to the runners in the end of the game and that natural wearing-down process.
"A lot of it has to do with using Sam [Darnold] early. Our thought process was to make him a threat to make the defensive end make a decision, Finally, come the fourth quarter, he flinched and RoJo got out and [Vavae Malepeai] got out. When you have a Ronald Jones on your team, that's the best friend to a quarterback. That balance helps you immensely."
Helton insisted he didn't make any strategy changes for the second half because he believed the team was doing the right things but sabotaging itself with mistakes, including Darnold's three fumbles. His comments were more motivational than tactical.
"At halftime we talked about how that this second half will kind of decide who we are as a team, and you saw a team that came out and just fought," Helton said. "They found a way to work together, jell together."
Those comments made an impression on Jones.
"We were just talking about imposing our will, coming out and dominating, do anything to get back into that game," he said. "We weren't running it too well in the first half, and coach was keeping faith in us and allowing us to make plays."
Allowing Jones to make more plays was a big boost. Leading up to his touchdown, he had runs of 15 yards for a first down and seven yards on first-and-10 play that took the Trojans into Utah territory. After three rushes by Malepeai and an incomplete pass by Darnold, Jones ran up the middle for that exuberant leap.
"It was wide open," he said of his path to the end zone. "The center, Nico [Falah] completely washed him off the play, so it was just me one-on-one with the safety."
He said he didn't know about his touchdown streak until two weeks ago, when he passed 10. "Keep going, keep winning," Jones said, a formula he hopes the Trojans can duplicate.
When Helton said they'd define themselves by how they played in the second half on Saturday, they responded by showing they can win close games — and that they're a better team when Jones has the ball a lot.
"We're a team that can run the ball when we want. We've just got to stop shooting ourselves in the foot," Jones said. "We have a lot of talent. We have a lot of good players. We've just got to keep making those plays."