After USC’s game last weekend at Colorado, quarterback Sam Darnold was asked how it felt to complete a game without a turnover for the first time this season.
He answered politely, if not insightfully, and moved to the next question.
Later, he admitted the inquiry caught him off guard.
“That really surprised me,” Darnold said days later. Then he laughed. “I thought I've had some better games.”
Turnover-wise, Darnold had not. He has been responsible for 11 interceptions and seven fumbles. For a time, USC languished near the bottom of college football in turnovers committed.
But during USC’s recent three-game upswing, coinciding with three of its best offensive performances of the season, has been built around ball security. The Trojans turned the ball over only twice in three games. Before then, USC hadn’t gone a game with at least two turnovers.
A regression is arguably what scares USC most as it approaches Saturday’s game against UCLA at the Coliseum.
UCLA's defense ranks 123rd in the nation in scoring, giving up 38.6 points a game. But its offense is potent, 27th in the country in scoring at 35.2 points a game, one spot and three-tenths of a point behind USC.
Quarterback Josh Rosen and the Bruins can punish mistakes.
“I really think that turnovers and third downs will be key,” USC coach Clay Helton said.
USC has excelled in one turnover-related area. Its skill position players — running backs, receivers and tight ends — have lost only one fumble. Last season, USC’s running backs alone lost four.
The statistics validate the methods of first-year running backs coach Deland McCullough, who emphasizes ball security with some unusual gadgets. During some practices, he uses a special ball with a string attached to the nose that he uses to try to yank the ball free from his backs. He also has his players occasionally use a ball filled with water, to make it heavier.
“He’s a master of ball security,” Helton said.
Darnold too has displayed better ball security recently. He had eight passes intercepted in his first five games, three in his next six.
“I'm definitely working on it,” Darnold said after Tuesday’s practice. “Had a pick, I think it was just one pick today. So that was a bummer."
USC’s 2018 schedule was released Thursday, and it is front loaded a lot like the Trojans’ current schedule, with two notable exceptions: USC follows its bruising first five games with a bye. Also, the Trojans won’t play consecutive home games.
The Pac-12 fixed a few of the most griped-about issues from this season. Every conference team has a regular-season bye, and no team will play a road game followed by another road game on a Thursday or Friday.
USC’s full schedule: Sept. 1 vs. Nevada Las Vegas; Sept. 8 at Stanford; Sept. 15 at Texas; Sept. 21 (Fri.) vs. Washington State; Sept. 29 at Arizona; Oct. 13 vs. Colorado; Oct. 20 at Utah; Oct. 27 vs. Arizona State; Nov. 3 at Oregon State; Nov. 10 vs. California; Nov. 17 at UCLA; and Nov. 24 vs. Notre Dame.
A walk to remember
Kevin Carrasco played for four seasons at USC but did not walk for senior day last season. That’s because the walk-on cornerback didn’t know his was a senior. Everyone thought he was a redshirt junior.
He wouldn’t find out until the spring, when USC’s compliance office informed him that a class he’d taken in junior college had started his academic clock a year earlier than anyone knew. His eligibility was exhausted.
Carrasco never played much in his time at USC. He saw only rare game action. But he was one of the last players from Lane Kiffin’s time as coach. Among current players, only five Kiffin-era holdouts remain.
Carrasco had planned to apply for graduate school and play his redshirt senior season. Instead, Helton made him an offer: How would he like to become a student assistant?
The designation meant he’d be able to walk on senior day. The ceremony will proceed alphabetically: Carrasco’s will be the first name called.
“That’s going to be a lifelong dream for him,” said his father, Ramon, a firefighter. “Something that he has worked for, that he had looked forward to, for the past four years.”
Defensive tackle Kenny Bigelow Jr., who’d said he was retiring from playing after Week 8 to become a student coach, announced Wednesday that he was transferring to play his final season of eligibility elsewhere.
Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand