Western Michigan gives USC a scare, but the Trojans escape with a 49-31 victory
Where would USC be without Ronald Jones II? It might be best if USC fans didn’t think about it.
In an opener against Western Michigan on Saturday when USC’s vaunted front seven looked utterly pedestrian, its special teams looked vulnerable, quarterback Sam Darnold looked off and its perimeter receivers looked toothless, Jones at least lived up to the billing.
He rushed for 159 yards and three touchdowns as USC escaped with a 49-31 win over Western Michigan.
His freshman running back partner, Stephen Carr, dazzled in his collegiate debut. He rushed only seven times got 69 yards and two touchdowns.
The Trojans looked like most expected them to be on the first drive. Ronald Jones II pummeled Western Michigan with three bruising runs. USC went 75 plays in just two minutes.
But Western Michigan’s running game found little resistance in USC’s front seven. The Broncos scored twice and led until Jones scored again to tie the score before halftime.
Darnold did not play like a Heisman Trophy favorite, but neither did his receivers give him many open targets to look at. He completed 23 of 33 passes for 289 yards but he had two passes intercepted and had no passing touchdowns. He did rush for one score.
In the second half, the Broncos used a gadget play to capture the lead. Quarterback Jon Wassink threw a backyard pass to Keishawn Watson, who tossed it back across the field to Wassink. Linebacker Porter Gustin nearly intercepted the pass, and he would’ve easily scored. Instead, Wassink stole it and jogged into the end zone for a 27-yard score.
USC receiver Deontay Burnett made the play of the game on a third-and-17 attempt, when he made a diving, 27-yard catch. He later made a 28-yard catch and run, and Darnold scored with an 11-yard run.
USC scored on the next drive on a one-yard Stephen Carr run to take the lead.
But Darius Phillips changed the momentum instantly. The dangerous returner was the player USC worried about most this week. He just showed why: He returned USC’s kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown to tie the score.
Jones answered, USC’s defense held, Carr scampered for a pretty 52-yard score and Marvell Tell III intercepted a pass and returned for a touchdown to blow open a game that once seemed too close for comfort.
Blind long snapper Jake Olson makes his first apperance
Great moment: USC called a timeout after its last touchdown. Why? Coach Clay Helton was putting in a new long snapper, Jake Olson. Olson is blind. His snap was perfect, the point-after attempt was good and Olson got a big ovation.
Stephen Carr scores again to put USC ahead by two scores
Stephen Carr has a bright future here. Carr used a superb jump cut to slide past a defender and gallop 52 yards for his second touchdown. That could be a decisive score. USC leads 42-31 with 3:49 left in the game.
Western Michigan threatens but manages only a field goal to cut the lead to four
USC’s defense bent but didn’t break completely. After a 48-yard run from LeVante Bellamy, USC’s defense held. Josh Grant kicked a 43-yard field goal. USC leads 35-31 with 4:37 left in the game.
Third touchdown by Ronald Jones II gives USC the lead again
The only thing going well for USC today is its running game. But it is very good. Ronald Jones ran 37 yards to recapture the lead for USC, 35-28. Jones has 159 yards and three touchdowns.
Darius Phillips’ return ties the score at 28
Darius Phillips was the player USC worried about most this week. He just showed why. Phillips returned USC’s kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown. USC is tied with Western Michigan at 28 with 7:54 remaining in its opener.
Stephen Carr’s first touchdown gives USC a 28-21 lead
Stephen Carr, a freshman from Fontana Summit High, has scored his first touchdown, and it was an important one. He rushed one yard to cap a 56-yard drive and give USC a 28-21 lead with 8:07 left in the game.
Darnold, Burnett key a USC scoring drive to tie the score
If USC pulls out a victory here, remember Deontay Burnett’s diving 27-yard grab on third and 17. The first down sprung the Trojans, who marched down the field thanks, largely, to a 28-yard catch and run by Burnett. Sam Darnold scored on an 11-yard keeper to tie the score at 21. Thirty-four seconds remain in the third quarter.
Western Michigan uses trick play to regain the lead
Western Michigan used some trickery to retake the lead. Quarterback Jon Wassink threw a backyard pass to Keishawn Watson, who tossed it back across the field to Wassink. USC linebacker Porter Gustin came within inches of grabbing the pass for what would’ve been an easy USC touchdown. Instead, Wassink stole it and jogged into the end zone for a 27-yard score. Western Michigan leads, 21-14, with 9:11 left in the third quarter.
USC knots the score at 14
USC’s offense has woken up. Sam Darnold used Deontay Burnett to move USC upfield and Jones punched in his second touchdown of the half. The score is tied, 14-14, with 4:21 remaining in the half.
Western Michigan gashes USC, takes a 14-7 lead
Western Michigan is encountering little resistance from USC’s front seven. The Broncos have run through USC’s line. Quarterback Jon Wassink rushed in a seven-yard touchdown to cap a 84-yard drive. Western Michigan leads, 14-7, with 14:53 left in the second quarter.
Western Michigan ties the score, 7-7
Western Michigan answers with a 59-yard drive capped off by a tough, four-yard run by Jamauri Bogan. He broke through four tacklers. Score is tied, 7-7.
USC strikes first and leads 7-0
Ronald Jones II made that drive look very easy. He bowled over Western Michigan for a 29-yard gain then shrugged off an arm tackle and cruised 16 yards for USC’s first score of the season. Jones packed on weight this off-season to be a more powerful back, and it showed. USC leads 7-0.
USC will start
Western Michigan won the toss and elected to defer. USC will begin with the ball on its own 25-yard line.
Saturday’s starters for the Trojans’ season opener
Depth and continued development will determine if USC is a playoff contender
Playing in high school or watching from the bench, a new player can forget one unchangeable fact about college football: The dominant emotion of the game is not excitement. It is not school pride. There are big men on the field trying to make you mess up. Trying to hurt you. The dominant emotion is fear.
Above all else, that is what USC safety Chris Hawkins remembers about his first start four seasons ago against Fresno State.
“I was scared,” Hawkins said after one of USC’s final practices before Saturday’s opener against Western Michigan at the Coliseum. “I was super scared. I mean, I was nervous. I was 178 pounds at the time, and I was 19 years old, and that feeling was crazy being in front of all those fans. And I was shaking in my boots a little bit.”
Hawkins, a fifth-year senior now looked to by teammates for advice, offered one piece of wisdom for the eight Trojans who will be stepping into full-time roles for the first time Saturday: If you’re not a little scared before a game, something is wrong.
USC will march into its opener more battle-hardened than a year ago, when it was trampled by Alabama. Eight Trojan starters played extensively last season on offense; nine did so on defense.
But USC has designs on much more than merely another bowl win. In the moments after the Trojans’ wild Rose Bowl victory in January, a time usually reserved for unabashed celebration, athletic director Lynn Swann delivered a sober assessment outside USC’s locker room.
“We’re not there yet,” he said. The victory was nice; but it was not among USC’s best.
How the Trojans and Broncos match up in the season opener
USC (0-0) vs. Western Michigan (0-0), Saturday, 2:15 p.m., Coliseum
TV: Pac-12 Networks. Radio: 710 AM
USC’s defensive front seven vs. Western Michigan’s running game: The defensive front has the potential to be USC’s best in years. It will receive an immediate test because Western Michigan’s running game, USC coach Clay Helton said, is among the best the Trojans will see this year. It is a three-pronged attack. Jarvion Franklin, a 225-pound bruiser, rushed for 1,353 yards last season and, according to Helton, is “great between the tackles.” Jamauri Bogan “is a jitterbug” and LeVante Bellamy “is a true speed guy,” Helton said. USC has four legitimate All-Pac-12 contenders on its front: linebackers Uchenna Nwosu, Porter Gustin and Cameron Smith and lineman Rasheem Green.