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USC is still in the running with win over Arizona, 38-30

Clay Helton’s run to become USC’s permanent head coach looked as if might come to an unceremonious end.

A Trojans team rejuvenated by two consecutive victories appeared sluggish on offense and porous on defense early Saturday night against Arizona.

Donors and alums at the Coliseum or watching at home might have been mentally preparing emails to Athletic Director Pat Haden calling for the usual assortment of coaching candidates.

But USC players, who have publicly supported their interim coach, kept alive his bid for the full-time gig.

Freshman tailback Ronald Jones II rushed for 177 yards and scored two touchdowns, Justin Davis rushed for two touchdowns and receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster shook off the effects of hand surgery to catch a touchdown pass as USC overcame a 14-point deficit to defeat the Wildcats, 38-30.

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The victory improved USC’s record to 6-3 overall and 4-2 in the Pac-12 Conference and kept alive the Trojans’ hopes for a South Division title.

“We are in playoff football now and that was a big win for our team,” Helton said.

The final quarter of the season for Helton and the Trojans begins Friday night at Colorado. It’s a winnable game that comes before the Trojans travel to Oregon and then play host to UCLA.

Gary Klein and Lindsey Thiry break down USC’s 38-30 victory over Arizona.

Jones figures to have a prominent role down the stretch.

Ever since Helton succeeded Steve Sarkisian as coach, he has talked about increasing Jones’ role, always qualifying his statements by saying that the Texas native was working on his pass protection and receiving skills to become a complete back.

Jones showed that practice was paying off when he caught a pass and scored a five-yard touchdown late in the second quarter to tie the score.

His 74-yard touchdown run midway through the fourth quarter gave the Trojans a 31-23 lead.

“I am just making the most of my opportunities,” said Jones, whose 177 yards were the most by a Trojans freshman since LenDale White gained 140 yards against Arizona State in 2003.

Davis, a junior, rushed for 85 yards. His 16-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter sealed the victory.

Smith-Schuster, who had surgery on his right hand Monday, caught eight passes for 138 yards, including a 72-yard touchdown.

“My whole mind was set to come back and play in this game,” Smith-Schuster said. “Doctors said recovery takes about three days, and in my mind when the doctors said I could start therapy and treatment, I was doing it all day. I thought how amazing would it be for a kid to come back in three days. It’s amazing and a miracle.

“It’s a lot of pain. I told Coach Helton, yeah, I’m good. But a lot of pain.”

USC’s defense also played well at critical moments for the third consecutive game.

Safety John Plattenburg’s interception set up a touchdown and the Trojans’ defensive front registered six sacks. It was the Trojans’ seventh interception in the last three games.

Arizona entered the game ranked 11th nationally in rushing, averaging 265 yards rushing per game.

The Trojans limited the Wildcats to 60 yards rushing. The biggest stop came on fourth-and-two at midfield late in the third quarter.

USC overcame a 14-0 deficit early in the second quarter to tie the score by halftime.

Arizona went ahead with a field goal to start the second half and the Trojans were unable to answer when Alex Wood missed a 34-yard field-goal attempt.

But USC came back to take the lead on Davis’ nine-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter for a 24-20 lead.

Arizona kicker Casey Skowron pulled the Wildcats to within a point with a field goal before Jones broke free for a 74-yard touchdown run.

Davis’ 16-yard scoring run ensured the victory.

USC quarterback Cody Kessler and tailback Tre Madden botched a handoff early in the game, but Kessler did not have a pass intercepted for the third consecutive game.

The fifth-year senior completed 22 of 36 passes for 243 yards and two touchdowns.

“Not the prettiest of victories,” Helton said, “but I love how this team is. Every time they are faced with adversity, they rise up.”

Follow Gary Klein on Twitter @LATimesklein


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