Not long ago, Sam Darnold began receiving excited overtures from a USC student who wanted to hang out.
“I tell him, ‘What are you doing tonight?’ ” the student recalled. “He was like, ‘Oh, I can’t, I’ve got a paper I’ve gotta write.’ ”
The student persevered.
Smiling, he said that the two are “thinking about going to Universal Studios for Horror Night.”
It is hard to blame USC receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster for wanting to spend as much time as possible with Darnold. The freshman is off to one of the best starts for a USC quarterback in recent memory, and he has been especially kind to Smith-Schuster.
In USC’s 48-14 pancaking of Arizona on Saturday, Darnold tossed five touchdowns, three to Smith-Schuster. And both players didn’t even appear in the fourth quarter.
The win was the third in a row for USC (4-3, 3-2 in the Pac-12), which has climbed back to relevance in the Pac-12 South division. USC Coach Clay Helton hadn’t won away from the Coliseum since being named the full-time coach late last season. His first road win was emphatic.
The Trojans pulverized Arizona for 574 total yards, 320 on the ground. They did not turn the ball over but forced four of their own. Khalil Tate, Arizona’s third option at quarterback, completed only one pass in the first half, for four yards. He also had a pass intercepted.
“I think it’s starting to all come together for us,” linebacker Michael Hutchings said.
USC’s turnaround has coincided with a lull in the schedule and with the rise of Darnold. This time, he completed 20 of 32 passes and avoided the turnovers that have been his lone trouble area.
He also flashed playmaking ability with his legs. He ran the ball six times for 54 yards, often unscripted plays, often on third down. On one drive in the first quarter, he bailed out the offense three times.
When Arizona unleashed six rushers, Darnold dipped his shoulder to avoid the first blitzer, shimmied out of the the tackle and then bulldozed through two defenders for the first down.
On the next set of downs, he tucked the ball again on third down to move the chains.
USC receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (9) celebrates with Darreus Rogers after scoring a touchdown against Arizona during the second half of a game on Oct. 15.(Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)
USC running back Ronald Jones II (25) crashes into the end zone for a touchdown during the first half of a game against Arizona on Oct. 15.(Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)
Arizona tight end Matt Morin (15) plays quarterback during the second half of a game against USC on Oct. 15.(Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)
Arizona running back Zach Green carries the ball during the second half of a game against USC on Oct. 15.(Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)
Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate is pressured by USC defensive end Porter Gustin during the first half of a game on Oct. 15.(Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)
Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate is taken down by USC defensive end Porter Gustin during the first half of a game on Oct. 15.(Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)
USC running back Ronald Jones II (25) runs for a first down during the first half of a game against Arizona on Oct. 15.(Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)
Arizona running back Nick Wilson stiff arms USC defensive back Marvell Tell III (7) during the first half of a game on Oct. 15.(Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)
Arizona receiver Trey Griffey can’t haul in a pass while being defended by USC defensive back Iman Marshall during the first quarter of a game on Oct. 15.(Chris Coduto / Getty Images)
Tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe celebrates his touchdown with receiver Deontay Burnett during the second quarter of a game on Oct. 15.(Chris Coduto / Getty Images)
USC quarterback Sam Darnold throws a pass during the second quarter of a game against Arizona on Oct. 15.(Chris Coduto / Getty Images)
USC receiver Darreus Rogers is hit by Arizona safety Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles (6) and cornerback Jace Whittaker (17) during the first quarter of a game on Oct. 15.(Chris Coduto / Getty Images)
USC Coach Clay Helton talks to an official during the first half of a game against Arizona on Oct. 15.(Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)
Arizona Coach Rich Rodriguez reacts on the sideline during a game against USC on Oct. 15.(Chris Coduto / Getty Images)
Finally, on a third down near the goal line, with his receivers covered, he broke the pocket, rolled to his right and directed Deontay Burnett to the sideline. Then, before taking hit, he zipped the ball to Burnett in the end zone for the score.
USC converted on seven of 13 third downs. Darnold’s improvisations, Helton said, “makes it a different ballgame,” Helton said. “It really does.”
That score, plus another touchdown pass to tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe — his second score in two games — launched USC to a 21-7 lead.
USC was already in control, and had hardly involved Smith-Schuster to that point. Darnold changed that in the second quarter when threw him a swing pass near the goal line for his first score. Darnold found him again on the sideline, then watched as he escaped four tacklers for a 39-yard score.
In the third quarter, Darnold lobbed a pass and let Smith-Schuster snatch the ball away from the cornerback, then run for a 46-yard score.
By the time the fusillade had concluded, Smith-Schuster had nine catches for 132 yards, and USC had zoomed to a 41-7 lead. Smith-Schuster was banged up in the third quarter and had X-rays after the game, which were negative.
Arizona (2-5, 0-4) did not supply much of a fight. The Wildcats were diminished, in a rebuilding year with supplies running low. Their top three running backs are out or hampered by injury. Their top two quarterbacks are hurt. Their linebackers have been limited by still more injuries.
USC gashed them on the ground. Even without leading rusher, Justin Davis, who missed the game with an ankle injury, three Trojans ran for 80 yards or more. Aca’Cedric Ware ran for 103 yards, his first 100-yard game.
Tate, from Gardena Serra High, completed seven of 18 passes overall for only 58 yards for Arizona. He did lead the team in rushing with 87 yards and a touchdown.
By the fourth quarter, the score was out of hand enough to compel Arizona Coach Rich Rodriguez to turn to the emergency quarterback, Matt Morin. Morin is a tight end.
Helton, too could pull his starters early. When he told Darnold his day was done, Darnold expressed regret.
“You throw five touchdown passes, you think you’d get a smile,” Helton said. “And he’s like, ‘Coach, there’s more out there.’ ”
Darnold sat next to Helton at the postgame news conference. As Helton heaped praise upon him, Darnold picked at his hand, looking disinterested.
“There’s definitely more out there,” Darnold said.
He rued three long attempts he overthrew in the first quarter. And once, he saw Smith-Schuster in single coverage on the outside but didn’t pull the trigger.
He promised to fix that, and Smith-Schuster promised to return the favor.
“Ever since he was named the quarterback we’ve just been practicing day and night,” Smith-Schuster said. “We hang out together, like frat boys.
“It’s just, you know — if the guy’s gonna help you, you’ve gotta help him.”
Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand