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Sam Darnold outduels Khalil Tate to get USC one step closer to Pac-12 South title

USC had led Arizona by 22 points. Twenty-two points became 15. Fifteen became eight. Eight became zero. On Sam Darnold’s home field, where he has never lost, another quarterback, Arizona’s electrifying sophomore Khalil Tate, had taken over the game.

Eight minutes remained and the game was slipping away when Darnold strolled onto the field with little apparent concern. “It’s just what he does,” tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe would remark afterward. “It’s where he’s at his best.”

Darnold did not yell. He did not melt. Instead, he lofted a pass that will be remembered as one of the prettiest, and one of the more important, of his USC career — the keystone in No. 17 USC’s 49-35 victory over No. 22 Arizona in front of 70,225 at the Coliseum.

Ronald Jones II wheeled to Darnold’s left. Darnold rolled that way. On the run, across his body, he landed the ball in perfect stride right into Jones’ arms. It arced over the defender like a tennis player’s ground stroke curves over a net.

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“I can’t tell you how hard a throw that is,” coach Clay Helton said. “When he threw it and completed, even I said — I was like, ‘Whoa.’ That was about as big time as you get.”

Darnold turned back Tate, who after the game left the field in tears, consoled by several USC players and coaches who came to offer praise. Darnold and Jones overcame USC’s mid-game collapse. They rescued the season.

They overcame USC’s self-sabotage on that game-winning drive. Before the pass to Jones, Darnold responded to a holding penalty with a scramble and completion to Michael Pittman Jr., 21 yards downfield, for a quick first down. The wheel route followed a four-yard loss on first down. Jones completed the drive with a one-yard touchdown run.

After Tate, who’d broken loose in the second half, finally cracked and lobbed a prayer that Ajene Harris easily intercepted. Jones rampaged another 52 yards to the one-yard line. He rammed in another one-yard touchdown to seal the victory.

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USC (8-2, 6-1 in the Pac-12) now has the Pac-12 South in a submission hold. USC needs only one win in its final two games against Colorado and UCLA, or one more loss each from Arizona (6-3, 4-2) and Arizona State, to clinch a spot in the Pac-12 championship game.

Rathern than a slugfest between Pac-12 South heavyweights, however, large portions of the game veered into tragicomedy. The game had more reviews than the back of a Stephen King book. USC committed 14 penalties for 123 yards.

Helton earned an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty shortly after halftime. He was complaining about a Tate fumble, initially whistled dead to negate a USC recovery and return (the recovery was awarded to USC after another lengthy review). But he could’ve been emoting on behalf of anyone watching the game: The first five minutes of game time in the third quarter took more than 20 minutes to complete.

Amid the flags and stoppages, there were bursts of sublime. Darnold was 20 for 26 for 311 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. (He called that pass “one of the worst mistakes I’ve ever made on a football field.”) He outdueled Tate, who was exceptional in the second half but did not have enough. He completed just 14 of 31 pass attempts for 146 yards with two interceptions but rushed for 161 yards and accounted for three touchdowns overall.

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Jones finished just shy of another 200-yard rushing performance. He settled for 194 and three touchdowns. He became USC’s first back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher since LenDale White.

USC carved out huge chunks in the running game early. It finished with 331 yards on the ground.

“I think they wanted to show that they could run the ball too,” Helton said.

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Aca’Cedric Ware, whom Helton called “the hidden gem,” ran for 122 yards and a touchdown.

USC scored first when Michael Pittman Jr. blocked a punt and Jalen Greene scooped it and scored. Darnold added a 22-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Vaughns and a 27-yard touchdown pass dropped perfectly into the arms of a diving Steven Mitchell Jr. Darnold threw a touchdown pass to Deontay Burnett in the third quarter.

But USC was almost undone by Tate, and would’ve had company. No team had found an answer for him yet. Tate was pressed into action just five games ago after Arizona’s starter was injured against Colorado. He entered that game, rushed for a quarterback record 327 yards as the backup and didn’t stop running.

Tate is an opportunistic passer and a lethal runner. He moves like an eel, slippery and with uncommon acceleration. But he had never faced a defense like USC’s.

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Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast stuffed the box with bodies and dared Tate to throw. Pendergast’s safeties played like linebackers. When Tate ran, Pendergast blitzed him. When Tate threw, Pendergast blitzed him. Entering the game, Arizona had given up five sacks all season. USC sacked Tate as many times Saturday alone.

The strategy worked early. Arizona’s longest play of the first half was a 12-yard pass to Shun Brown in the first quarter. Entering the game, Tate rushed for more than that on an average play — he averaged 13.5 yards per attempt. USC bottled up Tate, who rushed 12 times for 19 yards in the half.

But as the third quarter began, linebacker Oluwole Betiku Jr., who had played with Tate at Gardena Serra, told the defense that Tate would just keep coming.

“It doesn’t matter how many times you hit him so hard, Tate is gonna get up and try to run the ball on you,” Betiku said.

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He told his teammates: “It’s not like the other quarterbacks.”

Betiku was right. Tate evaporated USC’s lead. There was Tate, finally breaking loose, 32 yards for a score; Tate, scrambling on fourth-down, hitting Shun Brown 30 yards for a touchdown; Tate, improvising then finding J.J. Taylor for a 16-yard catch.

When Zach Green punched in a three-yard score with more than eight minutes to go, and Tate completed the two-point conversion try to Tony Ellison, USC no longer had the lead.

It still had two players named Jones and Darnold.

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zach.helfand@latimes.com

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand


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