Another USC turnover was hanging in the air, lofted by Sam Darnold and spiraling, underthrown, in the general direction of Darreus Rogers.
The score was tied in the fourth quarter Saturday at the Coliseum. Darnold’s early brilliance had staked the Trojans to a two-touchdown lead over No. 21 Colorado — all of it squandered in a flurry of second-half turnovers.
Now, cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon had a bead on the ball and what looked like another one.
“I watched it happen,” Darnold said. “I was thinking pick the whole way.”
“I was with Sam,” USC Coach Clay Helton said. “I thought it was a pick.”
One person did not.
“That’s mine,” Rogers, who recounted the play later, was thinking. “One-hundred-and-10 percent, that’s mine.”
Witherspoon jumped. Rogers jumped higher. Witherspoon grabbed the ball. Rogers snatched harder. Rogers plucked the ball away, then absconded with it down the field, setting up a go-ahead touchdown pass to Tyler Petite and a 21-17 USC victory over the Pac-12 South Division leader.
After a 1-3 start, USC’s season has been defibrillated. It has a hot quarterback. It has, at last, a winning streak, and a victory over a ranked foe.
“Well, we were in a hole,” Helton said. “And last week we put the shovel down. And this week we started climbing out.”
With bravado and, at times, recklessness, Darnold has provided the jolt. In the first half, he looked like a professional.
He placed a pass into tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe’s arms on a seam route in the first quarter for a 32-yard score.
In the second quarter, he fumbled a play-action fake, picked up the ball, wriggled his legs free from a defender, turned left, circled back to his right, then, at last, calmly heaved a ball to Petite, who barreled in for his first touchdown of the season.
USC tight end Tyler Petite (82) scores the go-ahead touchdown against Colorado in the fourth quarter Saturday at the Coliseum.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
USC running back Ronald Jones II leans forward to try to pick up extra yards against Colorado defensive back Isaiah Oliver (26) in the second half.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Trojans defensive back Adoree’ Jackson (2) celebrates with defensive tackle Rasheem Green after intercepting a pass against the Buffaloes.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
USC running back Justin Davis (22) breaks through an attempted tackle by Colorado defensive back Chidobe Awuzie.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
USC running back Ronald Jones II dives for extra yards against Colorado during the first half.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
USC (3-3, 2-2 in the Pac-12) led 14-0 at halftime, and only a Darnold fumble, on Colorado’s goal line, prevented a bigger margin. Darnold’s improvisation had been the difference.
“He just kind of knows where we’re going to be,” Petite said.
“That man is special, man,” Imatorbhebhe said. “He’s special.”
“I’m astounded just how — usually as an early quarterback, you get locked into different guys,” Helton said. “He’s distributing the ball to everybody.”
But the creativity carried a risk. By the second half, Darnold looked like a redshirt freshman.
Justin Davis fumbled on USC’s opening drive in the half. Then Darnold fumbled on the next possession, and had a pass intercepted on the possession after that — his first as USC’s starter. Meanwhile, Davis, who was USC’s leading rusher with 83 yards in 13 carries, left the game with a high ankle sprain.
It was a stretch reminiscent of USC’s game against Utah, when three consecutive turnovers proved fatal. Darnold finished the game in enigmatic fashion, having completed 25 of 37 passes for 358 yards and three touchdowns — with three turnovers.
Darnold said he is trying to calibrate the balance between imaginative playmaking and a more risk-averse approach.
“I think I’ve got to do a better job of knowing when a play is over and not trying to fight so hard for it,” Darnold said.
The scrambling touchdown throw to Petite, he said, perhaps should’ve ended with Darnold falling on the fumble.
But Helton views putting limitations on Darnold as akin to putting a restrictor plate on a Ferrari. Safer, perhaps, but to be avoided, lest he spoil his quarterback’s best attribute.
“When you have a kid that has this amount of instinct and create-ability, I don’t think you handcuff him,” Helton said. “I told him, ‘Drive it like it’s stolen.’
“There’s gonna be mistakes. That’s gonna happen with a redshirt freshman. And we’ll live with it. But he’s one of those guys that you don’t make him a robot. You don’t handcuff him. He does some things that people can’t do. So let him do it.”
Amid USC’s turnover spree, Colorado (4-2, 2-1) scored on a double-pass — a pass backward to receiver Bryce Bobo, who launched another pass 67 yards to Phillip Lindsay.
Colorado has never defeated USC, in 11 games.
Of USC’s ability to hang on, Darnold said, “I hate using the word, but the first word that comes to mind is ‘lucky.’ ”
But it wasn’t luck, he continued. It was the defense.
USC outgained Colorado 539 yards to 371. Before the game, Colorado had averaged 43 points per game. USC held the Buffaloes to less than half of that, thanks, in part, to a heroic effort from Adoree’ Jackson. After Darnold’s interception, he made a leaping, acrobatic interception of his own along the sideline.
Colorado drove and scored again the fourth quarter, on a pass from Steven Montez to Bobo, to even the score.
In the offensive huddle immediately afterward, “Coach Clay came in, he said, ‘You guys have been driving on them all game,’ ” Petite said.
They just needed to take care of the ball. So on the sideline, as Darnold threw the mistake pass, USC held its breath.
“Once he got it,” Helton said, referring to Rogers, “it was like, ‘OK, this is meant to be.’”
Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand