The USC defense’s All-America candidate, linebacker Cameron Smith, stood on the sideline wearing his jersey over sweats. The Colorado offense’s All-America candidate, wide receiver Laviska Shenault, looked as unstoppable as advertised in the second quarter when he took a wildcat formation snap and ran untouched for a 49-yard touchdown to help the Buffaloes strike first in Saturday’s Pac-12 South showdown.
If there was ever a scenario that was not going to be favorable for the Trojans, it was this one — USC’s defense, always susceptible to the big play and now without its best player, having to slow a Colorado offense that had racked up 38 points per game en route to a No. 19 ranking and undefeated record.
And yet it was this moment that brought out the most dominant defensive performance the Trojans have put together in recent memory. The Coliseum remained Clay Helton’s impenetrable fortress Saturday night in USC’s 31-20 victory over the Buffaloes because the Smith-less Trojans finally resembled a fast and fiery unit capable of defending their 2017 Pac-12 championship.
Helton challenged his coordinators during the bye week to call the game aggressively from here on out — after two early losses, what did they have to lose? — and Clancy Pendergast’s group attacked all night. The Trojans finished the game with four sacks, 16 tackles for loss and held the Buffaloes to 164 yards through the first three quarters.
With 5:16 left in the third quarter, USC cornerback Ajene Harris picked off a Steven Montez pass that caromed off Shenault’s hand and ran it in from six yards out for a touchdown to give USC a 28-7 lead and signal to Colorado it was time to get the buses warm.
For a night, the 57,615 fans at the Coliseum got to see USC look like, well, USC. The Trojans, 4-2 and 3-1 in the Pac-12, improved to 13-0 against the Buffaloes all-time. They improved to 19-0 at the Coliseum under Helton and 15-1 against the Pac-12 South.
Given this slanted history, and given the talent disparity on the two rosters, this result should have felt predictable. So then why did it feel so surprising as the Trojans put together their most complete performance of the season?
Mainly, because even the Trojans’ wins this season, until Saturday, haven’t produced much confidence in where this team was headed. The last win before the bye week, at Arizona, came with 18 penalties for 169 yards and Smith saying he felt “sick” afterward and that it didn’t feel like a win.
But with this performance, particularly from the defense, USC fans could for one night stop wondering how much worse it can get and start pondering how good this team can be by season’s end. The Trojans took control of the Pac-12 South race and have a regular-season finale against a potential top-five opponent inrival Notre Dame to build toward.
Without Smith, USC saw the future of its defense in true freshman linebacker Palaie Gaoteote, who had a team-high nine tackles before leaving the game in the third quarter with an injury. Freshman strong safety Talanoa Hufanga was second in tackles with seven.
The USC offense did all of its best work in the second quarter. JT Daniels shook off two early interceptions and continued to challenge Colorado’s secondary, throwing three touchdown passes — one to Tyler Vaughns and two to Michael Pittman in the span of 2minutes 23 seconds. USC had zero yards rushing in the first half, and it was almost as if Helton and Daniels said to heck with trying to force some methodical drive that checks off all the boxes.
Daniels had been working on perfecting his deep ball during the week, hoping to hit his receivers more in stride. On his second touchdown pass, Daniels saw Pittman with one-on-one coverage and let it fly, but he underthrew the pass. Pittman read the ball in the air, slowed up to catch it, and then breezed past a clumsy Colorado defender on the way to a 65-yard score.