USC wide receiver Michael Pittman heads to the end zone for his first touchdown of the second quarter against Colorado on Saturday night at the Coliseum.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
USC wide receiver Tyler Vaughs makes a catch against Colorado in the first quarter.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
LOS ANGELES, CALIF. - OCT. 13, 2018. USC defenders Malik Dalton, left, and Porter Gustin bring down Colorado running back TRavon McMillian down for a loss.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
LOS ANGELES, CALIF. - OCT. 13, 2018. The USC sideline celebrates after the Trojan defense forced Colorado to turn the ball over.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
USC quarterback JT Daniels throws downfield against Colorado in the first quarter on Saturday night at the Coliseum.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
USC wide receiver Michael Pittman makes a catch against Colorado cornerback Chris Miller in the second quarter Saturday night at the Coliseum.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
USC tailback Stephen Carr fights for extra yard against Colorado in the first quarter on Saturday night at the Coliseum.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Colorado wide receiver Laviska Shenault breaks away for a long touchdown against USC in the second quarter on Saturday night at the Coliseum.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
USC receiver Michael Pittman Jr. celebrates after scoring his second touchdown of the second quarter on Saturday night at the Coliseum.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
USC receiver Michael Pittman Jr. makes a catch against Colorado defenders Delrick Abrams, center, and Evan Worthington in the second quarter Saturday night at the Coliseum.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
USC defenders Palaie Galoteote, left, and John Houston bring down Colorado running back Travon McMillan in the second quarter Saturday night at the Coliseum.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
USC’s appearance on Pac-12 After Dark nearly became the Pac-12 Until Dawn, so long did it take for the Trojans to wrap up their 31-20 victory over previously unbeaten Colorado on aturday night at the Coliseum. It’s too bad the three-hour, 42-minute game ended so late in the Pacific time zone, and in the wee hours everywhere else.
The Trojans, 4-2 and 3-1 in the Pac-12 after enduring a slow start to the season and experiencing the adventures of starting a true freshman quarterback, are worth watching in prime time. They’re still imperfect, still prone to taking too many penalties, and that zero rushing-yards effort in the first half was bizarre, but on Saturday they put together an impressive defensive effort that gave JT Daniels time to ride out a two-interception first quarter and find his footing toward a 272-yard, three-touchdown passing performance.
“I don’t think we’ve yet to put together a complete game,” senior safety Marvell Tell said. “I feel like the sky is still the limit for this team. We haven’t reached our potential yet.”
They’ve reached the top of the Pac-12 South division for now, after exposing Colorado’s record as inflated by having played bad or easy opponents in four of its first five wins. Daniels is learning and growing and bounced back impressively from his early miscues on Saturday, and the Trojans’ spine was their defense. It had to be the backbone sometimes, and at other times it simply wanted to be.
“We knew coming in that our defense would have to help us if we wanted to win a Pac-12 title,” coach Clay Helton said after the Trojans extended their winning streak at the Coliseum to 19. “I think we’re making strides. It was neat to see the quarterback have a couple mistakes and then settle in. It wasn’t perfect but he was putting the ball in to the right people.
“We have some things to work on. But he settled in really nice and found the one-on-one matchups and he believed in his guys to make the plays, and that’s all you can ask for as a coach.”
Being led by Daniels isn’t the same as being led by a poised quarterback like Sam Darnold. “It’s different,” senior cornerback Ajene Harris agreed, “but we got who we got and we’ve got to rock with who we got.”
They rocked on Saturday, as Daniels found Tyler Vaughns for a 27-yard pass that brought USC even at 7-7, completed a season-high 65-yard pass to Michael Pittman for a lead the Trojans would never relinquish, and found Pittman again for a 21-7 lead late in the second quarter.
“I feel like this offense is taking steps as far as making those explosive plays,” Pittman said. “I feel like we showed some good things moving forward.”
That included Daniels’ resilience.
Seeing Daniels ignite the offense inspired the defense to greater heights. “We see those touchdowns, that gives us a whole lot of juice,” Harris said. “We were over there juiced up.”
Harris made a significant contribution on Saturday by intercepting a pass by Colorado’s Steven Montez in the third quarter and returning it six yards for a touchdown and a 28-7 cushion. Harris’ third career interception return for a touchdown tied a USC record shared by Charles Phillips (1972-74), and Nickell Robey (2010-12).
“I came here, this was my dream school and I just wanted to help the team as much as possible,” said Harris, who attended Crenshaw High. “And to look up and have three career pick-sixes just motivates me more to get more interceptions and take them to the house.”
Last week, while preparing for this game, running back Aca’Cedric Ware said the Trojans’ games against Colorado and, next week, at Utah, would be a test of who they are and how far they’ve come. That’s still true. But defeating Colorado on Saturday gave them the upper hand in the division and some breathing room for the rest of their schedule as they evolve as a team.
Asked if beating the Buffaloes had made their path easier, Tell was unsure. “In a way, you could phrase it like that,” he said, “but at the same time, we’re the ones with the target on our back right now, so in a way, not really.
“What’s our motto, Fight On? We fight on all the time. We understand that we control our own destiny now. We’ve just got to keep fighting.”
It figures to be worth watching, after dark or in prime time.