USC played a near-perfect half against Utah. Can it play that way for a whole game?

USC played a near-perfect half against Utah. Can it play that way for a whole game?
USC linebacker Cameron Smith (35) celebrates with his coaches after picking off a Troy Williams pass in the first quarter of a game at the Coliseum. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Clay Helton watched his linemen punch a gap through Utah's big front seven late in USC's win on Saturday. He watched his running back, Ronald Jones II, flit through it, then flip over a defender and flop into the end zone.

The drive, 11 plays and 93 yards of physical, will-imposing running, salvaged the game for USC and rescued the season. It was "the kind of drive that teams can build seasons around," ABC commentator Brian Griese remarked.


Helton, watching, also got a glimpse at the burden that he and USC carry this season: If USC is capable of such dominance, why doesn't it play like it more often?

Saturday displayed both sides of USC's split personality. The first half was a nightmare, a torrent of turnovers and a defense on its heels. The second half was near perfect.

"That's the team we hope that we can be," Helton said.

The question that will define the rest of USC's season, perhaps as early as this week in a momentous trip to Notre Dame, will be whether USC has the focus and coaching to play near its peak for an entire game.

Helton said on Sunday that the gap between the two halves against Utah — the gap between USC at its best and at its most frustrating — was not vast. The difference, he said, was a matter of turnovers, the ground game and winning a small but crucial amount of 50-50 plays.

No one factor has impacted USC's season as much as turnovers, and Saturday showed why. USC was within nine yards of Utah in total offense in the first half but trailed by 14 points, almost all because of three fumbles. Quarterback Sam Darnold was credited with all three, but Jones was responsible for one of them.

Darnold went his first game this season without an interception but said he hurt himself with bad reads on run-pass options.

"It was just me being indecisive, I think, with handing it or pulling it or throwing it," Darnold said. "Because some of those [run-pass options], they gave us a certain look and rolled into a different look right on the snap."

The giveaways halted the offense, drained the defense and gifted Utah points on a return touchdown. Helton said he thought the offense moved effectively, "and that was a little bit of the frustrating part, is you look up, have 262 yards and only seven points."

"It felt like the majority of the time in that whole game we were starting on our end of the field, we were getting on the plus-side territory and then something would happen to us," Helton said.

In the second half, after cleaning up the turnovers, USC wrestled back control of the game on the ground. Utah's running backs tormented USC early, punishing USC's weak tackling. But USC won the ground battle 125 yards to 37 in the final 30 minutes.

On the game-winning drive that ended with Jones' touchdown, the Trojans rushed seven times for 84 yards.

But USC would not have gotten out of the shadow of its own goal line if not for one play that typified the half. Facing a third-and-10, Darnold dropped back to pass. He found no one, so he took off out of the pocket and juked a linebacker in the open field for the first down.

"It was one of the more mature plays that I've seen him make as our quarterback," Helton said.


It was one of a series of superior third- and fourth-down performances, the type USC has rarely gotten this season. On another scoring drive, Tyler Vaughns made a one-handed catch on fourth down on a difficult, 50-50 ball. On another, Darnold extended a play, then made a jump pass to Deontay Burnett, who held on despite a crushing hit, for a third-down conversion.

USC was seven of 14 on third downs. Utah went just four of 14.

Few teams have multiple players with the skill to make such plays. USC has a host of them.

That has been the promise and the curse for USC this season ever since a dominant Week 2 performance against Stanford.

Now, Helton said, "We have to be able to function at that high level for four quarters."

Quick hits

USC moved up two spots in the Associated Press poll, to No. 11. … Running back Stephen Carr plans to run on Monday for the first time since injuring his foot more than two weeks ago. "He is feeling a little better but until you actually get on the field and run and do some change of direction, we'll see then," Helton said. … Jones rehabbed a minor ankle injury on Sunday. ... Christian Rector's two sacks on Saturday made him the Pac-12's sacks leader with 6.5, tied with Hercules Mata'afa of Washington State. ... Defensive tackle Kenny Bigelow Jr., a fifth-year senior who has played sparingly this season, was not with the team on Saturday. Helton said it was for personal reasons.

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand