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Column: Trojans bring hope back to the Coliseum

USC quarterback Sam Darnold (14) and receiver Darreus Rogers (1) smile after leading the Trojans to a commanding lead over Arizona State on Oct. 1.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

The breath was deep, and long, and cleansing.

Whew. USC is not the worst team in college football history.

Ahh. USC may have discovered a quarterback, rediscovered a running game, and remembered how to tackle.

Sigh. USC has a chance to be fun again.

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On a night that appropriately began in a swelter and ended in a breeze, the Trojans charmed the doubters in a half-filled Coliseum on Saturday night with 41-20 win over Arizona State.

They needed this. For the love of JuJu, they really needed this.

After beginning the season with a 1-3 record, with each loss progressively worse, with each drama progressively more ominous, the Trojans stepped onto the field against the unbeaten Sun Devils as if walking into quicksand.

Then suddenly, they found their footing. They found their discipline. They found a talent that had never been questioned by showcasing schemes that were no longer baffling.

They found a leader and, believe it, Sam Darnold is the real deal. They found receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who should never be allowed to get lost again. They found a pressure defense that knocked out Arizona State’s quarterback Manny Wilkins and essentially ended the game at halftime.

“That September I don’t want to remember, to be honest with you,” said Coach Clay Helton afterward. “This was an important game for us. Yes, there is a lot of relief.”

More than anything, they found their tradition, they found their pride and tradition, even if it was against a clearly inferior team with an awful defense, they remembered who they were, and who they were not.

Nobody stepped on a crotch. Nobody shoved an official. Nobody fumbled a football. Nobody fumbled a punt call. Nobody lost his temper. Nobody lost his shoe.

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And, no, Helton did not lose his job, which is surely what many of the diehard fans who showed up were thinking was going to happen. Helton earned his first win against a power conference team since being named permanent head coach at the end of last season, and finally improved his overall record since last season to .500, at 7-7.

Nobody’s getting fired this week. There’s little chance anybody is getting fired before the end of the season, either although Helton is going to need to keep winning games like this to stick around.

In fact, he probably needs to win his next three winnable games — Colorado, Arizona and California — to have a chance to save this season and ensure his job security.

But for once, for the first time since that first half against Alabama in the first game of the season, there is hope.

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“I’m hoping it is a turning point,” Helton said. “Now, the challenge is, like I told them, you made a mistake and showed the whole world who you are, and now you’re accountable to do that every week.”

Soon after the game started, that hope was briefly tested with another in a season-long series of questionable — OK, wacky — fourth-down decisions by Helton.

On the Trojans’ first possession, their drive quickly stalled on their own 42-yard line, yet, on fourth and two, Helton decided to go for a first down. It didn’t work, Justin Davis was stopped in the backfield, and what was Helton thinking?

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“I went into this game saying, ‘Let’s be ultra aggressive,’” said Helton. “We had nothing to lose. I wanted the kids to feel that.”

Enter the hope, three plays later, in the form of an over-the-shoulder interception by Jonathan Lockett on the Trojans five-yard line.

The coach was saved, the team was inspired, and immediately the Trojans reeled off a 95-yard drive led by Davis’ stuttering runs and Darnold’s precision passing, ending in a perfect five-yard slant toss to Smith-Schuster for the touchdown.

That was just the start of a rollicking attack and raucous pressure that turned early lukewarm cheers into late-game roars.

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The change started with Darnold, the redshirt freshman whose mobility and coolness under pressure justified Helton’s decision to name him starter last week. The kid can play. He was 23 for 33 for 352 yards and three touchdowns and no interceptions while sprinting out of swarms, making good decisions downfield, and never seeming to sweat.

Then there was Davis, who gained 123 yards in 14 carries and clearly needs to be a bigger part of this offense. His 37-yard touchdown dash down the sidelines late in the second quarter was a rare breathtaking moment from a team that had previously elicited only groans.

Then there was the Trojans defense, benefiting from schemes that displayed its quickness and athleticism, shut down the nation’s seventh-ranked scoring offense, holding the Sun Devils far below their 48.8-points-per-game average.

In all, it was equal parts revival and reprieve, an evening that was capped early in the third quarter when Smith-Schuster, who was barely used earlier in the season, caught a quick pass, broke a tackle at the USC 35-yard line, then cut across the entire field, outracing several tacklers to eventually score on a 67-yard touchdown pass.

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“I just kind of throw it out there and watch him do his thing,” said Darnold.

The Trojans danced and hugged. Their fans screamed and swayed. It was the kind of play USC used to make, creating the sort of moment the Coliseum used to celebrate.

Who knows? Maybe it’s not too late in this season for that feeling to return? Where once USC’s misery felt predestined, now, maybe, anything is possible.

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bill.plaschke@latimes.com

Follow Bill Plaschke on Twitter @BillPlaschke

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