USC’s catharsis seven games in the making did not happen when Ajene Harris stuffed Troy Williams on a two-point conversion stop that saved USC’s season.
It did not happen when Ronald Jones II went hurtling through the night, pulling a front flip — with a half twist — that won the game 28-27 for USC against Utah on Saturday night.
No. 13 USC’s moment of zen was taking place about 15 yards behind that play.
There, Sam Darnold stood alone and watched. USC’s quarterback had suffered interception after interception this season. He’d endured three fumbles in the first half Saturday. He had just emerged from the most frustrating and stressful two weeks of his career.
Now the stoic, poker-faced quarterback allowed a release. He shook his hand at the ground. He jogged into the end zone, picked up the ball to hand to the official and then turned to the crowd behind the end zone. He ran closer, looked at the fans for a moment.
“I sensed that we needed a little spark,” he said. “It was time to show some emotion.”
He pumped his fist and ran off.
Jones had capped a 14-point comeback with his acrobatic 11-yard go-ahead touchdown. Harris later saved it when Utah tried to win the game with 42 seconds left. But it was Darnold, finally playing like the Darnold of last season, who led USC back for a crucial Pac-12 Conference South Division victory.
The two-touchdown deficit was USC’s largest since the Rose Bowl. Many of the 72,382 at the Coliseum had booed the team off the field at halftime. They stood and cheered after the game.
Darnold passed 50 times. He completed only 27 but accumulated 358 yards and three touchdowns. USC (6-1, 4-1 in Pac-12) had only three non-kneel-down drives in the second half. It scored on all three.
On the first, Helton gambled facing a fourth and nine from Utah’s 27-yard line. He kept the offense on the field. Under pressure, Darnold lasered a pass to Tyler Vaughns. The pass was behind Vaughns, who caught it with one hand and muscled his way for an extra yard for the first down. Three plays later, Darnold eluded the rush, scrambled and fired into a tight window to tight end Tyler Petite for a touchdown, his second score of the game. It was a 98-yard drive.
Utah’s lead was cut to seven points.
On the next drive, on a third and 10, Darnold completed a jump pass to Deontay Burnett for 16 yards and a first down. Darnold connected with Josh Falo on a play-action rollout from the one-yard line to tie the score.
Before Jones’ touchdown run, early in the drive, Darnold scrambled 14 yards on third and 10 to extend the possession.
USC’s Ajene Harris #27, and Iman Marshall #8, stop Utah running back Troy Williams short of the goal line on the two-point play which preserve the USC victory.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
USC’s Ajene Harris #27, and Iman Marshall #8, stops Utah running back Troy Williams short of the goal line on the extra-point play in the fourth quarter.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
LUSC’s Deontay Burnett leaps in the air while celebrating with Daniel Imatorbhebhe after USC beat Utah 28-27.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
USC wide receiver Steven Mitchell Jr. eyes a pass from quaterback Sam Darnold, but couldn’t come up the reception during the first half of a game against Utah.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
USC defense struggles to bring down Utah quarterback Troy Williiams in the second half.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
USC wide receiver Deontay Burnett hauls in a pass from Sam Darnold for a first down as Utah strong safety Corrion Ballard makes the tackle in the fourth quarter.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
USC outside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu, #42, tries to stop Utah running back Zack Moss during the second half.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
USC running back Ronald Jones II and Utah defensive end Nick Heninger chase a loose ball during the second quarter.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
USC tight end Tyler Petite scores on a 53 yard catch-and-run against Utah during the first quarter of a game at the Coliseum.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
USC receiver Steven Mitchell Jr. runs past Utah’s Kavika Luafatasaga during the second quarter of a game at the Coliseum.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
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)
“The best quarterbacks don’t get flustered. Even when things aren’t going absolutely perfect,” Helton said. “He made play after play.”
Jones rushed 17 times for 111 yards and a touchdown.
“That’s the best friend to a quarterback,” Helton said.
The half was maybe USC’s best of the season. It showed that, when clicking, USC remains a force on offense and defense. It also meant the Trojans could forget a first half in which they nearly sabotaged the game.
They could forget Darnold’s three fumbles, one of which was returned for a touchdown. They could forget about their tackling issues, costly penalties and a run game that was gashed early.
Utah running back Zack Moss had 113 yards in the first half but only 28 in the second half, thanks in part to linebacker Cameron Smith, who had 16 tackles and an interception and “was making magic all over the place,” Helton said.
Utah (4-2, 1-2) nearly stole the game on its final, 75-yard drive. Facing a fourth and one from USC’s 39, the Utes gambled with a long pass to tight end Siale Fakailoatonga. He caught it and rumbled to the two-yard line.
Utah scored on a one-yard run by Williams, who broke USC’s hearts with a late game-winning drive a year ago. Williams finished 16 of 27 for 262 yards and one touchdown rushing and one passing.
Forty-two seconds remained, maybe enough time for Darnold to make more magic. But maybe not. Coach Kyle Whittingham decided to gamble.
“It was going to be all or nothing,” safety Chris Hawkins said
Whittingham called a pass. Williams dropped back. Christian Rector flushed him out of the pocket. Williams raced toward the pylon.
“I kept reading the quarterback the whole time, and as soon as I see him tuck it and about to run — head down,” Harris said.
Harris dove for Williams’ ankles. Williams went down.
USC’s bench erupted. On the sideline, a teammate pounded Darnold on his chest. By then he was back to his normal self. He didn’t flinch.
Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand