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USC has to work hard to put away Western Michigan in opener 49-31

Want to hear a joke? Here’s one from inside USC’s locker room minutes after the Trojans escaped with a 49-31 win over Western Michigan in an opening game that was scarier than the final score showed.

“Are we even anywhere near a finished product?” coach Clay Helton said.

The team burst out laughing.

The Trojans could laugh because they won. They could celebrate because they defeated a team that went 13-1 last season and was significantly better than the typical Mid-American Conference team. They could wince and smile because they knew it was true, as a game against Stanford looms next week: USC (1-0) has quite a lot to fix.

There would have been no laughing were it not for running back Ronald Jones II. On a day when USC’s vaunted front seven looked vulnerable, its special teams looked pedestrian, quarterback Sam Darnold looked off and his perimeter receivers looked toothless, Jones at least lived up to the billing.

He ran for 159 yards and scored three touchdowns, including the one that gave USC the decisive lead in the fourth quarter at the Coliseum.

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His backfield partner, freshman Stephen Carr, dazzled in his debut with 69 yards in only seven carries and two touchdowns.

“Down the stretch they really won us the football game,” Helton said.

Jones, Darnold remarked afterward with a grin, “ran his little butt off.”

No part of Jones qualifies as very little anymore. In the offseason, Jones, a lightning-quick back, added 10 pounds of bulk through a mixture of Five Guys burgers and weightlifting. He wanted to add muscle to his speed. He did.

On his first run of the game, he smashed through multiple defenders on a 29-yard rampage. He scored USC’s first touchdown moments later after brushing off an arm tackle as if he were shrugging off a coat.

But USC’s grip on the lead was shaky. USC expected its front seven to be the team’s strength, but Western Michigan gashed it for 263 yards on the ground. The defense yielded the lead in the first half before another Jones touchdown tied the score at halftime 14-14.

“I thought they came out and gave it to us,” safety Chris Hawkins said.

The Trojans’ defense dominated their offense during training camp, but the dynamic on the ground reversed in the opener, particularly in the first half. Most concerning was USC’s tackling, which elicited a blunt assessment from linebacker Cameron Smith: “Bad. It was bad.”

Linebacker Uchenna Nwosu said there was “no excuse for why that happened.” Others said the ineffective tackling could be expected in a first game. USC hasn’t practiced full contact in two weeks.

The defense improved in the second half with the return of Smith, who served a suspension for a targeting penalty during last season’s Rose Bowl game that carried over into the first half. Western Michigan had to use a gadget play for its first score of the second half: a double-pass back to quarterback Jon Wassink for a 27-yard touchdown.

After USC recaptured the lead with two scores, Western Michigan struck on special teams. Darius Phillips, one of the most dangerous returners in the league, took a kickoff 100 yards to knot the score at 28-28 midway through the fourth quarter.

Last season, USC relied on Darnold down the stretch when it needed a big play. On Saturday, it rode Jones and Carr. It is a sign that USC’s receivers, aside from slot receiver Deontay Burnett, who caught seven passes for 142 yards, still haven’t earned enough trust.

Darnold too suffered the first off game of his career. He still completed 23 of 33 passes for 289 yards, but Western Michigan intercepted two of his passes, both on tipped balls. He ran for one touchdown but didn’t throw any.

And so, after Phillips tied the game, it was Jones who provided a 37-yard run, proving with a burst into a hole that his speed persists despite the added weight. Carr scored the next touchdown with a highlight-reel hop-step on a 52-yard scamper.

A Marvell Tell III interception returned for a touchdown allowed for a special moment: Jake Olson, a blind long snapper, played for the first time of his career on the point-after attempt. His snap was flawless. The kick was good.

Tell’s late score obscured how close the game really was. The Trojans’ mistakes mirrored those that plagued them a year ago, when they were trampled by top-ranked Alabama and began the season 1-3: poor tackling, penalties (USC committed nine for 94 yards) and run defense.

Helton pledged that “this is a team that knows how to get better.”

And USC did show improvements from last season.

But the major difference might have been the level of competition. And, Helton noted, most importantly, the result.

zach.helfand@latimes.com

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand


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