Three years ago, as tears fell throughout a crestfallen visiting locker room in Utah, a freshman USC quarterback spoke up.
Sam Darnold had just been handed a last-second loss in his first collegiate start. The defeat to Utah left USC at 1-3, its worst opening month in 15 years.
But amid the melancholy, Darnold seemed unaffected. The 18-year-old quarterback stood up and confidently reassured the rest of the locker room that they’d be fine.
Turns out, they’d be better than that. Behind Darnold, USC didn’t lose another game in the 2016 season. The Trojans rattled off nine straight victories, including a thrilling Rose Bowl win over Penn State, then rolled to four consecutive wins to start the next season.
Suddenly, the program was back on a path it hadn’t seen since the Pete Carroll era, and it all began with that losing locker room in Utah and a confident freshman quarterback.
As he left Utah last week, in the wake of a brutal overtime loss to Brigham Young, coach Clay Helton found himself thinking about that trip in 2016. He thought of how that moment was a turning point, and he wondered if the same thing might be true about this year’s team, which, at 2-1, would seem to be in less dire straits entering a matchup Friday with No. 10 Utah.
“They’re going through some growing pains,” Helton said. “This is a team where, just like in 2016, if they stay the course, at the end of the year, they’re going to be a really good football team. Now, can they accomplish some things that that 2016 team did? We’ll see.”
But with his job hanging in the balance and USC beginning a grueling, three-game gantlet against ranked teams, there’s no guarantee that Helton will have the chance to see this team stay the course.
There was no such looming threat in 2016, Helton’s first full season on the job. Four of USC’s next five games after that unsuccessful Utah trip came against Pac-12 teams that finished with a losing record. Darnold and USC’s offense came alive over that stretch, scoring 41 points or more in each of those four games.
This time, for USC’s freshman quarterback, the path ahead could be far rockier than it was for his predecessor. After having three passes intercepted against BYU, Kedon Slovis will have to bounce back against the sixth-best scoring defense in the nation Friday night, before taking trips to No. 22 Washington and No. 7 Notre Dame, each of which have held opponents to 18 points per game or fewer this season.
That month-long stretch won’t exactly be forgiving of freshman mistakes — a few of which Slovis made a week ago. In his first road start, he skipped through reads and lost discipline on a few occasions.
“He’s going to be a special player,” offensive coordinator Graham Harrell said. “He’s a youngster. Sometimes you’re going to make some mistakes.”
Utah’s stifling defense is more than capable of making quarterbacks pay for them. The Utes have given upone passing touchdown this season, while holding opposing quarterbacks to a completion rate under 60%.
Still, as Slovis attempts to put last week behind him, Helton said he “would be shocked if he doesn’t have a great game.”
“I really think he’s ready,” Helton said of his freshman quarterback. “He’s fired up to get back out on the field and prove something. That’s usually a good thing with a young quarterback that they’re excited to get back out here.”
That was what Helton saw from Darnold in 2016. But as USC takes the field against the Utes, three years after that terrific turnaround, its quarterback isn’t the only one with something to prove to those in attendance.
For Helton, who stands at a critical juncture in his coaching career, it could be one of his last chances to turn things around.
“This is going to be a special team, mark my words,” Helton said after last week’s loss. “There are special kids on this team and they’re learning with every snap. I’m proud of them, and I look forward to the next opportunity to compete.”