USC Trojans Find Balance In 2016 After Uneasy Early Season

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It’s fitting that, just three days after No. 11 USC ended an 8-0 winning streak with a 45-27 victory over Notre Dame, quarterback Sam Darnold and defensive back Adoree Jackson received Pac-12 honors for their heroics this season.

There is literally nothing you could have said in September that would lead me to believe that was possible.

But that fact that Darnold and Jackson earned Pac-12 Freshman Offensive Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year honors is yet another indicator of just how much of a turnaround these Trojans made since posting a 1-3 record to open the season.

Just to put their conference honors in perspective:

If head coach Clay Helton and his coaching staff didn’t have enough to hang their hats at the end of this season, these awards certainly are a nice touch.

When the then-unranked Trojans faced No. 7 Stanford back in September, the offense was sputtering and ineffective, averaging just 4.5 yards per rush and 6.7 yard per pass attempt. Running back Ronald Jones – who has become a booming, dominant rusher for the Trojans – managed just 63 yards on 11 carries.

While USC performed statistically better against No. 24 Utah (it averaged 6.5 yards per rush and 14.1 yards per catch in the 31-27 losing effort), they didn’t look better. In fact, they looked like the under-performing USC team of years past.

Fast forward to the end of the season, and the Trojans have become a much more balanced, successful team — with the operative word here being “balanced.”

With the exception of Jones – who rushed for more than 100 yards in four of USC’s last five games, including a career-high 223 yards against California – few Trojan offensive playmakers have had individually dynamic seasons.

Behind Darnold, the Trojans are spreading the love and the rock, which makes it all the more difficult for opposing teams to contain them.

For example, JuJu Smith-Schuster – who finished the regular season with 63 receptions for 781 yards and nine touchdowns – wasn’t necessarily torching people on his own. But combine his efforts with those of Darreus Rogers (51 receptions, 654 yards and three touchdowns) and Deontay Burnett (43 receptions, 458 yards and four touchdowns) and the Trojans have a deadly three-pronged passing attack.

And that doesn’t even include the tight ends. Throw them in the fold and you get another 492 yards and seven touchdowns.

That improvement and more cohesive play goes beyond just the offense. As Reign of Troy’s Michael Castillo points out:

As we see week in and week out in college football, success in special teams often means the difference between a win and a loss. Just ask all the teams that have been shredded by Jackson.

The Trojans have a handful of playmakers that will finish the season in the top 10 of defensive stats – Porter Gustin (No. 9 in tackles for loss with 5.5), Rasheem Green (No. 1 in kicks blocked with two) and Jackson (3rd in passes broken up and tied for 4th in interceptions with four) – but the unit as a whole looks sharper and plays more cohesively than USC teams of the recent past.

This year’s team is similar to Lane Kiffin’s 2011 squad, which also finished it’s season on an undefeated streak, except for one major thing: This team has adapted. It has grown. It has adjusted. It has taken its licks and rebounded only to force teams into submission.

Most importantly, it has shown that Helton and company just might know what they’re doing after all.

USC has an outside shot to make it into the Rose Bowl, but even if a different bowl is in the cards for the Trojans, the remarkable growth they’ve displayed this season should fan the flames that were previously charring Helton’s seat.