We’re six games into the season and USC is sitting in first place in the Pac-12 South, touting a 5-1 record. This comes after the Trojans routed Oregon State at the Coliseum last weekend, 38-10, and two weeks after they fell to Washington State on the road at Pullman, turning in a disappointing 30-27 loss.
All things considered, that loss at Pullman isn’t the worst way to lose (just ask Oklahoma fans!). The Trojans faced the then-ranked No. 16 Cougars on short rest, on a Friday night and only lost by a field goal. Conversely, USC put together a pretty complete performance in their victory over the Oregon State Beavers.
So why does it feel like the Trojans are just…meh?
Some of that has to do with unrealistic expectations from Trojan fans. If you thought SC was going to steamroll its way to the College Football Playoffs with no bye week while simultaneously avoiding injuries at critical positions, well, I have a bridge to sell you.
No, it wasn’t realistic to think the Trojans would have that kind of season. But beyond that, USC has just looked, well, average. They look good, but not great. They look capable, but not unstoppable. You know that kid in the class that teachers would get frustrated with because he or she would perform below their potential? That’s what USC feels like right now.
Last season, Sam Darnold was the hottest thing in college football: He led the Trojans on a nine-game winning streak down the stretch of the season, amassing 31 touchdowns and throwing only nine interceptions along the way. He had a 67.2 completion percentage and a QB rating of 161.1 to show for his efforts in 2016.
This season though? Darnold isn’t delivering as the playmaker USC fans have come to expect him to be. Through six games, he’s recorded 12 touchdowns, but has already thrown nine picks. There is still half a season to go and he’s already matched his entire total from 2016. Not ideal!
Further, he’s only completed 65% of his passes and his rating has taken a serious hit, standing at 143.2. There’s time of course to bolster those numbers and still impress through the back half of the season, but it’s valid to wonder if and when that improvement will begin.
And to be fair, some of the picks he’s thrown aren’t on him. His receivers have bobbled a few completely catchable passes that were intercepted as a result. But he just hasn’t played well and the offense’s inability to function cohesively through four quarters is indicative of that. Whether it’s underthrowing his targets or completely misreading a defense and throwing easy picks – or my personal favorite, when he tries to win the Heisman by throwing into difficult coverage when it’s not necessary to do so – something is off for Darnold in 2017.
After USC’s victory over Cal – in a game where Darnold tried to force a TD pass to Deontay Burnett that resulted in an interception, the Trojan quarterback told the Orange County Register that it’s an example of him trying to force things.
The problem with that, of course, is that if he continues to try and force it, it will further disable him from getting into an offensive rhythm. With the exception of the victory of Stanford, all of USC’s wins this season have come with a feeling of: if the Trojans were playing a better opponent, this would be a loss. Case in point? Texas.
Given that the Longhorns pushed USC to double-overtime with a rookie quarterback, just imagine how much of a disaster it could have been, had the Trojans faced a more capable signal-caller.
For USC to have any semblance of a shot at postseason glory, they need to establish an offensive identity, starting on Saturday against Utah. Because Darnold has struggled so much, it would make sense for that identity to be forged on the ground, behind the efforts of the reliable Ronald Johnson and Stephen Carr.
The Trojans are at a crossroads heading into this matchup. Will they be yet another example of “what could have been” USC teams, a squad that had all the pieces to go the distance but got in its own way instead? Or will they rise to the occasion despite injuries and #NoDaysOff to finish as kings of the Pac-12? A win against Utah keeps the Trojans firmly in control of their fate and in contention for a playoff spot. We know that USC has the talent – and despite what the Twitter masses have to say, the coaching – to meet that challenge.
So when USC welcomes the Utes to the Coliseum on Saturday, it means only one thing – for Helton and the Trojans, it’s time to put up or shut up.