Ronald Jones II

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No. 13 USC survives Sam Darnold turnovers to come back and beat Utah

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On Saturday night, the many faces of Sam Darnold in 2017 were on display.

There was the dazzling of course, throwing for 358 yards and three scores. There was the head-scratching, such as a trio of fumbles. All things considered, the bottom line might be the most important aspect of the star quarterback’s outing against Utah as No. 13 USC used a thrilling second half comeback to win 28-27 on Saturday night.

All three of those fumbles from Darnold, one that was returned for a touchdown, occurred in the first half where not much could go right for the cardinal and gold. Luckily a trip to the locker room proved to be just the remedy for the team’s struggles as three of their four second-half drives resulted in 88+ yard scoring drives. Playing a big role in that turnaround was the USC offensive line and running back Ronald Jones IIwho finished the game with 111 yards and the go-ahead points on a front flip touchdown into the end zone.

Making a return to Los Angeles not far from where he grew up, Utah QB Troy Williams started once again in place of the injured Tyler Huntley. The senior wound up throwing for 262 yards and a touchdown but tossed an interception and was stopped just short of the goal line on a two-point conversion with 42 seconds left that would have won the Utes the game. Running back Zach Moss, who bruised his way to 141 yards, but it was just not enough in the end.

Everybody in Salt Lake City will now be forced to bemoan the second half slump that led to a blown loss and the decision by Kyle Whittingham for go for two instead of the tie with under a minute left. Those second guesses won’t be easy to take as the team now has lost two straight in the conference but this still seems like the second best squad in the division.

The best? Well that is the school they narrowly lost to. The incredible momentum swings that resulted in a Trojans’ victory gives them a significant leg up in the Pac-12 South race and also keeps them in the hunt for the College Football Playoff. In addition to securing the tie-breaker over the Utes, a pair of bounce-back wins since that tough loss up in Pullman could be big for USC as they head to South Bend next for a huge game against rival Notre Dame next week.

On a weekend where a ton of top 15 teams looked shaky, surviving and coming out with a win is certainly a step in the right direction for Darnold and company given how things played out earlier.

Cal plays tough, but No. 5 USC pulls away late to stay undefeated

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USC’s annual trip to the Bay Area for what is commonly referred to as ‘The Weekender’ is typically a casual affair for the Trojans when they go to Berkeley and their team takes on overmatched Pac-12 rivals Cal. Such was not the case for most of Saturday afternoon however, as the Bears pushed and prodded their in-state rivals before the dam finally broke early in the fourth quarter for a 30-20 win by the cardinal and gold.

The closer-than-it-indicated final score may not have been all that pretty but still allowed USC to capture their 14th straight victory and run their record against Cal to 13 straight wins over nearly a decade and a half.

Part of the reason the Trojans couldn’t pull away until late was an ineffective offense that was a continuation of last week against Texas. Quarterback Sam Darnold had to carry the team at times but wasn’t quite as sharp early in the passing game, forcing several balls while throwing his seventh interception (after having just nine all last year). His numbers improved as the game went on and, in front of a bunch of NFL scouts, he still finished with 223 yards and two touchdown passes against a feisty defense.

The biggest issue for the signal-caller was the lack of a running game. Normal starter Ronald Jones II didn’t even make the trip with the team, while true freshman Stephen Carr had his moments rushing for 82 yards and a touchdown taking the bulk of the carries.

Head coach Clay Helton can once again thank his defense for bailing out the slow starting offense as they forced six turnovers and straight up took over in the final quarter to change momentum. Josh Fatu forced a fumble early in the 4th that was recovered near the goal line to kick the party off and interceptions by Ykili Ross and Jack Jones in the next few series all but sealed the deal in Strawberry Canyon.

As a result, the numbers for Cal signal-caller Ross Bowers looked dreadful on the final stat sheet (303 yards, 1 TD, four interceptions and a fumble). Still, he did help give the team a chance for most of the day and, combined with a solid run game and defensive performance, helped show that things are still looking up for Justin Wilcox’s team despite suffering their first loss of the year to move to 3-1.

That might not be the case for USC as they fly back and look over the game tape from a sloppy victory. While it does put the team up 2-0 in league play, notching another win might prove to be even more difficult if they play like that given they face a stiff test next Friday against a Washington State team that should be ranked in the top 20.

No. 5 USC opens flat against Cal and it’s all tied up in Berkeley at halftime

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Imagine telling somebody before the season that No. 5 USC would dominate Stanford in the trenches during a blowout, but struggle against the other Bay Area team in a nail-bitter. Up is down, down is up in the Pac-12 apparently.

The Trojans came out flat to start their annual weekend trip to the Bay Area and needed a few defensive stands to keep the score locked at 13-all on a warm California day between the two in-state rivals.

Quarterback Sam Darnold (157 yards, one touchdown) did his Heisman campaign no favors, tossing his seventh interception of the season (after just nine in all of 2016). Things could have been worse for the signal-caller and his inexperienced receiving corps too as the Golden Bears nearly grabbed two others. Part of the issue could be that his terrific tailback Ronald Jones II failed to make the trip up for the game with an injury and true freshman Stephen Carr (36 yards) was forced to carry much of the load.

Cal’s offense had its own moments but was just 2-of-8 on third down conversions to help stall some early momentum. QB Ross Bowers threw for 124 yards but it was big running back Vic Enwere who was the star of the show with 42 yards on the ground and a touchdown he punched in on 4th and goal. The real story for the home team was the continued play of their defense however, pressuring Darnold on a number of snaps, forcing two turnovers and covering exceptionally well downfield to limit big plays.

The performance through two quarters will lead many to question whether USC really should be ranked in the top five and considered the Pac-12 favorite but the cardinal and gold could turn things around with a trip to the locker room and some adjustments. Still, it’s hard not to be impressed with Justin Wilcox’s squad giving everything they can to another big name opponent in Berkeley this month.

No. 4 USC escapes Western Michigan’s upset bid

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When USC accepted the ball to open its season and rolled 75 yards in six plays, capped by a 16-yard Ronald Jones II scoring rush, it looked to be business as expected for the Trojans.

But then the Trojans went 3-and-out on its next possession, and Western Michigan responded with an 8-play, 59-yard touchdown drive to tie the game. And then, when USC went 3-and-out again, and Western Michigan again capitalized with a lengthy touchdown march — 84 yards in 11 plays — it was obvious nothing about Saturday’s opener was business as expected for USC.

That moment did not arrive until the 3:49 mark of the fourth quarter, when Stephen Carr raced for a 52-yard touchdown, providing put-away score of No. 4 USC’s 49-31 defeat of Western Michigan.

This game remained so close for so long because the Broncos, playing their first game under new head coach Tim Lester, performed every bit like the defending MAC champions that they are. Four players carried the ball at least seven times and all gained at least 30 yards. LeVante Bellamy led the way with 102 yards on nine carries, and WMU as a team rushed 43 times for 251 yards and two scores.

Jones far and away outperformed USC’s purported Heisman candidate Sam Darnold. Jones racked up 159 yards and three touchdowns on only 18 carries, while Darnold completed 23-of-33 passes for 289 yards and no touchdowns against two interceptions, though he did run for an 11-yard score.

The teams traded touchdowns for much of the game. After Jones’s opening punch, Western Michigan notched two consecutive scores to grab a 14-7 lead, marching 59 and 81 yards in the process. Jones’s second touchdown, a 1-yard plunge, tied the game at 14-14 just before the half.

Western Michigan moved 75 yards, punctuated by a 27-yard scoring strike from Jon Wassink to Keishawn Watson, to reclaim the lead at 21-14 to open the second half, then had a chance to take complete control after intercepting Darnold for a second time. But the Broncos punted on their ensuing possession, and USC took advantage with an 83-yard touchdown drive. In fact, Western Michigan would not stop USC again after Darnold’s second pick.

The Trojans pulled ahead for the first time since 7-0 on a 1-yard Carr run, but Western Michigan immediately responded when Darius Phillips went goal line to goal line on the ensuing kickoff.

USC needed only three plays to move 83 yards to reclaim the lead at 35-28 thanks to a 37-yard Jones run and, after a WMU field goal, put the game away on Carr’s 52-yard sprint. Marvin Tell III provided the exclamation point with a 37-yard interception return for a touchdown with 3:13 left to play.

The loss was Western Michigan’s (0-1) first regular-season setback since falling to Northern Illinois on Nov. 18, 2015, a streak of 14 games. USC (1-0) extended its winning streak to 10 games, trailing only Oklahoma’s 11 for the longest active winning streak in FBS.

USC confirms hire of Deland McCullough as Trojans’ new RB coach

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While it took a few days to make things official, USC has confirmed the hire of Deland McCullough as the Trojans’ new running backs coach.

“We are thrilled to welcome Deland to the Trojan Family and fortunate to have him on our staff,” head coach Clay Helton said in a statement.  “He had great success recruiting and then developing prolific running backs at Indiana who were NFL ready.  The Indiana run game during his time was effective, efficient and productive.  He understands the running game and was himself a very skilled runner as a college and pro player.”

McCullough replaces Tommie Robinson, who was hired last month by former USC coach Ed Orgeron to fill the same position at LSU.

The trip West is a bit of a departure for McCullough as he’s spent nearly his entire coaching career — dating back to 2010 — at Indiana. Despite the unfamiliarity with Los Angeles, the young coach developed several quality runners with the Hoosiers, such as Tevin Coleman and Jordan Howard, and should be able to keep that impressive list of pupils growing with players like Ronald Jones II on the USC roster in 2017.