The Road to Pasadena
Back in September, it wasn’t fun. USC’s season opener against Alabama was seen as an opportunity to put the Trojans back on the map, a chance to show they belonged in a prime-time match-up against an SEC powerhouse. Instead, it was a national embarrassment. It was only one game, but it already felt as if the season was in trouble.
You hoped it wouldn’t get worse, but it did. The Trojans were thumped by Stanford up on the Farm, and then dropped a heart-breaker in Utah. With the team 1-3, fans started to panic, and soon there were calls for a coaching change. I still remember the words of a fellow writer, as he monitored the post-game thread, reporting, “they want Helton’s head!” At that point, it looked like the Clay Helton era might be a short-lived experiment.
But if there was a silver lining to the Utah game, it was the emergence of Sam Darnold. His energetic, multi-dimensional play seemed to change the Trojan offense overnight. Darnold was getting the ball in the hands of play-makers like JuJu Smith-Schuster, and it was as if somebody took the governor off the engine. The ground game opened up too, and the following week against Arizona State, tailback Justin Davis had his second consecutive hundred-yard game. It wasn’t perfect, but suddenly Trojan football was a little more fun.
In early October, USC hosted Colorado. There were a few dicey moments (and a few too many turnovers), but with the Buffaloes going on to win the Pac-12 South, it turned out to be one of the biggest wins of the season.
For the Trojans, things took off from there. USC dominated in each its next three games, blowing out Arizona, Cal, and Oregon. But it was a Saturday night in mid-November that changed everything.
When USC made the trip to Seattle to take on UW, there was a feeling that the team’s progress was about to be measured. The Huskies were undefeated, ranked number four, and in the driver’s seat for the College Football Playoff. None of this phased the Trojans. In fact, they seemed to relish it, and when the game began, they punched the Dawgs right in the snout. In a game that was a statement, USC’s defense made perhaps the strongest impression, holding Jake Browning and the Huskies to just 13 points. There was no doubt about it now. USC was back.
Another convincing victory a week later against UCLA in Pasadena left just one more test. Notre Dame...at home...to end the season. The Irish limped into town a struggling team, but with the stage set for a win against the Domers, it seemed like the perfect way to cap the turnaround. And indeed, it was.
There was a unique, memorable moment in the game against Notre Dame, when a rare southern California rainstorm arrived in force. As fans scrambled to put on their ponchos, Adoree Jackson waived his arms in the air, as if saying to the clouds, ‘bring it on.’ The crowd ate it up, and loved it even more when Adoree ran wild, catching a 52-yard TD pass, returning a punt 55 yards for another touchdown, and bringing back a kick-off for a dazzling 97-yard TD. It was this day, as the rain came down in sheets over the Coliseum, that USC football finally became fun again.
Playing in the Rose Bowl is always special. But Monday’s game against Penn State feels like something more, mostly because it was so unexpected. The Trojans are a team defined by their rise from the ashes. Clay Helton has made his mark with patience and calm, steering the ship through the storm (in two consecutive seasons), and never losing sight of the ultimate goal. After so many ups and downs, this Rose Bowl is the game we’ve been waiting for. It’s the ‘Grandaddy of Them All,’ and the Trojans are finally back where they belong.
Stay tuned to Conquest Chronicles for Part 2 of this Rose Bowl Preview