While the undefeated Washington Huskies (6-0, 3-0) have all but locked up the Pac-12 North Division, the South Division remains up for grabs. Conventional wisdom says that either Colorado (4-2, 2-1); Utah (5-1, 2-1); or Arizona State (5-1, 2-1) will end the season at the top of the south, but if you’re looking for a dark horse to pull an upset, don’t count out USC. The Trojans (3-3, 2-2) have already beaten the Buffaloes and Sun Devils and their loss to Utah came on a touchdown pass with 16 seconds left in the game.
On paper, the Trojans would appear to have the easiest remaining schedule, with their toughest game being a road tilt at Washington, but based on their mentality, the opponent won’t change the way they approach and play the game. With USC looking at every remaining game as a championship game that will end their season if they lose, the mindset it right, but the play on the field must back it up.
If the Trojans are going to do that, it starts with senior running back Justin Davis. Despite a slow start to the season where he averaged just 3.6 yards per carry, since USC made a change at QB, Davis has been a big benefactor, as USC has been featuring more read-option looks, keeping defenses guessing and opening big running lanes for Davis. In the Trojans loss to Utah, he ran for 126 yards on just 10 carries. The following week in their win over Arizona State, he racked up another 123 yards, followed by a 92-yard performance in their win over Colorado.
Unfortunately for the Trojans, Davis was carted off the field during their win over the Buffaloes and has been diagnosed with a high-ankle sprain, causing doubts about his availability going forward. As of now, he is expected to miss multiple games. If Davis misses significant time, sophomore Ronald Jones, II is expected to get the bulk of the work at running back. He rushed for 56 yards on 10 carries after Davis was injured and despite his slow start to the season, he feels that getting more carries will help him find his rhythm and pick up the slack while Davis is out.
Regardless of who is in the backfield, if USC is going to keep their winning streak going and challenge for the Pac-12 South, their hopes will rest on the shoulders of freshman quarterback Sam Darnold, who replaced an ineffective Max Browne after USC lost to Stanford and fell to 1-2 on the year. Along with the athletic ability to be a threat in the read-option, Darnold brings a no-fear attitude to the huddle and his play has rubbed off on his teammates. While there will still be growing pains with Darnold (such as throwing for 358 yards in the win over Colorado, but also throwing an interception and losing two fumbles, one through the end zone for a touchback while he was lunging for a score) his overall poise and ability are allowing the Trojans to run a hybrid spread, power, read-option offense that keeps defenses on their heels and USC players in the end zone.
If Darnold keeps playing well and the Trojans can overcome the loss of Davis, the only thing standing in their way of the Pac-12 South could be turnovers. Despite beating Colorado, they lost the turnover battle 3-1 and in their last second lost to Utah, they lost it 4-1. This must be corrected for them to truly threaten in the division.