Oct 15, 2016; Tucson, AZ, USA; USC Trojans quarterback Sam Darnold (14) throws a pass against the Arizona Wildcats during the first half at Arizona Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
USC football went into Tucson and beat Arizona, 48-14 for their first win away from home in six tries. Here’s three things we learned from the win.
The Trojans hadn’t won on the road since last November against Colorado. And even then, the victory over the Buffaloes was a three-point margin.
This time around, USC didn’t mess around with the Wildcats, who were soundly handled in a contest featuring a rolling Trojan offense and a hard-playing defense.
The 34-point win was USC’s largest margin of victory on the road since 2013.
Here’s what we learned vs Arizona…
Darnold’s Mobility Is Real
Positive feelings about the quarterback were fairly universal after Sam Darnold’s first three starts, but there were still some perplexed by the mobile quarterback tag.
As impressive as he looked throwing the ball, Darnold’s legs weren’t on display during cameos in the first three games of the season. When he took over as starter, he certainly ran more than Max Browne, but wasn’t gashing defenses the way Trojan fans had grown used to seeing opposing quarterbacks of the dual-threat variety do to USC.
That changed against Arizona, when his legs were arguably the most effective part of Darnold’s game.
The quarterback ran for 54 yards on six carries — five of those converted Trojan first downs.
Darnold’s ability to scramble was exactly the kind of improvisation which frustrated even the stoutest of USC defenses over the years. It was the difference for the Trojans, extending drives in the first half long enough for the quarterback to hurt the defense in the more traditional way. He did, after all, throw five touchdown passes on the day.
Oct 15, 2016; Tucson, AZ, USA; USC Trojans running back Ronald Jones II (25) runs with the ball against the Arizona Wildcats during the first half at Arizona Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
USC Can Survive Without Justin Davis
Arizona didn’t have the most outstanding rush defense in the Pac-12 going into the USC game, but the Trojans were without primary rusher Justin Davis in Tucson, so the match up seemed more of a concern.
Could the men of Troy successfully move the ball on the ground without Davis, by far the most effective running back in the stable this season?
As it turns out, yes — 320 yards worth of yes.
Granted, there is an important caveat to that season-best rushing total, as USC had 123 yards rushing at half time, gaining almost 200 yards on the ground in second half garbage time. And 85 of those yards came on one Dominic Davis carry.
It’s not the yardage total that should assuage fears about whether USC can keep a balanced offense should Davis’ ankle injury keep him out too many more weeks.
It’s the first half efficiency of Ronald Jones II and Aca’Cedric Ware, who averaged 4.8 yards per carry in the only half of football against Arizona that really mattered. It’s the fact that Zach Banner ended up on Pro Football Focus’ Pac-12 Team of the Week in his return to action and the increasing effectiveness of the offensive line as a whole in the last few weeks.
Oct 15, 2016; Tucson, AZ, USA; USC Trojans wide receiver Steven Mitchell Jr. makes a catch against Arizona Wildcats safety Jarvis McCall Jr. (29) during the first half at Arizona Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
Injury Concerns Could Be Worse
USC enjoyed their third straight victory on Saturday, but it didn’t come without a cost.
Receiver Steven Mitchell went down with a non-contact injury, now confirmed as an ACL tear. It will keep him out for the season.
That leaves sophomore Deontay Burnett to pick up the slack in the slot, while Jalen Greene will move inside to add depth to the position. The Trojans could also utilize running back Dominic Davis or cornerback Ajene Harris in that position, if needed.
USC also had a scare with JuJu Smith-Schuster, crumpled on the sidelines after taking a helmet to the back in the third quarter. The injury was a simple back spasm which shouldn’t keep Smith-Schuster out beyond the bye week.
Still, it sparked a debate about the wisdom of such an important player even being in the game in the third quarter with such a wide margin between the two teams.
All that said, the list of injured Trojans at the moment is relatively short, with minor scrapes and bruises comprising the majority of USC’s injury concerns.
Entering such a pivotal part of the season, that’s something to be grateful for.