Despite the loss to Utah, there’s reason for optimism at USC

Kirby Lee/Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

That was a different USC team on the field Friday night in Salt Lake City.

That was a tough team. That was a well-coached team. That was a squad that was both scheme-disciplined and better at avoiding flags. That was a team that had a spark.

Ultimately, the result was a third loss in four games, thanks to a 15-play, 93-yard Utah drive that was capped with a touchdown and a 31-27 lead with 16 seconds remaining — a margin that would become the final score.

Normally, there’d be little shame in losing to Utah on the road on a Friday night in the rain — even for USC. Salt Lake City is one of the hardest places to play in college football.

USC normally doesn’t do moral victories, but considering how they started the season and how well they played Friday compared to those losses to Alabama and Stanford, that standard has to be broken.

Is first-year head coach Clay Helton the answer at USC? It’s hard to make a case for him, but it’s also hard to say that he is not after four games. What we do know is that USC is markedly better in Week 4 than it was in Weeks 1-3. And when you’re trying to get a program back to the top, it’s progression in the little things that matters first. After that comes the final score.

USC could have easily won Friday night’s game. This isn’t to say they handed it away, but when it takes two fourth-down conversions and Adoree’ Jackson, one of the best cornerbacks in the sport, "slipping" on Tim Patrick’s 18-yard touchdown catch for Utah to win, it’s hardly a decisive victory.

USC did plenty of things well Friday, starting with its quarterback play.

Freshman Sam Darnold was a revelation against Utah. It was downright comical how much better he was than Max Browne, the starter for the first three games. The USC offense developed pace and rhythm under first-time starter Darnold, and his ability to deliver the ball on-time (most of the time) and on-target gave the USC offense something it was missing in the first three weeks: competency.

Darnold’s made some clutch throws — his third-and-long strike to Tyler Petite while under pressure with under 9 minutes to play was the stuff of quarterback coaches’ dreams. Frankly, Darnold had USC in position to go up by a full touchdown or two scores late in the contest, but an ineligible man downfield call on a broken play a snap after that dreamy third-down throw wiped away 37 yards and ultimately led to USC punting the ball, leading to Utah’s 93-yard game-winning drive.

Make no mistake: Darnold was excellent Friday, finishing 18-for-26 for 253 yards with a rushing touchdown. His early-game fumble was the only unimpeachable blemish, but that wasn’t the reason USC lost the game.

Another reason for optimism at USC was the play of the Trojans’ once-vaunted offensive line, which showed up in earnest for the first time this season.

Utah has one of the best defensive lines in the nation and had not allowed a 100-yard rusher in more than two years. But USC dominated the line of scrimmage on offense and the Trojans ran for 213 yards on 33 carries, led by Justin Davis’ 126 yards.

That was the USC ground game we expected to see this season. And against that defense, there’s no way to interpret it as a fluke.

USC gained 466 yards, had an improved 7 penalties for 49 yards, and were in a position to win a game against a ranked opponent on the road. In a vacuum, that would be a strong performance — but USC operates amid a cacophony of noise.

It’s obvious now that the Trojans’ preseason expectations were misguided. USC is constantly in win-now mode, but the Trojans have proven to be a team in transition. The defense, specifically the front-seven, isn’t where it needs to be to compete for championships. Good teams win in the trenches. Great teams take that success and add stellar play outside the hashmarks. USC isn’t there.

Is Helton the man to build that championship team? That will be determined at the end of the season. A hellacious schedule — arguably the toughest in the nation — makes that a difficult assessment, but that’s the decision new athletic director Lynn Swann (who did not hire Helton) will have to make.

But wash all the politics and undeserved relevancy away, and you have a team that started the season a disastrous 1-2 and made a strong step towards competency Friday. No matter where the baseline was set, USC moved forward, even in a loss.

Only time will tell if that matters.