USC begins spring practice and search to replace Sam Darnold

LOS ANGELES — Matt Fink lined up in a shotgun formation behind center Brett Neilon, then handed off to receiver Velus Jones on an end-around.

It was a quick play that commenced a walk-through period of USC’s first spring football practice Tuesday afternoon.

The sequence also unofficially kicked off an offseason quarterback competition.

Sam Darnold is no longer behind center for the Trojans after forgoing his final two seasons of eligibility to enter the NFL draft, a departure that leaves the most visible void on the roster. Darnold, considered one of the most talented quarterbacks in program history, set a school record for passing yards last season and is expected to be a high first-round pick in April.

Fink, a redshirt sophomore, and Jack Sears, a redshirt freshman, were left to get the first crack at replacing Darnold. The passers are set to split repetitions over 15 spring workouts, with Fink starting with the first-team offense Tuesday.

Coach Clay Helton said the Trojans will not, though, name a starting quarterback during spring practice.

“At all positions,” Helton said, “it’s an education period in our year, it’s not an evaluation.”

Leaving the competition unsettled until training camp will also allow JT Daniels to enter the mix. Daniels, a touted Mater Dei High passer who was named the Gatorade national player of the year, will enroll for the fall semester after graduating high school a year early.

So a decision on a starter isn’t likely to be reached until much closer to the Sept. 1 season opener against UNLV.

“I’ve always said the man who’s playing the best by the time we get to game one is going to go out there,” Helton said. “The best man’s gotta play in that moment.”

Fink is the only one of the three quarterbacks who has appeared in a college game. He saw action three times last season in mop-up duty as the backup to Darnold.

Asked if he felt the starting job was his position to hold on to, Fink said: “I’m just gonna keep doing what I’m doing and competing as hard as I can.”

Helton said no one had an edge in the competition.

Sears has taken over for Darnold in the past. He was Darnold’s successor at San Clemente High, where he led the Tritons to a CIF State Division 1-A football championship as a senior in 2016 and left as a four-star recruit. He redshirted last season.

“Learning from Sam, I learned how to be a pro,” Sears said. “How to handle your business on and off the field.”

While Daniels is viewed as a more traditional pocket passer, Fink and Sears are considered more mobile quarterbacks. Late in a victory last season against Oregon State, Fink ran for a 51-yard touchdown.

“What the offense is going to revolve around if they’re playing quarterback is that they can run the ball,” tight end Tyler Petite said, “and that’s something that’s their strong suit. Not that they can’t throw the ball.”

The last time Darnold was not USC’s full-time starting quarterback was when most of the current players were underclassmen or still in high school, making for a different atmosphere at Howard Jones-Brian Kennedy Field.

“It’s a little weird for sure,” Petite said.

During a players-only throwing session earlier this winter, Jake Russell approached Petite with a question.

“Is it kind of different out here?” asked Russell, a walk-on receiver who was among Darnold’s roommates last year.

“At first I said no,” Petite said, “but then I looked at all the guys who were out there.”

There were more new faces, and younger ones, Petite realized.

While Darnold departed early for the NFL, so did running back Ronald Jones, who left as the school’s fifth all-time leading rusher, and leading receiver Deontay Burnett.

Quarterback is the first of several positions on offense to sort out.

“One of the things I see with this football team is a great amount of depth,” Helton said. “It may not have a true superstar right now, but it has some pretty talented individuals.”

QUICK HITS

Cornerback Jack Jones will miss spring practice to focus on academics, Helton said, and is suspended for the season opener because of an unspecified team rules violation. … Tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe will be held out of spring practice to heal the hip flexor strain that limited him throughout last season. Defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu, who is recovering from back surgery, is also out for spring practice. … Offensive tackle/center Toa Lobendahn will miss the first week of spring practice because of knee soreness. … Safety Jamel Cook will miss spring camp and plans to transfer, Helton said. … Helton confirmed reserve offensive linemen Cole Smith and Nathan Smith have medically retired. … Former USC receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, currently with the Pittsburgh Steelers, was at practice Tuesday and caught passes from the quarterbacks while they warmed up. … The Trojans return to practice Thursday.

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Wolf: USC-UCLA week opens without war of words

BOULDER, CO - NOVEMBER 11: USC Trojans quarterback Sam Darnold #14 eludes Colorado Buffaloes defensive back Evan Worthington #6 for a first down in the third quarter at Folsom Field November 11, 2017. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)
BOULDER, CO – NOVEMBER 11: USC Trojans quarterback Sam Darnold #14 eludes Colorado Buffaloes defensive back Evan Worthington #6 for a first down in the third quarter at Folsom Field November 11, 2017. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

LOS ANGELES – This is the time of week when the Crosstown Rivalry is supposed to feature USC and UCLA trading barbs with each other.

Remember UCLA wide receiver Shaq Evans?

“This year, we’re going to try to embarrass them, honestly,” he said. “They’re struggling, it’s just awesome to see that. I hate them. So I’m just loving it. I’ve always hated them.”

Or when USC fullback Brandon Hancock said, “”All bets are off against those pansies over there.”

But this week got off to a genteel start. USC quarterback Sam Darnold talked about how he is friends with UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen.

“I know him pretty well,” Darnold said. “Josh is a great guy. We talk every now and then about the games we had on the weekend.”

The pair could be linked for the next 10-15 years if they become high-profile NFL quarterbacks.

“That’s pretty deep,” Darnold said. “If that happens to be the case, that would be sweet.”

But Darnold also mentioned that he likes former UCLA quarterback Mike Fafaul, who filled in for Rosen.

“I shook hands with him after the game and got to know him, and it started a relationship,” Darnold said.

So, no animosity or trash talk yet. Maybe USC wide receiver Michael Pittman is a better bet. He is close friends with UCLA wide receiver Theo Howard and Darnay Holmes. He is also friends with UCLA wide receiver Jordan Lasley.

This would seem a perfect situation for some quality banter.

“We’re all friends, but not at the Coliseum,” Pittman said.

That’s a good start, but only if he keeps going and builds some animosity toward the Bruins.

“We’ll talk before the game and after the game,” Pittman said.

Talk or trash talk?

“We’re friends,” Pittman said.

So no repeat of Evans’ trash talk here, apparently.

But Pittman also originally committed to UCLA, so maybe he has some lingering anger toward the Bruins.

“They have some good coaches and a good quarterback,” Pittman said. “I just thought it would be best to come here.”

OK, so nothing really to build on there either.

A good candidate to deliver a rant on UCLA might be USC cornerback Jack Jones, but he was busy doing pushups as he walked the field with a strength coach, perhaps as punishment for getting yet another unsportsmanlike conduct penalty last week.

Why is this year’s rivalry so polite? Perhaps the Trojans are emulating their coach, Clay Helton, who always seems to have a kind word for everyone. On Tuesday, Helton said he watched the film of Rosen against Arizona State, and Rosen was “magnificent.”

Helton didn’t say what thought of UCLA’s defense.

Or maybe USC is not too worried about 5-5 UCLA. And UCLA doesn’t want to rile 9-2 USC.

Darnold was asked if he preferred a blowout or a thrilling win for ages on Saturday?

“A win would be nice in whatever fashion,” he said.

This could be Darnold’s last game at the Coliseum if he turns pro. But he’s so steady, there won’t even be the pregame tears in the locker room and shaky start Matt Leinart experienced in his final home game, which happened to be against UCLA.

Darnold didn’t even realize until after the Colorado game that it was his first without a turnover since the Notre Dame game in 2016, a span of 12 games.

“That really surprised me,” Darnold said. “I thought I’d had some better games.”

So no war of words or verbal jousting yet. But it’s the middle of the week. So there remains a slim hope, like USC’s College Football Playoff chances.

 

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Wolf: USC makes Arizona game too close for comfort

By SCOTT WOLF swolf@scng.com | Daily News

LOS ANGELES – The question whether USC is one of the nation’s better teams remains open for debate 10 games into the season, which means the Trojans are not, especially based on Saturday night.

Good teams put games away when they have the chance. USC had many chances to put Arizona away at the Coliseum. Instead, the Trojans did their usual two-steps-forward, one-step backwards routine to give the Wildcats every opportunity to make it a suspenseful contest.

“I think that we like close games,” USC wide receiver Michael Pittman said. “We like to make it a thriller. I don’t know why it happens but it does.”

It doesn’t matter that USC defeated Arizona, 49-35. The Trojans are simply not a team to be feared and never were this season. USC committed 14 penalties Saturday night for 123 yards. To do that in Game 10 is a sign of a poorly coached team.

So is messing around in a nail-biter with Arizona. USC (8-2, 6-1) is going to win the Pac-12 South but it never inspired confidence with its fan base, which largely did not show up at the Coliseum for Homecoming despite an announced crowd of 70,225.

Why would they? USC’s played perhaps one complete game all season despite its array of stars and the continued insistence by Coach Clay Helton that players are improving.

Despite numerous opportunities to put Arizona away, the game was tied, 35-35, with 8:23 remaining. But quarterback Sam Darnold and tailback Ronald Jones delivered in the clutch to rescue the Trojans and Helton again.

Overwhelming talent prevailed against the team picked to finish last in the Pac-12 South. USC blew a 22-pointl lead (28-6) but won anyways.

“When you’re up like that, the natural thing to do is feel relaxed,” tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe said. “You don’t want to be the team that blows the lead.”

How did the Trojans hurt themselves most? The head-scratching moment of the night was why USC decided to throw a pass on second-and-goal at the 1-yard line? Darnold rolled out and underthrew a pass that was easily intercepted.

“That’s one of the worst mistakes of my football career,” Darnold said.

Prior to that play, the running game worked masterfully. So why USC is even in a shotgun and then passing a yard from the goal line are natural questions. Not that it matters against Arizona. But what about when USC plays a good team?

And if you foolishly think the Pac-12 can compare to the SEC, ask yourself this question: Would USC go for it on fourth down at its own 42 against LSU? The Tigers’ record and ranking were about the same as Arizona entering Saturday’s games.

Safe to say Helton would not want to even test LSU’s defensive line in that situation. But this is life in the Pac-12 South.

For USC to be an elite team, it needs discipline. The Trojans had two sideline warnings in the first 22 minutes of the game. In the second half, cornerbacks Jack Jones and Ajene Harris got an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the same play.

Jones followed up by running offsides on the next play. His punishment for two straight penalties was to come off the field . . . for one play.

Perhaps it is fitting former All-American safety Troy Polamalu was at Saturday night’s game. Polamalu is so humble he declined an invitation to lead the Trojans out of the tunnel against Arizona because he wanted the focus to be on the team.

Then again, Helton got an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty too so maybe the players are just following his lead.

“The refs don’t like us,” Pittman said. “I felt like there were a lot of false calls.”

At least the bowl situation is clearing up. USC looks headed to the Fiesta, Cotton or Alamo bowls depending on whether the Trojans can win the Pac-12 championship game. The Pac-12 champion does not go to the Rose Bowl this season because the game serves as a College Football Playoff semifinal contest.

All of those bowls are before New Year’s Day so the Trojans’ season appears as though it will end before Jan. 1. Did anyone expect that before the season?

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After historic loss to Notre Dame, USC bounces back with commanding win at Arizona State

TEMPE, Ariz. — The turnovers, floundering rushing attack and overmatched defense were afterthoughts for USC on Saturday night.

It faced few problems at Arizona State.

The Trojans, who looked woeful a week earlier in their second-worst loss ever to longtime rival Notre Dame, a thumping that also dashed their hopes of a College Football Playoff appearance, put together a dominant performance in a 48-17 victory over the Sun Devils.

“It’s a big confidence builder for our team,” center Nico Falah said. “It’s a feel-good win.”

  • Southern California defensive backs Marvell Tell III (7), Jalen Greene (10) and Jack Jones try to knock down a pass in the end zone intended for Arizona State receiver Harry N’Keal, center, during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. Arizona State’s Kyle Williams (10) came up with the catch for a touchdown to end the half. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

    Southern California defensive backs Marvell Tell III (7), Jalen Greene (10) and Jack Jones try to knock down a pass in the end zone intended for Arizona State receiver Harry N’Keal, center, during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. Arizona State’s Kyle Williams (10) came up with the catch for a touchdown to end the half. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

  • Southern California quarterback Sam Darnold throws the ball prior to an NCAA college football game against Arizona State, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

    Southern California quarterback Sam Darnold throws the ball prior to an NCAA college football game against Arizona State, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

  • Southern California head coach Clay Helton fires up his players prior to an NCAA college football game against Arizona State, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

    Southern California head coach Clay Helton fires up his players prior to an NCAA college football game against Arizona State, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

  • Southern California wide receiver Deontay Burnett (80) catches a touchdown pass as Arizona State defensive back Chase Lucas (24) defends during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

    Southern California wide receiver Deontay Burnett (80) catches a touchdown pass as Arizona State defensive back Chase Lucas (24) defends during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

  • Southern California wide receiver Tyler Vaughns (21) eludes the tackle of Arizona State defensive back Kobe Williams on a touchdown catch and run during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

    Southern California wide receiver Tyler Vaughns (21) eludes the tackle of Arizona State defensive back Kobe Williams on a touchdown catch and run during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

  • Southern California wide receiver Tyler Vaughns (21) runs to end zone ahead of Arizona State linebacker D.J. Calhoun on a touchdown catch and run during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

    Southern California wide receiver Tyler Vaughns (21) runs to end zone ahead of Arizona State linebacker D.J. Calhoun on a touchdown catch and run during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

  • Arizona State quarterback Manny Wilkins (5) throws a pass as he is pressured by Southern California defensive lineman Rasheem Green (94) during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

    Arizona State quarterback Manny Wilkins (5) throws a pass as he is pressured by Southern California defensive lineman Rasheem Green (94) during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

  • Arizona State quarterback Manny Wilkins (5) is sacked by Southern California defensive lineman Rasheem Green (94) during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

    Arizona State quarterback Manny Wilkins (5) is sacked by Southern California defensive lineman Rasheem Green (94) during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

  • Southern California quarterback Sam Darnold (14) throws a touchdown pass to wide receiver Tyler Vaughns during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Arizona State, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

    Southern California quarterback Sam Darnold (14) throws a touchdown pass to wide receiver Tyler Vaughns during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Arizona State, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

  • Southern California running back Ronald Jones II runs the ball as Arizona State’s Jay Jay Wilson closes in to make the tackle during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

    Southern California running back Ronald Jones II runs the ball as Arizona State’s Jay Jay Wilson closes in to make the tackle during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

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No. 21 USC never trailed and moved ahead by as many as 28 points in the first half over resurgent Arizona State. Many of the fans in the announced crowd of 53,446 at Sun Devil Stadium started to head for the exits at halftime.

“You never want that lingering mentality coming off a loss,” USC coach Clay Helton said. “Usually, the better teams clear it out. That’s what these kids did tonight. They had their jaws set and played some of their best football of the season.”

They did an about-face.

At Notre Dame, USC’s often-uneven offense was held scoreless in a first half for the first time in seven seasons.

At Arizona State, it scored 31 points over the first two quarters and amassed almost 400 yards, a total which at that point had eclipsed its offensive production in three previous games this season, at Cal, at Washington State, at Notre Dame, when the unit had failed to muster much more than 300 yards.

The Trojans (7-2, 5-2 in the Pac-12) took an early lead in the important Pac-12 South Division contest after they found the end zone on their opening drive, when quarterback Sam Darnold hit receiver Deontay Burnett for a 32-yard touchdown, the first of three scoring tosses.

Darnold completed 19 of 35 passes for 266 yards. Although he fumbled on a sack on a fourth down in the second quarter, the heralded passer did not throw an interception for only the second time this season. It was the only turnover of the game, the first time this season that the Trojans did not have at least two.

The showing by the offense came against an Arizona State defense that had undergone a mid-season revival under first-year under coordinator Phil Bennett. As the Sun Devils (4-4, 3-2) had posted consecutive upsets of No. 12 Washington and Utah the previous two weeks, they had held each of the teams to a touchdown apiece. Within the first quarter, USC had scored two.

Running back Ronald Jones was a scoring threat, adding 216 rushing yards on 18 carries, an average of 12 yards per attempt.

“Whenever we have the run game going, whenever we can do that, it helps me out a lot,” Darnold said. “It leaves some pressure and some holes in the secondary.”

USC, which was held to minus-4 rushing yards in the first half against the Fighting Irish, totaled 341 at Arizona State.

Jones reached the end zone on runs of 64 yards and 67 yards.

As he broke through the line of scrimmage on both runs and outran defenders along the sideline, Jones credited the offensive line for springing him loose. Then, Jones said, “it comes out to a race.”

After his 67-yard touchdown run in the third quarter gave the Trojans a 21-point lead, USC’s players celebrated in the end zone in front of the Arizona State student section. As they retreated back to their sideline, Chuma Edoga, the right tackle, waved at the fans as if to say goodbye.

“They whooped our butts,” Arizona State coach Todd Graham said. “They out-coached us and outplayed us and they deserve the credit.”

The Trojans finished with 607 yards of total offense and kept Arizona State to 357 total yards, including 79 yards on the ground. Their defense brought back nose tackle Josh Fatu, who was out last Saturday because of a concussion, and outside linebacker Porter Gustin, who had missed five straight games with toe and biceps injuries.

Last week, they gave up 377 rushing yards to Notre Dame, their worst effort ever since Helton had been named interim coach midway through 2015.

“We were just playing fast and physical,” defensive end Rasheem Green said. “That was the key.”

USC had six sacks, including three by outside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu.

It did not allow a touchdown by the Sun Devils until a bizarre sequence prior to halftime. On the final play of the second quarter, Arizona State quarterback Manny Wilkins’ pass to Kyle Williams was ruled down just short of the end zone, and the teams

The teams were allowed to leave the field and enter the locker rooms while a replay review followed. After at least five minutes, the play was overturned and ruled a touchdown. Williams, it was determined, had caught the ball in the end zone before falling out to the 1-yard line. USC players said an official entered their locker room and asked them to return for a PAT.

“I thought it was a prank or something at first,” Green said.

“It was super confusing,” receiver Michael Pittman said, “because we got in the locker room and we were getting hyped. And then everyone was like hold up, we got to go back out. And then we just went back out.”

With the touchdown, USC’s halftime lead was 31-10 instead of 31-3.

 

 

As USC’s players walked out of the locker room outside Sun Devil Stadium, just before midnight Saturday, they reveled in their performance, a turnaround and contrasting effort from their previous week against the Fighting Irish.

“You guys asked what we fixed and you saw it,” linebacker Cameron Smith said.

The rout of the Sun Devils set up a critical Pac-12 South contest with Arizona next week at the Coliseum, with the winner to take a critical step in the division race. The Wildcats (6-2, 4-1), led by dual-threat quarterback Khalil Tate, have won four straight games and trail the Trojans by a half-game in the division standings.

“I praise this team, because we never stopped fighting,” Helton said. “We knew we had a lot to play for. We’re sitting here in the first place and control our own destiny. We knew that this was the next step.”

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After historic loss at Notre Dame, USC bounces back with commanding win at Arizona State

TEMPE, Ariz. — The turnovers, floundering rushing attack and overmatched defense were afterthoughts for USC on Saturday night.

It faced few problems at Arizona State.

The Trojans, who looked woeful a week earlier in their second-worst loss ever to longtime rival Notre Dame, a defeat that also dashed their hopes of a College Football Playoff appearance, put together a dominant performance in a 48-17 victory over the Sun Devils.

No. 21 USC never trailed and moved ahead by as many as 28 points in the first half over resurgent Arizona State. Many of the fans in the announced crowd of 53,446 at Sun Devil Stadium started to head for the exits at halftime.

  • Southern California defensive backs Marvell Tell III (7), Jalen Greene (10) and Jack Jones try to knock down a pass in the end zone intended for Arizona State receiver Harry N’Keal, center, during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. Arizona State’s Kyle Williams (10) came up with the catch for a touchdown to end the half. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

    Southern California defensive backs Marvell Tell III (7), Jalen Greene (10) and Jack Jones try to knock down a pass in the end zone intended for Arizona State receiver Harry N’Keal, center, during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. Arizona State’s Kyle Williams (10) came up with the catch for a touchdown to end the half. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

  • Southern California quarterback Sam Darnold throws the ball prior to an NCAA college football game against Arizona State, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

    Southern California quarterback Sam Darnold throws the ball prior to an NCAA college football game against Arizona State, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

  • Southern California head coach Clay Helton fires up his players prior to an NCAA college football game against Arizona State, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

    Southern California head coach Clay Helton fires up his players prior to an NCAA college football game against Arizona State, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

  • Southern California wide receiver Deontay Burnett (80) catches a touchdown pass as Arizona State defensive back Chase Lucas (24) defends during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

    Southern California wide receiver Deontay Burnett (80) catches a touchdown pass as Arizona State defensive back Chase Lucas (24) defends during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

  • Southern California wide receiver Tyler Vaughns (21) eludes the tackle of Arizona State defensive back Kobe Williams on a touchdown catch and run during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

    Southern California wide receiver Tyler Vaughns (21) eludes the tackle of Arizona State defensive back Kobe Williams on a touchdown catch and run during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

  • Southern California wide receiver Tyler Vaughns (21) runs to end zone ahead of Arizona State linebacker D.J. Calhoun on a touchdown catch and run during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

    Southern California wide receiver Tyler Vaughns (21) runs to end zone ahead of Arizona State linebacker D.J. Calhoun on a touchdown catch and run during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

  • Arizona State quarterback Manny Wilkins (5) throws a pass as he is pressured by Southern California defensive lineman Rasheem Green (94) during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

    Arizona State quarterback Manny Wilkins (5) throws a pass as he is pressured by Southern California defensive lineman Rasheem Green (94) during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

  • Arizona State quarterback Manny Wilkins (5) is sacked by Southern California defensive lineman Rasheem Green (94) during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

    Arizona State quarterback Manny Wilkins (5) is sacked by Southern California defensive lineman Rasheem Green (94) during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

  • Southern California quarterback Sam Darnold (14) throws a touchdown pass to wide receiver Tyler Vaughns during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Arizona State, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

    Southern California quarterback Sam Darnold (14) throws a touchdown pass to wide receiver Tyler Vaughns during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Arizona State, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

  • Southern California running back Ronald Jones II runs the ball as Arizona State’s Jay Jay Wilson closes in to make the tackle during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

    Southern California running back Ronald Jones II runs the ball as Arizona State’s Jay Jay Wilson closes in to make the tackle during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

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The seven-day turnaround appeared dramatic and immediate.

At Notre Dame, USC’s often-uneven offense was held scoreless in a first half for the first time in seven seasons.

At Arizona State, it scored 31 points over the first two quarters and amassed almost 400 yards, a total that at that point eclipsed its offensive production in three previous games this season, at Cal, at Washington State, at Notre Dame, when the unit had failed to muster much more than 300 yards.

The Trojans (7-2, 5-2 in the Pac-12) took an early lead in the important Pac-12 South Division contest after they found the end zone on their opening drive, when quarterback Sam Darnold hit receiver Deontay Burnett for a 32-yard touchdown, the first of three scoring tosses.

Darnold completed 19 of 35 passes for 266 yards. Although he fumbled on a sack on a fourth down in the second quarter, the heralded passer did not throw an interception for only the second time this season.

The showing by the offense came against an Arizona State defense that had undergone a mid-season revival under first-year under coordinator Phil Bennett. As the Sun Devils (4-4, 3-2) had posted consecutive upsets of No. 12 Washington and Utah the previous two weeks, they had held each of the teams to a touchdown apiece. Within the first quarter, USC had scored two.

Running back Ronald Jones was a scoring threat, adding 216 rushing yards on 18 carries, an average of 12 yards per attempt.

USC, which was held to minus-4 rushing yards in the first half against the Fighting Irish, totaled 341 at Arizona State.

Jones reached the end zone on runs of 64 yards and 67 yards. His 67-yard touchdown run in the third quarter gave USC a 21-point lead.

USC’s players celebrated in the end zone in front of the Arizona State student section. As they retreated back to their sideline, Chuma Edoga, the right tackle, waved at one fan.

The Trojans finished with a season-best 607 yards of total offense and kept the Sun Devils to 357 rushing yards, including 79 yards on the ground.

Last week, they gave up 377 rushing yards to Notre Dame, their worst effort ever under Coach Clay Helton.

The win set up a critical Pac-12 South contest with Arizona next week, the winner to take a critical step in the division race. The Wildcats, led by dual-threat quarterback Khalil Tate, have won four straight games.

Arizona is 6-2 overall and 4-1 in the conference.

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How has USC quarterback Sam Darnold performed in season’s first month? Three analysts weigh in

LOS ANGELES — In August, Sam Darnold was the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy.

Darnold, USC’s redshirt sophomore passer, had ended the previous season with a historic effort in the Rose Bowl and entered this fall as the face of a team considered among the top contenders to make the College Football Playoff.

Through September, Darnold has been challenged to meet the lofty expectations, inviting a statistical comparison between his two seasons as a college starter.

Glance at a couple prominent measurements.

Last season, he ranked ninth in the nation in pass efficiency. Through five weeks of this season, he sat No. 56 in the Football Bowl Subdivision, his rating dipping more than 22 points.

Over 366 pass attempts in 2016, Darnold was picked off only nine times. Of his 175 attempts in 2017, eight of those have been intercepted.

USC coach Clay Helton has often defended his star quarterback when asked if Darnold’s performance had sagged, citing his overall record as the team’s starter. Until last Friday, the Trojans were on a 13-game winning streak with Darnold behind center, their longest since the height of the Pete Carroll era.

Is it a fair assessment? The Southern California News Group this week spoke with three quarterback analysts to further evaluate Darnold’s opening month. The trio included former UCLA quarterback and coach Rick Neuheisel, currently a CBS Sports analyst; former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer, who had been with ESPN until earlier this year; and former USC assistant Yogi Roth, a Pac-12 Networks analyst.

The experts remained in agreement, maintaining they had not seen a drop-off. Rather, they believed Darnold’s numbers have been adversely impacted by several factors.

Neuheisel thought USC’s banged-up offensive line and uneven running game have put more pressure on Darnold.

In their 30-27 loss at Washington State, the Trojans were without three starters on the offensive line, with right guard Viane Talamaivao and right tackle Chuma Edoga exiting in the first loss, and the running backs averaged less than three yards per carry, excluding an 86-yard run by Ronald Jones.

“It is a complete utter failure by the power portion of the offense,” Neuheisel said.

With little threat of a rushing attack, USC’s potential for play-action passes has dropped, Neuheisel added, and with little protection from the offensive line, which included a pair of true freshmen playing in the second half, Darnold had little time in the pocket to set his feet to deliver accurate throws.

He finished with career lows for completion percentage (51.7), passing yards (164) and passer rating (93.32) as a starter against the Cougars. He threw his eighth interception of the season in the second quarter.

Last week, when Darnold was asked about his rising interception tally, he said he was too impatient or was trying to force throws.

But Neuheisel contended that was simply because he was often pressured.

“It’s hard to play quarterback when your protection is iffy at best,” he said.

The Trojans lost three starters on the offensive line from last season, including both offensive tackles.

“The guy still has magic to me,” Neuheisel said, “and hopefully it can be rekindled as soon as they can put together an offensive line that can do their fair share of the work.”

Dilfer, who has worked with Darnold at the annual Elite 11 summer quarterback camp, spotted some areas for improvement, while emphasizing he was still a young, developing passer in his first full season as a college starter.

The NFL veteran believes Darnold can be better on some of his deep passes, particularly those that land outside the hashmarks.

According to Pro Football Focus, on throws of at least 20 yards that are outside the hashmarks, he has completed 3 of 18 passes (17 percent) for 81 yards, with a touchdown and three interceptions this season. CFB Film Room found Darnold completed 32 percent of his passes that traveled at least 15 yards downfield.

Also, the 20-year-old passer sometimes has made “some knucklehead throws,” Dilfer said, but often some gambles just have not paid off.

Darnold, referred to as a gunslinger by some evaluators, takes chances.

“His DNA is to make big-boy throws,” Dilfer said. “And (offensive coordinator) Tee (Martin) calls a lot of big-boy throws. They are an aggressive, big-boy passing team. And that’s how Sam plays. Well, when you play big-boy passing games, you’re going to have more throws that are going to kind of make your stomach hurl, because the ball’s in the air longer. They’re higher risk throws. So to say he’s careless? No. He’s aggressive. And his offense is aggressive. When you have that mentality, you open yourself up for a little more negative play opportunity.”

Roth, who also co-hosts a weekly podcast with Darnold, agreed.

“He completes a lot more throws than a lot of guys would attempt,” Roth said. “And some of those throws aren’t being completed this year.”

Both Dilfer and Roth felt some of the higher-risk throws have been more difficult to make with a younger group of wide receivers.

To complete those throws, Dilfer said, “you need to understand receivers’ body language.”

Darnold lost his top two targets from last season, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers. A majority of USC’s receivers on scholarship are freshmen.

“They’re ceilings are really high,” Roth said. “They’re just not hitting ‘em yet.”

As Darnold’s start to the season has drawn more scrutiny from observers, Neuheisel circled back to the Trojans’ final drive in the waning seconds of regulation against Texas, when Darnold completed three passes to position them for a game-tying field goal.

“Just go look at that 45 seconds and tell me something is wrong with him,” Neuheisel said. “There’s nothing wrong with him.”

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