USC started 1-3 last year before winning its final nine games, including a 52-49 Rose Bowl thriller over Penn State.
USC head coach Clay Helton knew exactly when his team turned the corner, too.
“It was walking off the field at Utah,” Helton said on CBS Sports Radio’s Tiki and Tierney, referencing the 31-27 loss last September. “We had lost a game in the last 16 seconds in a hostile atmosphere. I watched how our freshman quarterback played, I watched dhow our kids competed, and I asked myself, ‘Did we improve from Alabama (to) Stanford, Stanford to Utah?’ And the answer was yes.”
USC opened 2016 in the worst way possible, losing to Alabama, 52-6. The Trojans then beat Utah State at home but lost at Stanford and at Utah during a brutal six-day stretch.
At 1-3, the season was lost. But the Trojans started winning – and haven’t stopped.
“I know that we’re in a world today that wants instant results,” Helton said, “but what I was looking at was a team that was getting better each and every week and had a quarterback that all of a sudden everybody believed in, everybody really rallied behind and really compete for. “As sad as I was for our kids walking off that field (at Utah), I literally in my heart was smiling. I said, ‘Wow, if this team continues to do what they’re doing, they’re going to look up in November and be really happy. They’re going to be a good football team.’”
Helton was right. USC went 3-0 against ranked teams the rest of the way, even winning at Washington. Sam Darnold finished the season with 3,000+ passing yards and 33 touchdowns (31 pass, two rush)
“He just has ultimate poise,” Helton said. “Whether things are going good, bad, adverse – when the lights shine the brightest, he just does his job. And he’s one of those kids – he truly believes in the team’s success over his own individual success. That’s a rare quality nowadays. It’s something that I appreciate as a coach, to have a kid that says, ‘I want to help our team win championships. Whatever I need to do to help the team, you tell me. I’m going to do it.’ I’m so appreciative of that kid because I’ve never been around one that humble with that much humility, that he always feels like he could do a better job when he steps off the field and (always asks) what can he do for his fellow brother and fellow teammate.”
USC ended last season ranked third in America and enters this season ranked fourth. Darnold, by the way, is a preseason All-American.
There’s nothing wrong with expectations, Helton explained, but players and coaches have to rise to the occasion – and soon.
“Last season, everybody was talking about us at the end of the year, (saying), ‘Oh yeah, you’re probably one of the best four teams. Maybe you were a playoff team,’” Helton said. “Well, the reality is we were a three-loss team, and that’s not going to get you into the playoffs. What we learned as a team and as a football family is every dang game counts. From Game 1 on, you’re building a resume, and you better treat every game like it’s a playoff game, like it’s a championship game – because it does matter and it is going to be looked at. No matter how strong you are in October and November, September is just as valuable. We’ve got to start fast against three, what I think, are really good teams in Western Michigan, Stanford and Texas and play our best football and put our best foot forward.”
All three of those games are at Memorial Coliseum. USC and Western Michigan kick-off on Sept. 2 at 5:15 p.m. ET.