Two days after USC’s first loss of this season at Washington State, Coach Clay Helton kept calm.
“We just finished September,” Helton said on a conference call with reporters. “We’re 4-1. We control our destiny.”
It has been a common refrain and continued after the Trojans won their fifth game of the season last Saturday against Oregon State. Helton, in several recent interviews, has stressed that 13th-ranked USC controls its destiny, at least as far as winning the Pac-12 goes.
Last fall, it did not.
USC won all of its games in October and November, but a pair of conference losses in the first month left it unable to catch Colorado in the conference’s South division.
Currently, it is among five teams in the Pac-12 South with at least one conference loss, and it could start to wrestle control of the division race Saturday night.
A victory over Utah would give the Trojans an effective one-game lead over another top contender, as well as the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Utes. At least one other division foe is guaranteed to suffer a second loss this weekend, too, with Arizona hosting UCLA. The fifth remaining one-loss team, Arizona State, faces fifth-ranked Washington.
After the 30-27 loss to Washington State on Sept. 29, Helton said he has encouraged the Trojans to move on.
“We’ll add up all the wins in the end,” he said.
This week, in one team meeting, he pointed to defending national champion Clemson. The Tigers suffered a one-point loss to Pittsburgh in November last year, yet recovered to make the College Football Playoff.
USC saw a late run last season, winning its final eight regular-season games. It is at least in a better position to benefit from a strong second half.
WHEN USC HAS THE BALL
Despite recent uneven performances, USC’s offense is not far off from where it finished in 2016 under heralded quarterback Sam Darnold.
Through six games, it has averaged 36 points per game and 6.4 yards per play. As of Friday, it ranked No. 30 in the FBS in total offense.
Spanning the 10 games Darnold started last season, the Trojans averaged 39 points per game and 6.9 yards per play. They were No. 20 in the nation in total offense.
Helton has pointed out they have been as productive but acknowledged one nagging issue.
There have been turnovers, which have ended several promising drives and other scoring opportunities.
This season, USC is No. 118 among 130 FBS teams with 13 turnovers in five games. It had 20 turnovers in 13 games last season.
Darnold was picked off for the ninth time last week against Oregon State, equaling his interception total from the previous season. The redshirt sophomore passer has thrown an interception in his past seven games, including the Rose Bowl in January.
As the Trojans look for a second-half surge, Helton thought Darnold might shake off the recent trend.
“Whether it’s a good play or bad, he’s like that good golfer or that pitcher,” Helton said. “They take that swing, and that shot’s gone. And he moves on. I think that’s one of the great things about him. He doesn’t let it fluster him.”
Darnold might have his most capable group of pass catchers against Utah, with the emergence of redshirt freshman receiver Tyler Vaughns and a potential return of tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe.
Utah benefited from what was regarded as one of softer non-conference schedules, but it also features one of only four Pac-12 defenses to allow less than five yards per play.
WHEN UTAH HAS THE BALL
It is not clear whom the Utes will trot out at quarterback against the Trojans.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham kept mum this week on settling on a starter between Tyler Huntley, Troy Williams or Cooper Bateman.
The question emerged after Huntley sat out in last week’s loss to Stanford with a shoulder injury.
Huntley, though, is considered doubtful, leaving Williams as more likely to make the start.
It is a notable development.
Huntley, a sophomore, is a dual-threat option. He rushed for 208 yards and three touchdowns in Utah’s first four games, along with completing 73 percent of his passes.
“He’s a guy that will take off after a while in the pocket,” USC senior safety Chris Hawkins said.
Williams, by contrast, is more of a pocket passer,
“He wants to throw the ball,” Hawkins said of the senior.
Last season, Williams had one of his best efforts in a 31-27 win over the Trojans in Salt Lake City, when he completed 62 percent of his passes for 270 yards and two touchdowns without an interception, including leading a game-winning, 93-yard scoring drive.
Williams lost out to Huntley for the starting job in camp, making his first start against Stanford, when he struggled, completing 51 percent of his passes for 238 yards and one touchdown with two interceptions.
There are options for Williams in the passing game.
Receiver Darren Carrington II, who arrived at Utah after he was dismissed by Oregon in the summer following a DUI arrest, has made an immediate impact. He has caught 37 passes for a Pac-12-best 584 yards and five touchdowns.
Helton called Carrington “maybe the best wideout we’ve faced all season.”
In recent weeks, it has been difficult to score against USC’s defense, which has given up an average of two touchdowns in each of its past three Pac-12 games.
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