Sept. 23, 2016 was not a great date for the USC football team. In Clay Helton’s first year as full-time head coach, the Trojans traveled to Salt Lake City and suffered a 31-27 loss to No. 24 Utah. It was USC’s third loss in four games, and they had already ditched their starting quarterback, Max Browne, for a relative unknown kid with a cannon for an arm by the name of Sam Darnold.
In hindsight, perhaps it wasn’t such a bad day, after all. USC hasn’t lost since.
The Trojans won the final nine games of the 2016 season, a run that included a 26-13 thumping of No. 4 Washington, a 36-14 thrashing of rival UCLA, and a thrilling 52-49 Rose Bowl win against a Penn State squad that is 4-0 and currently ranked No. 4 in the country.
USC, too, is 4-0 in 2017, ranked one spot behind the Nittany Lions. Only one team in the country owns a longer winning streak than the Trojans’ 13 (Oklahoma is at 14).
But is Southern Cal as good as all those shiny numbers make it out to be? Are the Trojans the first team you think of when asked which programs haven’t lost in more than a year? Let’s examine the argument.
On the one hand, yes. USC is 4-0 with consecutive wins against Stanford, Texas and Cal, the third coming on the road. On the other hand, only one of those wins — a 42-24 breeze past Stanford — was played well from start to finish. Texas pushed the Trojans to two overtimes in Los Angeles. Cal had the game knotted at 13-13 Saturday until a fourth-quarter collapse, not a brilliant close by USC, gift-wrapped the win for the Trojans.
“They’ve been a rough two games,” Darnold told the Los Angeles Times. “But we’re 2-0 in that stretch, so that’s really all that matters to me, and I know that’s all that matters to the team.”
At the end of the day, Darnold is correct in his assessment that wins are the only metric that truly matters, even if his own personal numbers have made Heisman Trophy possibilities almost an afterthought just four games into the season. Nearly all of Darnold’s numbers have remained consistent from last season to this, save for one: interceptions.
His seven this season are two shy of the nine he threw all of last season, though it does bear noting that his completion percentage (67.1) is only one-tenth lower and his average yards per completion is the exact same (8.4). So perhaps it is not lackluster play from Darnold or a slump at all, rather the heightened pressure of being the team with the proverbial target on its back.
“We feel like we’re the best, so we got to play like that all the time,” safety Ykili Ross said the win against the Golden Bears. “Every single week we got a target on our back.”
For a year now, the Trojans have managed to succeed with that target. Yes, some of the wins may be ugly and may not cover the Vegas spread, but others are genuinely dominant. There is, however, only one metric that matters to the Trojans: They just keep on winning.