From the first time that sophomore running back Ronald Jones II touched the ball on Thursday, the air in the Coliseum turned electric.
He sprinted 61 yards in his first carry, dodging defenders and dishing out straight-arms until a cornerback dragged him out of bounds at the 27 yard-line. Six plays later, redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold threw his first touchdown, taking a 7-0 lead and setting the tone for the night.
By the numbers alone, the game was the Ronald Jones show. He broke his own season best in the first half, notching 154 yards in eight carries and picking up an average of 19.3 yards every time Darnold handed him the ball. By the final whistle, he ran for 223 yards, almost twice as many rushing yards as the entirety of the Cal offense.
“We just knew we were going to have to pick up the slack tonight,” Jones said. “Great work from the offensive line all night. The receivers, just everyone came together tonight.”
With six touchdowns and 629 yards of offense, the 45-24 victory over Cal proved that the Trojans’ versatility is their greatest threat. Darnold found four different receivers in the endzone for five touchdowns, with Jones rushing in the second of the night. And seven players carried the ball for 398, with sophomore Aca’Cedric Ware gashing the Bears’ defense for 130 yards on the night. With versatility in every snap, the Cal defense was flustered and unable to slow the pace.
“Be prepared for next year because it’s going to be a show,” Ware said in reference to his performance alongside Jones, which resulted in a combined 353 yards.
Meanwhile, Darnold showed a marked patience in the pocket. In the second quarter, he took a few extra seconds and a few extra steps until sophomore wide receiver Deontay Burnett flashed his hands to provide the perfect target to thread yet another touchdown pass.
He lobbed arcing passes to senior wide receiver Darreus Rogers and stutter-stepped around a defender to sling the ball up the middle to redshirt freshman Daniel Imatorbhebhe. He carved up the secondary with play-action passes, then scrambled to convert when his pocket dissolved.
His performance caused USC alum and former NFL wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson to tweet, “I’m telling you Sam will [be] the best to ever play the position at this rate. And I’m talking pro ready.”
Much of the team’s success came from their swagger, a tangible confidence that added an extra punch to every play. The Trojans thrived in the home environment. Jackson grinned and posed for the jumbotron after breaking the school’s record for return yards. Rogers earned a penalty for his fiery celebration after his second touchdown, spinning the ball in the endzone and roaring at the crowd.
And when the Coliseum blasted “JuJu On That Beat” during a commercial break, junior wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster danced in the middle of the field, rousing the entire student section onto their feet.
That confidence was felt on both sides. From the first snap, the defense took every opportunity to drill Cal quarterback Davis Webb in the pocket and forced two dropped passes in the first two drives. That pressure continued, and with only 10 points in the first half, the Bears looked nothing like their typical high-scoring, high-octane selves.
“I’m extremely proud of the way our defense played tonight,” head coach Clay Helton said. “To hold that offense to 75 plays was huge for us.”
But despite the dominant final score, the game was also marred by mistakes.
Though he threw for five of the game’s six touchdowns — his second straight game with five or more touchdowns — Darnold fumbled twice in the first half. Both mistakes happened in dangerous defensive territory, and resulted in a touchdown and a field goal for Cal. Darnold cleaned up his hands in the second half, but threw an interception in the fourth quarter, continuing the turnover trend that has plagued the young quarterback all season.
“I’m getting used to all of the pressure now,” Darnold said. “As you play college football, you’re going to get used to it. I think just every level that you go through you’re going to experience some growing pains. I’m dealing with it now and I’m going to keep dealing with it.”
Defensively, the Trojans gave up 125 yards of penalties, at one point ceding 30 yards on back-to-back facemask penalties in the first quarter. Though these moments of sloppiness didn’t take their toll on the Trojans, they exposed areas of weakness that Helton will need to patch up for future conference play.
But for a Trojan team rebounding from a rocky start to the season, the night’s victory and the move to a 5-3 record created a much-needed boost in the team’s status in the Pac-12, and in their confidence approaching the final third of the season.
“We’re just playing good football,” Helton said. “We’re playing together. We had a couple mistakes tonight … But they’re playing as a unit. They’re really gelling and I think there’s a lot of confidence out there.”