USC looks to the future after down-and-up first half

LOS ANGELES -- A well-timed bye week has given USC a chance to regroup from what was certainly an eventful first month-and-a-half of the season. The Trojans took an unusual path to a 4-3 record and going into next Thursday’s game against Cal have, somehow, managed to look like one of the most dangerous teams in the Pac-12.

This week, though, they’re looking even further ahead … to next year and beyond. On Tuesday and Wednesday, the coaching staff rested some of the banged-up players and allowed younger guys to take more meaningful reps.

“Gosh dang, there’s the future of your football team right there,” coach Clay Helton said.

A few weeks ago, it would have been fair to wonder if Helton would even be around for when those younger players take on more meaningful roles, but after three straight wins, the hot-seat chatter has mostly subsided. With five games left in the regular season, here’s a look back at how they got here.

What’s gone wrong: Over the first month of the season ... just about everything. The Trojans’ 52-6 loss to Alabama was one of the worst in program history. Their 27-10 loss to Stanford two weeks later showcased a team without an identity and in a third loss, six days later to Utah, the Trojans blew a 14-point second-half lead. On top of that, the team had players ejected in each of the first two games, which raised further questions about discipline.

And that’s just the on-the-field problems. There was also the ongoing investigation into sexual assault allegations against linebackers Osa Masina and Don Hill, which led to suspensions for both. Masina was charged with first-degree rape and two counts of first-degree forcible sodomy in Utah. Neither has been charged as a result of a second investigation in Los Angeles.

What’s gone right: The quarterback switch from Max Browne to Sam Darnold has worked out beyond what anyone could have reasonably expected. In the three games Browne started, USC averaged just 4.64 yards per play. Since Darnold was promoted, that average has jumped to 7.38. Darnold leads the country in QBR and has surpassed UCLA’s Josh Rosen as the it quarterback in Los Angeles this year.

This isn’t just the Sam Darnold Show, either. Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster again looks like one of best receivers in college football -- if not the best -- and running back Justin Davis has emerged as a reliable every-down back. Davis missed USC’s 48-14 win over Arizona with an ankle injury, but Helton is hopeful he’ll be back against Cal.

Defensively, it took some time for the players to appear really comfortable in new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s system, but it was that side of the ball that keyed an important 21-17 victory over Colorado.

What to watch the rest of the way: USC is very much alive in the Pac-12 South race and though ESPN’s Football Power Index indicates Colorado is the favorite to win the division, it does favor the Trojans in four of their remaining five games – at Washington being the exception. That game in Seattle is shaping up as one of the Pac-12’s more intriguing games of the second half.

Since Darnold took over, USC has been increasingly reliant on run-pass option plays and now that it's clear it will operate differently than at the start of the season, opposing defenses should be better prepared. That shouldn't matter in the next two games -- Cal and Oregon have two of the nation's worst defenses -- but against Washington and UCLA to wrap up Pac-12 play, it will likely factor in on some level.