LOS ANGELES — In the end, the visiting locker room at Rice-Eccles Stadium was glum.
Some of USC’s players were in tears, left to confront another defeat.
On a rainy September night at Utah last year, the Trojans stumbled in the final moments, the last-second loss marking their third of the season and their worst start in 15 years.
Amid some of the desolation afterward, Sam Darnold spoke up.
“He was just like, ‘Guys, we’re going to be fine,’ ” said tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe, then a redshirt freshman. “It was just like, dang, he’s my age, and he’s talking like that. I’m young too. If he’s confident, then shoot. He made it easy for us to be confident and great things happened as a result of that.”
Darnold, also a redshirt freshman at the time, had made his first start as the team’s quarterback, a switch when he took over for veteran passer Max Browne.
USC will host Utah on Saturday for the first time since the meeting in Salt Lake City last fall, when the direction of its program was altered.
The Trojans found a quarterback, and they started winning again.
“He just provided us the guy that everybody could rally around,” Imatorbhebhe said.
With Darnold behind center, they won their remaining nine games, their best finish since the Pete Carroll era, and then started this season 5-1 overall, with hopes of making a run toward the College Football Playoff.
In their first three games prior to facing Utah last season, their offense floundered. The Trojans were held to 194 yards of total offense in their worst season-opening loss ever to preseason No .1 Alabama. They were not explosive, averaging 4.6 yards per play. For a comparison, in the 10 games with Darnold as the starter, they averaged 6.9 yards per play.
The uptick started against the Utes.
Darnold completed 69 percent of his passes for 253 yards, and added a running threat, picking up 41 yards on the ground.
His performance left an impression with his teammates.