Ronald Jones II made an impressive climb up the Trojans' career rushing list this season
It was a white-knuckle 2017 for USC football, even before the season began. The calendar year began with the Trojans rallying to beat Penn State in one of the greatest college football games ever played, the 2017 Rose Bowl. That sparked an offseason of hype and expectations — the first and foremost of which head coach Clay Helton emphasized was winning the program's first conference championship since 2008.
And the Trojans indeed reached that pinnacle, but not without a roller coaster-ride to the top. USC played in a number of close games that required some heroic performances on both sides of the ball.
USC endured a variety of challenges and hardships, like injury and 12 straight weeks without a bye, but emerged atop the Pac-12 for the first time in almost a decade.
Offensive MVP: Ronald Jones II, RB
What do USC running back legends Mike Garrett, LenDale White, Reggie Bush and O.J. Simpson have in common? Jones surpassed all in the final month of the regular season on the program's career rushing list. Jones went for 1,486 yards after sophomore and freshman campaigns of 1,082 and 987, and now sits No. 5 all-time among Trojans ball carriers.
Despite injury midway through the campaign, Jones was a pillar of stability for a USC offense that underwent a transformation throughout the campaign. He combined explosiveness, vision and toughness to carve out a spot among the very best in Trojans history.
Defensive MVP: Uchenna Nwosu, LB
It's one thing for me to write that Nwosu (above, right) was USC's MVP of the defense, but it means something else altogether when head coach Clay Helton says it. And those were Helton's exact words to describe Nwosu in 2017.
The label was well-earned. Nwosu has collected 71 tackles, 9.5 tackles for a loss, 7.5 sacks, broke up 13 pass attempts — most for any linebacker in college football — created eight quarterback hurries and has an interception. Oh, he also was responsible for a play that effectively won USC its Pac-12 championship.
Best Freshman: Tyler Vaughns, WR
Quarterback Sam Darnold said going into 2017 that developing chemistry with a new-look wide-receiving corps was one of his top priorities and greatest concerns. Vaughns, a freshman, answered the challenge early in the campaign, establishing himself as a consistent No. 2 option behind Rose Bowl Game hero Deontay Burnett.
Best Play of the Season: Pac-12 Championship Goal-Line Stops
Denoting two plays as Best Play of the Season might be cheating, but USC could not have had one without the other. Stanford drove with the chance to take a lead in the fourth quarter of the Pac-12 Championship Game, reaching the goal line shortly after a Trojans fumble.
On third down from the 1-yard line, safety Chris Hawkins broke into the backfield for a critical stop. Rather than attempt the field goal to force a tied game, David Shaw ran another play, but Uchenna Nwosu made a superhuman effort to get behind the line and disrupt Cameron Scarlett short of the end zone. The turnover on downs set up USC's 99-yard, game-sealing drive.
Best Performance by a Player in 2017: Michael Pittman Jr., Pac-12 Championship Game
Pittman was a revelation down the stretch for USC. The sophomore wide receiver returned a punt for a touchdown against rival UCLA, then carved his name in the annals of Pac-12 history in his first conference championship game.
His 146 receiving yards on seven catches marked a new Pac-12 Championship Game record. His 54-yard catch with Sam Darnold under duress in the end zone was the biggest offensive play of the game — maybe the season.
Best Game (Team Performance): 42-24 Romp vs. Stanford
Rarely did USC enjoy a thoroughly dominant performance in 2017. Even in a two-touchdown win against an opponent like Arizona, the Trojans were forced into a fourth-quarter tie after holding a sizable lead early. USC needed to rally to beat Texas in overtime, came up with a two-point conversion stop to hold off Utah, and made just enough plays to outlast UCLA.
But on Sept. 9 against Stanford, USC rolled. The Trojans were dominant on both offense and defense, playing a physical brand of football and gaining huge yards via the run virtually at will. It was a win reminiscent of USC's glory days in the 2000s.
Biggest Surprise: Christian Rector, DE
As injuries mounted on the defensive side of the ball in 2017, with players like Porter Gustin going down, Rector answered the call. Rector moved around the front seven, filling in as needed and delivering whether at defensive end, on the interior or at linebacker.
Rector has recorded six quarterback hurries, 11 tackles for a loss, 7.5 sacks and two forced fumbles — one of which effectively won the game vs. Texas.
Biggest Disappointment: Loss at Washington State
USC made a pretty interesting College Football Playoff case with its run to 11-2 and Pac-12 title. The Trojans boasted the best schedule of the four teams vying for the last spot, but two losses proved too much for them to overcome.
While losing in a flat effort to rival Notre Dame could be argued is more disappointing, a close loss at Washington State is littered with more what-ifs. Had one or two plays gone differently, USC scores a big win on the road. The Trojans complete a perfect conference slate — something the program has not done since 2005 — and they are in the College Football Playoff.
Senior That Will Be Missed the Most Next Season: Uchenna Nwosu, LB
Nwosu's do-everything playmaking positively impacted all phases of USC's defense. Nwosu was effective against the pass, rushing the quarterback, stopping the run and in drawing additional blocking attention. That's a lot to lose from just one player.
Player to Watch in 2018: Michael Pittman Jr., WR
Pittman already began his ascent into a prominent role on the wide receiving corps, but the sophomore has shown signs of being ready to go to another level. Pittman has the tools necessary to be a pass catcher in the vein of JuJu Smith-Schuster or Marqise Lee, players who put up All-America-caliber numbers.
Offensive coordinator Tee Martin lauded Pittman's combination of size and speed, which USC should continue to maximize.
Biggest Offseason Question Mark: Front Seven
A host of Trojans have decisions to make in the coming weeks. While the departure of Uchenna Nwosu is a huge blow to the USC front seven on its own, the program could also say farewell to Porter Gustin, Rasheem Green and Cameron Smith. Defensive tackle Josh Fatu is graduating, leaving even more questions.