The difficulty of striking this balance is what might make this a trap game: It isn't easy to play (or coach) with one eye on next week, but the Trojans may have to do so. The Trojans faced a third-and-1 situation at the Texas 34-yard line. It reeked of trying to be cute or "innovative".
Texas quarterback Shane Buechele missed last week's game with a sore shoulder, but returned to practice this week.
For most of the game, Sam Ehlinger looked like a true freshman making his first career start on the road. For the second time in three weeks, USC ended up on the right side of the rollercoaster ride, but if they don't iron out some of the wrinkles in between the first and fourth quarters, they could go off the track that leads to a Pac-12 championship.
Darnold dropped back, bought some time and space by stepping around the Texas pressure and then fired to Jones near the Longhorns' 30-yard line. The smart move would be to run the ball and go straight to the locker room. Some in the media tried to frame the Trojans as sore losers who tried to erase embarrassing history, and outspoken Longhorn fan Armstrong slammed USC in an expletive-filled tweet.
A potential top overall pick candidate for the 2018 National Football League draft, Darnold finished the night with 397 yards and three touchdowns through the air, completing 28 of his 49 passes and engineering scoring drives as time expired at the half and in regulation that ultimately led to the relieving victory. As usual, pure talent bailed out the Trojans. The Trojans probably feel good about their chances on Saturday regardless, but depth isn't this squad's strength.
The Trojans' defense was also missing two other starters against Texas, including linebacker John Houston, who has a stinger in his neck, and defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu, who has a knee sprain.
"With the guys we have, I'm always surprised when we don't score more points", Carr said.
Coach Clay Helton never ruled out Gustin, but never expressed much optimism that he would play Saturday night. Of course, it's possible the Trojans are just as dominant as they showed against the Cardinal, and the Longhorns are just as suspect on defense as they showed in the opener against Maryland.
"Ugly wins count too", Helton said.
Last week, a publication named USC offensive coordinator Tee Martin its coordinator of the week. Quarterback Lamar Jackson amassed 771 passing yards and five scoring passes in those wins, and is perched as a +175 bet to become the first player to win consecutive Heisman Trophies since Archie Griffin achieved the feat in 1974 and 1975. But Greene couldn't catch the pass.
And the Trojans are in a different place, too, a place that came very close to being dark and cold Saturday night, until Darnold and USC saw the light.
USC's defense entered 2017 looking to replace a few key cogs from last year's group.
Coming into their Week 3 game against 18th-ranked Kansas State, Vanderbilt was somewhere between a 4-6-point underdog at home.