Nothing good happens when it’s #Pac-12AfterDark; the Trojans knew that all too well tonight. Although USC bested Fresno State 31-23 Saturday night, the win pales in comparison to the devastating loss of sophomore quarterback JT Daniels. Daniels exited the game late in the first half after sustaining an apparent knee injury.
Head coach Clay Helton reported after the game that Daniels’ X-ray came back negative and he will undergo an MRI tonight.
USC’s new scheme under offensive coordinator Graham Harrell was supposed to solve some of the problems in last year’s offense, but a potential season-ending injury 30 minutes into the season could test the Trojans' commitment to the air-raid offense.
Helton was asked about his reaction to seeing Daniels go down.
“Gut-wrenching,” he said.
For the first half of the game, the Trojans enjoyed the change of pace. Daniels posted a much improved 73.5 passing percentage, throwing for 215 yards, but to call Harrell’s offense a full-blown air-raid offense would be a disservice to the running backs. Junior Stephen Carr and redshirt junior Vavae Malepeai notched a total of 93 yards in the first half.
“It’s amazing running in the kind of style of offense with [Harrell] calling it,” Carr said. “I can’t help but to give a hand to my offensive line, they held it down.”
For the first time in nearly a year, things were looking up for the Trojans. The offense didn’t look helpless, drives weren’t halted before they began. Instead, the Trojans picked up first downs with ease, converting 18, four of which on third down. After all, they opened the game with a commanding 14-0 lead.
Then, with 27 seconds remaining in the first half, Daniels fumbled the ball; the Coliseum went silent and Daniels laid motionless on the grass. Everything the team had worked on completely changed. The Trojans entered the second half leading 17-10.
The second half came, enter Kedon Slovis, the true freshman out of Scottsdale, Ariz. Slovis won the second string job during fall camp — beating out two upperclassmen in redshirt junior Matt Fink and redshirt sophomore Jack Sears.
“You never like to see your teammate go down,” Slovis said. “It’s really unfortunate, but I’m backup quarterback and that’s my role so got to be as good as him and fill his role.”
His first drive was rocky, to say the least. A wide throw and a turnover cut his first drive short. In the three short plays he had, his inexperience showed: messy movement in the pocket, rushed throws and missed targets. One overthrown pass on a first down resulted in an interception and ended a potential scoring drive.
“It was a bad read, probably. I’ll see on film more accurately, but just predetermined my decision and I let go so early that the ball was not where he ran to.”
The Bulldogs were closing in; a field goal resulted of the turnover, bringing the Bulldogs within 4 points.
USC was falling apart. Eerie memories of last season started to creep in. If the Trojans had any hope of not blowing the game and their entire season, they needed a spark.
Redshirt junior wide receiver Velus Jones Jr. brought that spark on the next drive with a 101-yard kick return. It looked like the kick return gave Slovis the padding he needed to settle in.
The next drive things began to click. Going three for four featuring a 41-yard bomb to redshirt senior Tyler Vaughns, Slovis more confidently moved the ball down the field. The Trojans ultimately extended their lead to 31-13 as the third quarter came to a close.
“Kedon’s done a nice job since he’s been here, all spring and all fall,” Harrell said. “We have a lot of confidence in him.”
Fresno State would hit a fourth quarter field goal and score a touchdown. The Bulldogs made a last minute effort trailing by 8. A shot to the end zone was picked off by redshirt sophomore safety Isaiah Pola-Mao, sealing the game for the Trojans.
“I don’t think they played bad — we played with good tempo — they just made uncharacteristic mistakes,” Harrell said. "Hopefully it’s first game jitters and we’ll get them out of us and play a much cleaner game next Saturday.”
USC entered this game with a lot of question marks and somehow it managed to leave the game with more than it started with.
For the second consecutive year, USC could have a true freshman starting quarterback. That inexperience didn’t bode well for the Trojans in 2018. The refreshed offense is working for the Trojans, but will Slovis be able to run it effectively?
The defense is still trying to fill in the holes left by graduated players. If the Trojans want to hold teams in the game they will need a better performance than the lackluster one they showed tonight.
But above all, bad penalties plagued USC last season. With this many question marks floating around the team, USC can’t give away free yards.
The Trojans will host the Stanford Cardinal next Saturday at 7:30 p.m.