BERKELEY, Calif. — A solid first half followed up by a stellar second-half performance seems like an unthinkable task for USC in 2019; on Saturday night, the unthinkable happened. USC came out of the gate strong and dialed the intensity up at the half, outscoring the Golden Bears 24-7 in the second half en route to a 41-17 Weekender win.
“I thought [the team] brought the right energy and the right attitude today,” head coach Clay Helton said. “I thought [the team] made a statement for what [the team] is trying to do down the stretch here.”
Freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis led the offense with his third 400-plus yard performance of the season — for reference, former USC quarterback Sam Darnold surpassed 400 yards once in his USC career. Slovis also notched an 83% completion rate and four passing touchdowns.
“That’s one of the things that’s the beauty about this offense: No matter who we play, we’re an execution-based offense. So if we execute, we do our job, we’re going to score and that’s what happened tonight,” Slovis said.
Once again, Slovis aired out his arm to the strong USC receiving core, with three 40-plus yard receptions to set up scoring plays. Slovis was most effective in the third quarter, recording 157 of his 216 second-half passing yards in the quarter.
“We have receivers who can go make plays down the field,” offensive coordinator Graham Harrell said. “They were playing a coverage that allowed us to take some shots and have the opportunity to get some big ones and then we did.”
Slovis dropped a bomb into the hands of St. Brown for a 50-yard reception to set up a touchdown to freshman wide receiver Drake London a play later.
“[London] has been awesome, and I think confidence-wise, you see him getting more excited,” Slovis said. “Obviously, he tried to hurdle someone, so definitely more confident than he was a week ago. But he’s a heck of a player, and I’m lucky to have him.”
USC held the Bears to a three-and-out on the ensuing drive courtesy of a seven-yard first down sack from sophomore safety Talanoa Hufanga.
Slovis followed that drive up with another bomb of a pass, a 45-yard reception to senior wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. The Trojans would settle for a field goal but extended their lead to 27-10 early into the second half.
Pittman led the receiving core with 180 yards on 11 receptions. His stellar performance pushed him past the 1,000-yard mark for the season. Pittman now leads the Pac-12 in receiving yards; the only other conference receiver to cross the 1,000-yard mark in 2019 is Oregon State’s Isaiah Hodgins.
“I knew that I was close [to 1,000 yards] before,” Pittman said. “But that’s a big deal, so I’m just thankful that I have that opportunity.”
USC enjoyed the return of junior running back Stephen Carr and redshirt sophomore Greg Johnson from injury. Carr posted 26 yards on the night and broke into the end zone late in the third quarter extending the Trojans lead to 34-17 — while Johnson notched his second career interception.
For just the second time since USC’s 2018 season opener, the Trojans won the turnover battle 1-2. USC’s lone turnover came off a fumble from redshirt sophomore safety Isaiah Pola-Mao during an interception return.
The Trojans entered the end zone in an unfamiliar way this weekend with a pass to junior tight end Josh Falo — the first touchdown by a USC tight end this season.
While the second half was the highlight for USC’s weekender matchup, by no means was the first half a lackluster performance. For the first time this season USC did not start with the ball, and that didn’t seem to shake up the USC offense; freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis amassed an 81% first-half completion rate for 190 yards and two touchdowns.
“You’ve seen flashes of him doing this all year, he’s just doing it on a much more consistent level, consistent basis,” Harrell said. “And when you do that, like I said, with the guys that we have around him in this offense, you got a chance to be really special.”
The USC defense had much more success after Cal redshirt sophomore quarterback Chase Garbers left the game with an apparent knee injury early in the second quarter. The Trojan defense limited backup quarterback redshirt junior Devon Modster to 95 yards and forced two interceptions in the three quarters he played.
“As a defense, we’ve been seeing what the offense has been doing and we’ve been making adjustments on the field, and then we come back to the sideline and talk to our coaches,” Pola-Mao said. “That’s been key to our success, and communication is everything.”
Penalties continued to be a pervasive issue for USC, though it didn't seem to affect USC’s productivity. The Trojans were backed up 75 yards on eight penalties, including a first-half targeting penalty against senior defensive end Christian Rector.
USC returns home for its final game of the regular season against UCLA. A win over the Bruins will improve USC’s second half of the season to a 5-1 record. Last season, the Trojans finished the season 1-5, with the one win coming over Oregon State.