USC looks to avoid the upset against San Jose State

The Trojans will rely on a mix of returning talent and new faces as they begin their 2021 campaign.

Vavae Malepeai runs the ball

USC, ranked 15th in the AP poll, begins its 2021 season with an out-of-conference game against San Jose State at home in the Coliseum.

The Trojans are coming off a shortened 5-1 season and a Pac-12 Championship Game appearance. In the title game, USC fell to Oregon in what was a disappointing end to the season.

But there are high hopes for 2021 with the Trojans bringing back All Pac-12 First Team junior quarterback Kedon Slovis and All Pac-12 Second Team junior receiver Drake London.

“[Slovis and London] came in together, they were thrust [into] the spotlight together and they’ve grown together,” head coach Clay Helton said of the connection between Slovis and London. “They’re two of the big factors for our success this year.”

USC is 4-0 all-time against San Jose State, but the Spartans are coming off a Mountain West Conference championship in 2020 and return 20 0f 22 starters from last year.

Unlike USC, the Spartans already have a game under their belt in 2021 after cruising to an easy 45-14 victory over Southern Utah this past Saturday.

In its Week 0 game, San Jose State redshirt senior quarterback Nick Starkel threw for 394 yards and four touchdowns.

Helton had high praise for the San Jose State quarterback heading into Week 1.

“Starkel is doing an amazing job,” Helton said. “He is a Sunday quarterback.”

Heading into its first game there are several questions that USC will need to answer.

None are bigger than the play of the offensive line.

After losing left tackle Alijah Vera-Tucker to the NFL, USC will start two new tackles against the Spartans. Redshirt freshman Courtland Ford will replace Vera-Tucker at left tackle. Opposite of Ford, redshirt freshman Jonah Monheim gets the start at right tackle after beating incumbent redshirt senior Jalen McKenzie for the spot.

Despite London returning at wide receiver, the Trojans lost a lot of depth at the position with Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns departing for the NFL and redshirt sophomore Bru McCoy suspended after being arrested for intimate partner violence in July.

USC will look to transfers redshirt sophomore Tahj Washington and redshirt senior K.D. Nixon along with freshmen tight end Michael Trigg and receiver Joseph Manjack IV to replace the talent at receiver.

Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell says this season he also expects to see more of a rotation at the receiver position than in past years.

“I think we will [play] more [receivers] than in the past just because where we are with our guys it fits us m0re,” he said. “Right now we have a lot of guys playing at a high level and a really similar level, so because of that I think we will keep them fresh.”

One area that USC needs to improve is the run game. Last season, USC rushed for 3.2 yards per attempt and 97.3 yards per game, both lowest in the Pac-12. This season the Trojans will look to redshirt senior Vavae Malepeai and senior transfer Keaontay Ingram to help improve the ground attack.

On defense, USC looks to take a step forward in Year 2 under defensive coordinator Todd Orlando. The Trojans bring back a lot of talent on that side of the ball including junior linebacker Drake Jackson who is projected to be a first-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.

The Orlando-led defense will not only have to focus on stopping Starkel but also senior running back Tyler Nevens, who rushed for 91 yards and a touchdown against Southern Utah.

One player to watch on defense is freshman defensive lineman Korey Foreman. The number one 247 Composite player in the 2021 class, Foreman is expected to get time on the field mainly in passing downs, giving him a chance to rush the passer.

“[Foreman’s] still learning the defense on base downs, first and second down,” Helton said. “But I know he can do one thing: he can rush the passer on third down.”

The home opener marks the first time fans will fill the Coliseum since Nov. 23, 2019.

Slovis says he is looking forward to getting back on the field in front of the home crowd.

“You can’t replicate what it feels like to have fans in the Coliseum, and I know we’re so excited to have them back and bring that energy,” Slovis said on Trojan Talk Live.

USC will face San Jose State on Saturday at 2 p.m.