Defense ignites late separation as USC takes down San José State

A key pick-six helped the Trojans stifle a second-half comeback attempt.

sports, football

USC has had its share of struggles in season openers under head coach Clay Helton. In 2020, the Trojans trailed Arizona State by 13 points with less than three minutes remaining before a miraculous comeback. In 2019, an end-zone interception sealed a mere eight-point win over Fresno State. In 2018, USC led UNLV by just five entering the fourth quarter, and it tied Western Michigan through three in 2017. In 2016, the Trojans were annihilated by Alabama 52-6.

When Helton’s team jumped out to an early 10-0 lead over San José State at the Coliseum on Saturday, it seemed as though the ghost of Week 1 underperformances past had been alleviated. The final scoreboard might even agree: USC came away with a 30-7 victory over the Spartans.

That margin is somewhat misleading, though. Following some offensive stagnation from USC, SJSU eventually whittled that 10-0 deficit down to six to open the fourth quarter. That’s when the Trojan defense took matters into its own hands. After a short USC field goal, redshirt senior nickelback Greg Johnson snagged his first career pick-six to stretch the lead to 16. A fourth-and-6 stop in the red zone on the Spartans’ next drive put the proverbial nail in the coffin.

“Coach called a great call and I was just dropping into my zone and I just read the quarterback’s eyes,” Johnson said of his pick-six. “I noticed that they ran that play earlier in the game, so I just made the most of the opportunity and that’s how it ended … Honestly, it felt like a dream.”

The spark plays on defense — as well as the unit’s shutout of SJSU in the first half — overshadowed those mid-game offensive struggles. Immediately following the 29-yard touchdown from junior quarterback Kedon Slovis to redshirt sophomore receiver Tahj Washington that put USC up double digits, offensive coordinator Graham Harrell’s group hit a wall. Slovis followed up an 11-for-13, 119-yard opening quarter with just four yards on 2-of-9 in the next. Red zone inefficiency plagued the Trojans; USC was forced to settle with three field goals of 30 yards or shorter from sophomore kicker Parker Lewis.

The group came back to life late, however, largely on the strength of junior receiver Drake London’s monster second half. London hauled in eight receptions for 100 yards after the break, reaching single-game career highs in both yards (144) and receptions (13).

“Drake’s good,” Harrell said bluntly. “He’s a special player, and trying to find ways to get him the ball is important for us. When Drake plays at a high level, it makes everyone’s job a little easier.”

Meanwhile, despite the rough stretch, Slovis finished the game 24-of-36 for 256 yards and a pair of touchdowns (the latter to redshirt senior tight end Erik Krommenhoek) with no interceptions. His solid final stat line complemented an effective run game that saw the Trojans accumulate 160 yards, 119 of which came in the first half. Senior Keaontay Ingram claimed 88 of those 160 yards on 15 rushes, while redshirt senior Vavae Malepeai chipped in 72 on 14 carries.

Malepeai said after the game he enjoyed the split-back approach and that USC’s offensive line — which has been seen as a point of weakness for the Trojans in 2021 — went a long way in allowing the backs to be effective. Helton credited Harrell’s faith in the run game, pointing to multiple successful runs on third-and-long that aided the offense’s efficiency.

But it was the defense that stole the headlines in Week 1. Freshman safety Calen Bullock set the tone with a strong first half that included a key open-field tackle around midfield on third-and-2 in the first quarter en route to a team-high eight tackles.

With redshirt senior Isaiah Pola-Mao out due to health and safety protocols, Bullock became the first true freshman to start at safety for USC since eventual NFL-er Su’a Cravens in 2013.

“I reached out to Isaiah and really just told him I got him and I won’t let him down,” Bullock said of his reaction upon learning Wednesday he’d be starting. “My hometown’s Pasadena — it’s the Rose Bowl — but USC’s always been my dream, to play in the Coliseum, and now I got the chance to do it and took [full] advantage of it.”

Junior linebacker Drake Jackson also contributed to the Trojans’ cause with an athletic interception that set up the Slovis-to-Washington touchdown connection in the first. It was a sign of things to come: Despite a thin group at nose tackle manifesting in a couple solid SJSU runs up the gut early, USC’s front seven never let graduate quarterback Nick Starkel get fully comfortable. The SEC transfer finished the day 24-for-46 with 308 yards and the two interceptions to Jackson and Johnson.

And about those aforementioned rushes up the gut? The Spartans still only finished with 68 rushing yards on the day for an average of 3.6 per attempt.

“We came into this ballgame, defensively, to try to make San José State one-dimensional, and to stop the run and try to put pressure on the quarterback,” Helton said. “To hold them to 68 yards rushing on the day and really force a lot of third-and-longs is the reason you look up and see 3-of-14 on third downs.”

Helton also applauded his team’s discipline: USC committed just one turnover (a fumble by Krommenhoek) and was flagged just four times for 35 yards — each the fewest since the 2019 Holiday Bowl.

Again, though, everything came back to defense. It was an all-around effort by coordinator Todd Orlando’s bunch, as SJSU’s seven points were the fewest the Trojans have allowed in a game since September 2016.

“It was really exciting. Especially on offense, you know, when you’re not scoring in the red zone, it’s exciting to kind of get that boost from the defense, knowing that you can count on them to get a stop,” Slovis said. “And even, you know — the pick six. I was kind of telling the guys, they bailed us out, but we still have to score. And they really did bail us out in that point of the game.”