If USC’s Week 3 win over Washington State in Pullman Saturday could be summed up with one cliché, cheesy and overused proverb, it would be the following: “There’s a first time for everything.”
Freshman quarterback Jaxson Dart made his first college appearance after an early sack forced junior starter Kedon Slovis out of the game. The four-star recruit stepped in and, after some initial hiccups, went 30-for-46 with 391 yards and four touchdowns.
USC’s first third-quarter touchdown of the season gave it a 21-14 lead. Not even nine minutes of game clock earlier, the Trojans had trailed 14-0, stifled on offense until Dart connected with sophomore receiver Gary Bryant Jr. for a 38-yard score — the first career touchdown for each.
After Dart and the offense walked off the field visibly fired up, lead in their hands, USC’s first sack of the season — remarkably — forced a Cougar three-and-out. Its second came just two defensive plays later. Junior linebacker Drake Jackson forced a strip-sack in the end zone, which sophomore lineman Tuli Tuipulotu pounced on for a score.
The Trojans used those plays — plus the first career interception by freshman safety Calen Bullock and a fumble recovery by sophomore kicker Parker Lewis on the half’s opening kick — to power a 28-0 domination over WSU in the third quarter. It’s a period in which they’d struggled this year prior to Week 3, as San José State and Stanford outscored them in the third by a combined score of 21-3.
This 180-degree turn gave USC more than enough to deliver a 45-14 win for Donte Williams in his first game as the Trojans’ interim head coach.
“It was just about making sure that guys wasn’t pressing so hard, and they understood that we’re there for each other,” Williams said about his message to the team at halftime. “Some of the things I said, I just can’t release. But let’s just say that them dudes was ready to play in the second half.”
Dart’s performance gave him the most passing yards by any player in his USC debut, demolishing the previous record of 282 set by JT Daniels in 2018. If there was any more of a first impression the dual-threat quarterback needed to make, he did it with his legs: Dart added 32 yards on the ground, including an 18-yard scramble on his first snap.
He ignited a Trojan offense that had underwhelmed in the first couple weeks of the season, posting 23 points in Week 1 and 28 in Week 2 — many of which came in garbage time.
“I was just super excited,” Dart said. “Obviously I felt terrible for Kedon because he’s such a great leader on this team ... But really, I was just trying to lock in. Don’t let my emotions get the most of me and kinda just stay in the moment.”
Dart’s efforts helped another Trojan surpass a previous high, as junior receiver Drake London smashed his career-best with 170 receiving yards. One hundred fourteen of those came in that merciless third quarter, and three of his five catches — 13 overall — came on consecutive plays that moved USC into the red zone on the crucial go-ahead drive. Week 3 also saw a career-high from Bryant, whose 56 yards topped his previous mark of 31.
Bryant’s first touchdown, the 38-yarder, came on a fourth-and-9 attempt that almost didn’t happen.
“I was thinking, maybe at this moment in time, we was thinking field goal a little bit,” Williams said. “And I looked at a couple guys and then Drake came to me and said, ‘We’re gonna kick a field goal?’ I said, ‘You know what? You guys told me you believe in me, and I believe in you. Let’s score.’ And shoot, we did it.”
Williams kissed Dart on the cheek following the touchdown.
“He’s out here making plays like that, I’ll make sure I keep kissing him on the cheek,” Williams said.
Once upon a time, however, USC had its collective back up against the wall. Already up 7-0 early in the second, the Cougars were knocking on the door with a first-and-goal opportunity from the Trojans’ 1-yard line. The Trojans came up with a key goal-line stand that kept them within one score, but Washington State answered on the following drive with a touchdown. The drive was extended by a personal foul call on junior cornerback Chris Steele following an incompletion, leading to the second touchdown connection between sophomore quarterback Jayden de Laura and redshirt senior wide receiver Travell Harris.
“At the end of the day, I’m a physical player and my coaches understand that. They respect that about me, they love that about me, so they don’t really tell me to turn that down,” Steele said of his penalty. “[Williams] told me to keep playing hard.”
That he did — and the Trojan defense was in full accord. Each of WSU’s next seven drives ended in either a three-and-out or a turnover. By the time that streak was snapped with one meager first down midway through the fourth quarter, USC led by 24.
That second-quarter touchdown would be the Cougars’ final dent in the scoreboard.
“We really don’t want to give up any points, so the 14 points that we did give up, we were kinda angry about that,” Jackson said. “We just had to stay focused and see what we were doing, lock in on what we had to do … Once we’re like that, you can’t stop us.”
USC’s blowout comes on the heels of a tumultuous week. Former head coach Clay Helton was fired on Monday, and it was announced to the team in a meeting that left many players in tears.
“This week has been a rollercoaster,” Dart said. “I’m super fortunate to be around a group of guys and a group of coaches who show a ton of resiliency and have a lot of confidence in one another. Like Coach said — we’re gonna face some adversity, but we’ve gotta go 1-0, and we’ve gotta attack each day, each moment and attack that moment.
“We all locked in, locked arms and we all have each other, so that’s what matters.”