PULLMAN, Wash. — Jaxson Dart threw both his hands in the air as soon as he let go of the ball. He began walking toward the sideline, a casual stroll, pumping his fist triumphantly. Then, yelling, he gave a more ferocious fist-pump, retreating to the middle of the field to dole out aggressive high-fives to the rest of the Trojan offense.
Dart’s receiver, sophomore Gary Bryant Jr., was still eight yards shy of the end zone and four yards behind the line of scrimmage when Dart began his celebration. It was by no means an otherworldly throw — Bryant was wide open, and in fact, the throw went backward, so it was technically a rushing touchdown — but Dart understood what he’d done.
This moment was his. He’d brought USC back from the dead on Saturday, down 14-0 to Washington State less than 10 minutes of game clock earlier, now up a touchdown in the third quarter. He’d played his part in giving interim head coach Donte Williams’ beloved “1-0 mindset” the record to back it up.
He’d helped usher in a new era of Trojan football, perhaps in more ways than one.
“I think those moments, it always hits you when you’re least expecting it,” Dart said. “I was just super excited. Obviously I felt terrible for Kedon because he’s such a great leader on this team. Hopefully he’ll be able to get back healthy. 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.”
It wasn’t like Dart stepped onto Washington State’s Gesa Field and immediately grabbed the game by the throat, however. His first sequence started off promising with an 18-yard scramble, but a few poorly thrown incompletions, a sack and an interception later, Dart was back on the sideline. His second drive featured some impressive poise in picking up a first down on third-and-10 from USC’s own 1-yard line, as well as a nice 32-yard connection with junior receiver Drake London on the next play, but the Trojans ultimately had no points to show for it. The second play of his third drive was a 16-yard keeper, which started off nice — until Dart fumbled the ball away for what was already his second turnover.
Welcome to college, rook.
“Just with how my emotions were and just being in an environment like that for the first time, things were going a little fast for me at the start,” Dart said. “And I think that kinda showed with some of the mistakes that I made.”
Perhaps it was the following drive that really got him going. USC started at its own 7-yard line but had worked its way into Cougar territory. With under a minute remaining, the Trojans had a fourth-and-9 from Wazzu’s 38-yard line — borderline field goal range, given sophomore kicker Parker Lewis’ strong leg.
Wiliams, who admitted after the game he initially thought of kicking, was persuaded by London to roll the dice.
After checking the play at the line, the freshman floated a dime straight into the hands of Bryant, who took it to the house for six. It was Dart’s first career touchdown pass, and it was a sign of things to come for the USC offense.
Dart had rewarded Williams’ trust. Williams rewarded Dart with a kiss on his right cheek.
“If he’s out here making plays like that,” Williams said, “I’ll make sure I keep kissing him on the cheek.”
From there, it was utter domination. Dart had gone 11-of-17 for 118 yards with a fumble and a pick before that play. From the touchdown on: 19-for-29, 273 yards, four touchdowns, no fumbles and one interception to WSU’s 5-yard line on a third-and-10 that effectively served as a punt.
“I kinda traced it back to my freshman year in high school,” Dart said of the turnaround. “I made some early mistakes in my career, and back then, I’d kinda hang on them a little bit.
“I felt like for me to succeed, I had to just forget about it and just move on.”
Go back a year, and this day would’ve been hard to foresee. The Utah native committed to the Trojans on Dec. 16, 2020 as the No. 10 quarterback in his class, but part of the quarterback puzzle behind Slovis (and in the future post-Slovis era) had already been formed before his commitment. Miller Moss, also a highly-touted prospect out of high school, had committed to USC more than five months prior, on June 1. Setting aside the near-impossible odds of starting the season as QB1 over Slovis, Dart had some stout competition to even land the backup job.
But land that job he did, using his dual-threat profile throughout spring camp and fall ball to edge out Moss for the No. 2 spot. It’s what had him poised to step in when Slovis went down after a first-quarter sack on Saturday.
And Dart’s 30-for-46 performance after coming in, which saw him shatter the record for passing yards in a Trojan debut with 391, might propel him even further. The prospect of the freshman earning the start in Week 4 against Oregon State isn’t out of the question.
Lending credence to that statement, Williams was asked postgame about the state of the starting quarterback role, to which the head coach responded: “These guys, they get prepared to play, [offensive coordinator] Graham [Harrell] does a good job of making sure when their number’s called, they make sure they go out there and make plays. And we did that today.”
Williams was asked to clarify whether the starting job still belonged to Slovis.
“Being clear, every day, at every position, everybody on this team, it’s always a battle.”
Wishy-washy at best.
For what it’s worth in illustrating the fan outlook, Annenberg Media ran a Twitter poll after Saturday’s game asking whether Slovis or Dart should start next week — assuming both are healthy — and 74% of respondents voted for the freshman. #StartDart is a real hashtag no longer based in hypotheticals. The debate is far from a settled one, and both sides have plenty of arguments working in their favor, but the fact that Dart has worked his way into the conversation at all is noteworthy.
“He proved to us that he got heart,” Bryant said. “We always knew he had the talent. Talent was never the factor. He always competed at practice every day but just had the heart to come out and fight when we needed him.”
He certainly looks the part of a competitor, and it wasn’t just the fist-pumps or the poise on third- or fourth-and-long. Dart sports some rather unconventional thick eyeblack that starts around his right eyebrow, pauses for the cornea and picks up again under the eye, working its way even with the bottom of his nose.
“I think it was in, like, junior high. I was watching an LSU game, and there was a DB that had it,” Dart said. “And I was like, ‘oh, that looks pretty cool.’ And then I just tried it out in high school and decided to stick with it ‘cause I think it looks cool.”
Whether he’s starting, waiting on the sidelines for an opportunity to fill in or playing in some sort of tandem-QB role with Slovis, Dart will be wearing the trademark eyeblack again at the Coliseum in Week 4 against Oregon State. Why change it up? It’s hard to argue with the results from Pullman.
He might be wise, though, to make sure he leaves some room on that right cheek for his head coach, who might soon have plenty more reasons to revisit.
“I’m so proud of that kid, man,” junior cornerback Chris Steele said. “He played lights out. Jaxson’s one of my favorite young dudes on the team. I love that kid to death. I tell him all the time, when your opportunity comes, make the most of it. And he did exactly that today.
“He’s a young dude, but I tell him all the time, he’s a leader. When he speaks, people listen. And today I feel like he played like a leader too. He didn’t let the small errors get the best of him, came back out and played his heart out for us.”