Isaiah Pola-Mao didn’t know he would be starting his first college football game until Thursday. The redshirt freshman was forced into action at safety after sophomore Bubba Bolden, who was supposed to start, was taken out of the lineup two days before the season opener against UNLV for an undisclosed reason.
Bolden’s loss was Pola-Mao’s gain. Pola-Mao, who redshirted last season after sustaining a shoulder injury, made a statement on his very first play, forcing a fumble on UNLV’s opening play from scrimmage.
“I was overwhelmed with a lot emotions, and I was very sad for what Bubba was going through but I had to lock in and focus and clear my mind, get ready for this game,” Pola-Mao said.
Pola-Mao stripped UNLV running back Lexington Thomas of the football deep in the Rebels’ territory, setting up a short field for the USC offense, which produced a field goal that would get the Trojans on the board first. The Trojans easily won 43-21 at the Coliseum.
Pola-Mao said he was nervous before the game.
“Being away from football and not actually playing in a game, it’s a big difference,” he said. “Coming into my first college game, I was very anxious, so I just had to get the jitters out. Happened to be a big [play].”
It quickly endeared Pola-Mao with the veterans on the defensive corps.
“That was big, that was big, that was dope for him,” said redshirt senior cornerback Ajene Harris.
Senior linebacker Cameron Smith said the situation could not have played out any better for the first-time starter.
“Anytime after that first play or that first series, you just calm down and just say, ‘It’s football,’” Smith said. “That’s what he needed to get him going and I thought he did a really good job for us today.”
There’s no better way to calm down than by forcing a turnover seconds into the game.
“I don’t think he saw me so I came in and just tried to punch it as hard as I could and landed right on,” Pola-Mao said on forcing the fumble.
Pola-Mao was originally slotted on the depth chart behind senior Marvell Tell at free safety, but slid over to strong safety once Bolden was unavailable. Head coach Clay Helton declined to provide details on Bolden’s situation after the announcement was made on Thursday, though a University spokesperson confirmed he was still on the roster.
The Phoenix native starred in high school at Mountain Pointe High, named to the Max Preps All-American first team in 2016. He also has football royalty in his blood – Pola-Mao’s uncle is former USC and NFL star safety Troy Polamalu and his great uncle, Kennedy Polamalu, played for USC from 1982-85 as a fullback and is now an assistant with the Minnesota Vikings.
Now, it’s Pola-Mao’s turn. Though he had nerves heading into his debut, the redshirt freshman said he had a good feeling in his heart the night before the game.
“I was thinking about it [Friday] night,” Pola-Mao said. “I saw the opportunity and just took it.”
A reporter asked him to elaborate on what he felt.
“I felt me making a play, changing the game,” he said.