USC is stagnant in loss to Stanford as JT Daniels struggles in first big test

Freshman quarterback JT Daniels faced his first big collegiate test this weekend in USC’s Weekender game against No. 10 Stanford on Saturday. It ended in a frustrating 17-3 loss on the road as they failed to kickstart any form of a productive drive for the majority of the game. 

Daniels finished with 215 yards on 16-of-33 passing but threw two interceptions as the offense produced no touchdowns. Freshman wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, coming off a big debut, recorded just two catches for 39 yards on the night.

“[Daniels] went out there to compete and I thought he competed like a warrior,” head coach Clay Helton said. “Every experience is a learning experience, some are good and some are not so good.”

USC entered the game knowing that they needed to be pitch perfect on defense if they wanted to stop Stanford’s dual-threat offense. That need was apparent to the Trojans as early as the first drive. A combination of big gains on the ground from senior running back Bryce Love and an efficient passing game by way of junior quarterback K.J. Costello allowed the Cardinal to drive 83 yards in under five minutes of play to grant them an early 7-0 lead. For the most part, the USC defense did a solid job containing Love’s rushes.

USC’s ensuing drive left much to be desired after a couple off-target passes from Daniels. The Trojans’ next defensive drive looked more solid. Two stops in conjunction with a false start penalty left the Cardinal unable to convert on 3rd-and-17, forcing a punt.

Daniels did not return to the field for the Trojans’ second drive due to an apparent injury, which was later discovered to be a bruised hand after X-rays came back negative. Instead, sophomore Matt Fink filled his shoes. Despite a lack of in-air progression, the Trojans woke up the “three-headed monster” to drive the ball down the field. Stanford would halt the drive at the 35-yard line resulting in a missed 53-yard field goal attempt from sophomore kicker Chase McGrath.

Daniels returned for the Trojans following drive. After a slew of solid runs from the monster and a few dime-passes from Daniels, the Trojans once again failed to break into the red zone.

“We didn’t play well the whole game,” Daniels said. “We left a lot of things on the board. There were plays that we should’ve made that we didn’t make.”

On USC’s final drive of the first half, incomplete passes riddled the Trojan offense. A fourth and short attempt resulted in a fumble from Daniels giving the Cardinal possession near the 50-yard line. Costello connected with junior tight end Kaden Smith for a 26-yard gain to break into the red zone. With just 34 seconds left in the first half the Cardinal tacked on another 7 points courtesy of a touchdown pass to sophomore tight end Colby Parkinson.

At the end of the first half, Stanford led USC 14-0. The stat comparison at half was split pretty evenly with Stanford slightly leading in average yards per completion (10.2-8.4) and average yards per rush (3.6-3.5). USC’s first half downfall came in the form of failure to capitalize. Every time USC had a glimpse of a successful drive Stanford was quick to deny the attempt and turn the tide in its favor. Stanford also completed 76 percent of its passes compared to USC’s 47 percent.

The Trojans opened the second half with a bang with a 45-yard bomb dropped into the hands of junior receiver Michael Pittman Jr. to lead the Trojans into the red zone for the first time in the match. But the Cardinal continued their lockdown defense and held USC to a field goal to make the score 14-3.

USC’s momentum didn’t last long as a 59-yard run from Love fostered another red zone appearance. This time the Cardinal were forced to settle for three points after a few key stops from the USC defense.

Through the 3rd quarter the Trojans failed to demonstrate a sense of urgency. Each drive started and ended the same way: A few short runs, a completed pass or two and then ultimately a stop via an incomplete pass on third and short. USC’s failure to extend drives into the red zone hurt them late in the game. On the other side of the field, Stanford kept finding ways to make big plays, find key conversions and reach the red zone.  Moreover, every time Stanford turned the ball over to USC the Cardinal pinned the Trojans deep in their own zone.

“I felt like [the Stanford secondary] had a good plan for us tonight,” Pittman Jr. said. “It just didn’t go our way tonight.”

One of JT Daniels’ two interceptions on the night. – Emily Smith | Daily Trojan

The Trojans’ fourth quarter failed to show any changes to pace or play-style, resulting in a slew of stopped drives. Daniel’s attempts to connect on deep-balls typically ended in incompletions and the three headed monster fell asleep late in the game.

“We had a long field the majority of the night,” Helton said. “We got it down there and missed some opportunities. We have to be able to push it in and get better.”

A notable difference between the UNLV game and this game was the lack of targets toward St. Brown. In Daniels’ first game he used his former teammate of three years as a crutch to find crucial receptions. Against Stanford, St. Brown wasn’t targeted until the second half when he recorded just two receptions on four targets.

“We had a special package for St. Brown, the ‘Ocho package.’ We had him playing outside receiver and slot receiver,” Helton said. “We had asked JT to do what he did in his first game which was to take what the defense gave him. I credit Stanford for their game plan with a variety of pressures. We won some and some we didn’t.”

USC’s loss puts the team at 1-1 on the season. Next week the Trojans will travel to Austin, Tex. to play the Longhorns.