USC football’s passing records boast names like Carson Palmer, Matt Barkley and Sam Darnold, but Kedon Slovis topped them all Saturday. The freshman quarterback shattered the program record for single-game passing yards with 515 in the Trojans’ 52-35 victory over UCLA.
Slovis also threw four touchdown passes and did not concede a single turnover to the Bruins. After taking a hard hit to the head in the third quarter, he reentered the game on the next drive and threw a 49-yard bomb to redshirt junior wide receiver Tyler Vaughns.
“This is four out of five games [with] 400-plus yards,” head coach Clay Helton said of his signal-caller. “He’s done a really nice job of having the one-on-one opportunities and believing in his playmakers … Most importantly, I’m proud of how coachable he is. He learns from mistakes and gets better with each time.”
Perhaps just as remarkable was the fact that USC’s top four wideouts — Vaughns, senior Michael Pittman Jr., freshman Drake London and sophomore Amon-Ra St. Brown — each had 100-plus yards receiving. Pittman capped off his final regular season as a Trojan with two touchdowns while London exemplified USC’s promising youth with a long 46-yard catch and a 32-yard score.
“Any of you could probably throw for 100 yards with these receivers,” Slovis told reporters after the game. “So it’s exciting to put up good numbers and all that, but I really have a good team around me that makes that happen.”
Although USC’s pass-heavy Air Raid offense was in full swing, the team also saw a resurgence in the run game with the return of redshirt junior Vavae Malepeai from a knee injury. The Trojans hadn’t posted more than 100 yards on the ground since their Oct. 25 bout with Colorado but put up 128 rushing yards against UCLA.
USC was particularly effective running the ball in the red zone. Malepeai powered through the UCLA line for two touchdowns, while junior Stephen Carr also made it into the end zone.
“Everybody did their thing tonight,” Malepeai said. “Blocking was great, run game was tight, Kedon had some time to throw and made the throws, so I feel like it was just a great team effort.”
Defensively, the Trojans’ top priority coming into the game was to contain redshirt senior running back Joshua Kelley. Kelley had 939 yards over UCLA’s prior nine games and trounced USC with 289 yards and two touchdowns in UCLA’s win last season.
Helton said the team’s goal was to hold Kelley under 1,000 yards on the season. The Trojans rose to the challenge, and Kelley came away with just 45 yards.
“He was a star last year off that game [against us],” redshirt senior defensive lineman Christian Rector said. “To shut him down and keep him under 1,000 yards [for the season] tonight was a big deal. We knew he was going to try and bounce things back, be patient back there and find his holes. I think last year, we made the mistakes and allowed him to do that. This year, we didn’t make those same mistakes.”
The Trojans were successful in lowering Kelley’s production, but their crackdown on Kelley came at the expense of containing sophomore quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson. Thompson-Robinson not only had stellar passing numbers, throwing for 367 yards and three touchdowns, but added 64 yards and a touchdown on the ground.
Still, USC got stops when it needed them most. Sophomore safety Talanoa Hufanga aided the effort with 18 tackles, the most by a Trojan in a single game since Troy Polamalu in 2001.
Despite sustaining many injuries to key players throughout the season, the Trojans did not lie down. In 2018, USC went 1-5 in its last six games and failed to make it to a bowl game. This year, the team went 5-1 to close out the regular season, is guaranteed to appear in a bowl game and will play in the Pac-12 Championship if Utah is upset by Colorado this Saturday.
“[We] never quit the fight, we believed in the process,” Helton said. “I can’t tell you how proud I am of them for finishing like they have … It gives us the opportunity to be in Santa Clara. We’re going to be the biggest [Buffalo] fans over the next [week].”