The Coliseum fell silent as sophomore quarterback JT Daniels received medical attention with 27 seconds to go in the first half after taking a sack and losing a fumble.
“Gut-wrenching,” head coach Clay Helton said of Daniels’ injury. “You see a kid who’s poured so much into the game and into this team and into his becoming better both physically and mentally as a quarterback. I said a prayer as soon as I saw it and I hope we’ll get the best results tomorrow and see where it lies.”
Helton said that the nature of Daniels’ injury is still unclear as his X-ray came up negative, but that he would receive an MRI after the game. Helton will reveal the results during his weekly conference call Sunday evening. It was one of many moments during USC’s 31-23 victory over Fresno State that made it feel as though the Trojans hadn’t won the game at all.
Daniels performed well before he departed, completing 10-of-11 passes for 74 yards and a touchdown pass to running back Stephen Carr on the team’s first drive. New offensive coordinator Graham Harrell’s Air Raid offense was on full display from the start as the Trojans built a 14-0 lead early in the first quarter.
The coaching staff called upon true freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis to step in for Daniels. Slovis unexpectedly earned the backup spot as a three-star recruit out of Scottsdale, Ariz.
Slovis’s first play was a handoff for a 6-yard gain. After a short gain on another handoff, Slovis threw to senior wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. for a one yard loss, then a slant which was fumbled by redshirt junior Tyler Vaughns.
Slovis also threw an interception, got tackled trying to hand off the ball on fourth down and nearly fumbled the last snap of the game.
Despite the mistakes, Helton said he was proud of the young quarterback for stepping in to lead the team in Daniels’ absence.
“I always judge their eyes, and there was no fear [from Slovis],” Helton said. “He had one interception on a deep ball, but he had another deep ball that put us in scoring position. He did things in a tough position to win.”
After Fresno State scored a field goal off of Vaughns’ fumble, the score was 17-13 USC, and it seemed that the Bulldogs had all the momentum. As USC fans were holding their breath, recognizing the importance of the next drive, junior wide receiver Velus Jones Jr. returned the kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown. Jones also had a long return on the game’s opening kickoff, but the 61-yard play was called back after the Trojans received a penalty for having two players on the field wearing the No. 7.
Jones’ score gave the fans in the stadium a much-needed boost after Daniels’ injury.
“As a player you have to give hope,” Jones said. “I felt like I gave my team hope and energy to make sure we were successful at the end of the day.”
The Trojan defense held up on the next drive, and two big plays — a 27-yard run by Carr and a 41-yard pass to Vaughns — brought the Trojans into the red zone once again for a touchdown, giving USC a 31-13 cushion.
After the Trojans’ back-to-back scores, the momentum once again shifted in favor of Fresno State, as the Bulldogs punched in a field goal and a touchdown on consecutive drives to bring themselves within one possession of the Trojans.
Fresno State drove nearly all the way downfield on the Trojan defense, and it looked like the outcome could be a repeat of so many devastating games for the Trojans last season. With fewer than two minutes to go, redshirt sophomore Isaiah Pola-Mao came up with an interception in the end zone just as the Bulldogs had a chance to tie the game.
Even though the Trojans’ performance was riddled with mistakes, redshirt senior defensive lineman Christian Rector said he was satisfied because the team won.
With so much uncertainty heading into a matchup with rival Stanford at the Coliseum next Saturday, though, the Trojans will need to pick up their level of play against better competition.
“There’s lots to clean up for us,” Helton said. “I thought we left some opportunities out there and thank goodness for a stout defense at the end … So we’ve got a lot to do, a lot to fix before the next game, but we’re 1-0, and we’ll get it corrected and get going.”