The season-ending injury to sophomore quarterback JT Daniels against Fresno State last week was a devastating loss for USC. Against Stanford, true freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis gave Trojan fans a reason to maintain faith.
USC defeated the Cardinal in a surprisingly lopsided 45-20 contest at the Coliseum, moving to 2-0 on the season. The battle of the backup quarterbacks was the story heading into the game, and while one dominated, the other faltered.
Slovis — a mostly unknown prospect who surprisingly won the backup quarterback job — converted on 28 of 33 attempts for 377 yards, three touchdowns and no picks. He completely outplayed Stanford junior Davis Mills, who struggled after the first 20 minutes.
“Even though he’s young, we named him the No. 2 for a reason,” Helton said of Slovis. “Let’s go cut him loose.”
Slovis joked after the game that fans probably shouldn’t have expected him to throw for nearly 400 yards, but sophomore receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown said that Slovis didn’t seem to have any nerves despite taking over the starting role as a true freshman.
“He was actually rooming next to me in the hotel and he looked as calm as ever,” St. Brown said. “When we got out there, he didn’t really look rattled at all. He rallied us up after each drive and said, ‘Let’s go,’ and that’s what he did tonight.”
Things didn’t start great for the Trojans. They were forced to settle for a field goal deep in Stanford territory on the first drive, then watched as Stanford scored two straight touchdowns.
Redshirt junior wide receiver Velus Jones Jr. — who returned a kickoff for a touchdown last week — fumbled the ball away on the next kickoff, and Stanford responded with a field goal for a 14-point lead.
The game was spiraling out of control for USC, but Slovis showed poise well beyond his years on a 75-yard touchdown drive early in the second quarter. Slovis placed a perfect 39-yard pass to St. Brown, who reeled it in as two defenders collapsed on him in the end zone.
“I thought it would be completed because Amon-Ra was running under it,” Slovis said after the game. “But I was worried he was going to get killed after.”
Head coach Clay Helton said limiting the Cardinal to a field goal after Jones’ fumble helped fuel the touchdown drive that ignited USC’s comeback.
“It really sparked us, you know, because [the game] was getting away in a hurry,” Helton said. “Any time that we have a sudden change, we talk about how important that is defensively to force a kick, and they did … A touchdown there could have been devastating.”
USC added two more touchdowns in the second quarter — a 25-yard run by junior tailback Stephen Carr and St. Brown’s second touchdown reception of the game. USC entered halftime with a 24-20 lead.
The Cardinal blew an opportunity to regain control when senior kicker Jet Toner missed a 39-yard field goal on the opening drive of the second half. Junior offensive tackle Austin Jackson blocked another attempt, and with a 4-yard touchdown run by redshirt junior tailback Vavae Malepeai, the Trojans carried all the momentum into the fourth quarter.
Chants of “Kedon Slovis” erupted from the student section immediately before the freshman dumped the ball off to redshirt junior wide receiver Tyler Vaughns for a 16-yard touchdown. The play made the score 45-20 USC and extended the Trojans’ run to a whopping 42-3.
“For me, it was honestly … just don’t take it away from [the wide receivers],” Slovis, who led the USC Marching Band in the fight song after the game, said of his success. “Just get it in their hands and let them do it.”
Stanford scored on each of its first four drives of the game, but the Cardinal didn’t score a single point in the second half.
“We knew they couldn’t run with us,” redshirt senior defensive lineman Christian Rector said. “So in the second half, we saw that, we pulled away.”
Sophomore cornerback Olaijah Griffin had four pass break-ups on the night, notably helping to limit Stanford to a field goal after Jones’ fumble with a pass deflection on third down.
“That was some mobility that I didn’t even know I had,” Griffin said of the plays. “I [felt] like Superman after that … I felt them testing me, but I wasn’t going to let them get past that test.”
Redshirt sophomore nickel back Greg Johnson played a role in the defense’s dominant second half, intercepting Mills around midfield when Stanford was down 11 in the fourth quarter.
“It felt unreal, I’m not going to lie,” Johnson said after the game.
Helton expressed pride in the team’s performance after the game and commended their resilience after falling behind early.
“We have this saying, ‘So what? Now what?’” Helton said. “At the beginning of that game we had to say ‘So what?’ and not blink and not flinch and know that the plays would come if we executed … First conference game, feels good to get under our belts.”