Berg is the Word: USC football’s response to adversity shows team’s growth

One of the biggest storylines heading into Saturday night’s annual USC-Stanford matchup was that both teams would be playing without their starting quarterbacks. The Trojans’ sophomore JT Daniels suffered a season-ending knee injury against Fresno State the previous week, while Stanford senior K.J. Costello missed the game due to a head injury. Replacing them were freshman Kedon Slovis and junior Davis Mills, respectively, and although Mills was thought to have the edge due to his (relative) experience, it was Slovis who emerged as the breakout star in USC’s dominant 45-20 victory.

Slovis completed 28 of 33 passes for 377 yards and three touchdowns on the night, but the statistics might not have been the most impressive part of his performance. His arm talent was on full display, whether he was dropping a 39-yard touchdown right in sophomore receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown’s bread basket or lasering a 31-yard pass on a dime to redshirt junior receiver Tyler Vaughns past defenders on the sideline. 

But Slovis also demonstrated a level of poise you wouldn’t expect from a true freshman who came in as an afterthought three-star recruit in USC’s underwhelming 2019 class. He seemed much calmer than the older Mills, who missed a few crucial throws to open targets throughout the game.

The freshman was good enough to impress new offensive coordinator Graham Harrell, which isn’t an easy task. Harrell, a historically good quarterback during his time at Texas Tech, recognizes all the minute details that go into being great at the position and was known during his time at North Texas for getting on signal-callers for the smallest mistakes. Even he couldn’t find much that Slovis did wrong.

“Almost every throw, where I thought the ball should go, it went,” Harrell said. “If you do that with the other guys around him, you got a chance to be really good and put up great numbers.”

The freshman got plenty of help; the maligned offensive line gave him great time, and his dynamic group of receivers got consistent separation from a Stanford secondary that thoroughly dominated Northwestern last week. And although the defense couldn’t stop Stanford for much of the first half, USC held the Cardinal scoreless in the second half, featuring crucial plays like redshirt sophomore nickel back Greg Johnson’s fourth quarter interception and junior offensive tackle Austin Jackson’s blocked kick in the third quarter. If it weren’t for Slovis, sophomore cornerback Olaijah Griffin, who made multiple acrobatic pass breakups, would have been USC’s most impressive player.

There was a different energy to this USC team, starting with that second quarter when it overcame a 17-3 deficit to lead 24-20 at halftime. Between a defense that couldn’t get a stop and a lost fumble by redshirt junior receiver Velus Jones Jr. on a kickoff with USC down 14-3, the first quarter brought back memories of the frustrating, tear-your-hair-out losses that personified the 2018 season.

But then Griffin came up with two huge pass breakups covering junior tight end Colby Parkinson, forcing Stanford to kick a field goal. That was a small victory that the team needed, and it boosted USC into that scoring drive that ended with the long touchdown to St. Brown. From there the Trojans were off and running, using a 42-3 run to blow the Cardinal out of the building. Now it was Stanford drawing similarities to last season’s USC team — the Cardinal were uncharacteristically sloppy and appeared unsure how to respond when the Trojans started punching them in the mouth.

The new dynamic this USC team brought was resilience. Last year’s team would have folded after everything that went wrong in the first quarter, but Slovis led the charge for a group that was unperturbed by adversity. Redshirt sophomore center Brett Neilon said that Slovis gathered the offense on the sideline following Jones’ fumble and showcased the calmness under fire that has impressed teammates and coaches since spring camp.

“[He said] ‘No matter what happens on the field, when the offense hits it we’re going to score, and we’re going to do our thing,’” Neilon said. “That was pretty impressive for a younger guy to do that.”

This is no more than conjecture, but I think it helped that the face of the comeback wasn’t around for all those blown opportunities in 2018. I don’t want to kick Daniels while he’s down because he was quite good in his one half of play against Fresno State, but I can’t help but feel as though the team wouldn’t have reached the level it did if the sight of its signal-caller recalled last season’s debacles.

Slovis is part of a group of young players like Griffin, St. Brown and sophomore safety Talanoa Hufanga that has a chance to help USC move past the self-destructive tendencies of last season. The most frustrating part about 2018 wasn’t the win-loss record, it was the fact that the team beat itself repeatedly and in the most predictable fashion possible. USC couldn’t handle success or failure, and it had no answer when things went wrong. It’s unreasonable to ask Slovis to repeat Saturday night’s performance every week, but it isn’t too much to expect USC not to shoot itself in the foot with turnovers, dumb penalties and a lack of execution.

We’ll see where this team goes. One game is a small sample size, and everything can come crashing down if USC loses at BYU or gets smashed by Utah at home. Any team relying on so many young players is sure to experience some growing pains, but that youth movement also presents a chance at a fresh start. If USC can continue to respond to adversity like it did Saturday night, Trojan fans should feel better no matter the team’s final record this season.

Aidan Berg is a junior writing about sports. He is also an associate managing editor for Daily Trojan. His column, “Berg is the Word,” runs every Monday.