If that’s how this season’s gonna go, USC fans might be wise to just turn the TV off each week and check the score when the game is over.
I jest, of course — but only slightly. The No. 20 Trojans’ victory over Arizona State Saturday was about the wildest USC game I’ve ever seen (I’m a junior with no prior USC ties; please go easy). It was thrilling, it was nerve-wracking, it was infuriating, it was exhilarating, it was an emotional roller coaster with hundred-foot drops every three seconds and corkscrews placed at irregular intervals throughout.
It was everything USC fans feared this game might be, minus what matters above all: the ultimate victor.
But don’t let USC’s undefeated record trick you. It was a horrid performance. I’m hardly sold.
The coaching was questionable at best. The defensive game plan was ineffective. (Side note: Was there a defensive game plan?) The offense decided that 9 a.m. in a drizzle was the perfect scenery for a game of hot potato, substitute football for starch.
But hey, they won, and I’m a positive guy. Let’s talk about something good: Kedon Slovis.
Alright, I misled you. I have to lead this off with some negativity; it’s essential to my point. The sophomore quarterback did not play a particularly clean game. He was good, sure. He was not amazing. His was the kind of stat sheet that would fool someone who didn’t watch the game, namely, a non-USC or ASU fan who decided it wasn’t particularly worth it to arise basically at the crack of dawn (I’m a college student) to catch the 9 a.m. kickoff. (Seriously, Larry Scott, East Coasters can watch games at 4 p.m. eastern time.)
Slovis forced way too many passes into double- and triple-coverage in Week 1, and though an offensive line porous in pass protection prevented him from getting comfortable until late, his decision-making was nonetheless uncharacteristic. The would-be interception that went right off the hands of ASU redshirt junior linebacker Kyle Soelle and into those of sophomore receiver Drake London stands out. As does his actual interception in the second quarter, thrown into literally triple coverage. As do several other dangerous balls that, thankfully for USC, fell to the ground. As well, there were several balls that Slovis simply under or over threw.
It was clear Slovis didn’t have his A-game, and it’s clear that Heisman Slovis is a pipe dream if he doesn’t clean that up.
How do I know?
We got a sneak peek at Heisman Slovis in the last few minutes as USC pulled off the most improbable of improbabilities, because what separates good quarterbacks from great ones is that the latter finds a way to get the job done when they’re not firing on all cylinders.
That’s what Slovis did in the final minutes Saturday. He was an entirely different quarterback, one who stared down the face of a 13-point deficit with time winding down and USC’s Pac-12 Championship hopes evaporating before noon of Week 1, facing do-or-die fourth-and-long multiple times with backs pressed as tightly against the wall as physically possible, and he delivered.
I’m talking about the absolutely perfect pass he delivered to London for the go-ahead score, a ball that seasoned NFL quarterbacks couldn’t have placed any better. I’m talking about the presence of mind to heave it up to junior receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown in the end zone on fourth-and-9 down 13, knowing USC had a free play after an ASU offside penalty, in hopes of a lucky bounce — which he got. I’m talking about the strike to St. Brown across the middle for 36 yards to put USC just outside the red zone, setting up that first touchdown.
Slovis in those two drives was 8-for-12 with 114 yards and two touchdowns. Anything less than that, and USC is 0-1. In a game where the sophomore played well but not quite up to his standard, he managed to get the job done in the biggest moments, a marker of elite maturity and poise.
Of course, the story of USC’s comeback can’t be told without mentioning several other contributors: redshirt freshman receiver Bru McCoy, who found himself in the right place at the right time on that first touchdown and scooped up the ensuing onside kick; freshman kicker Parker Lewis, the author of said kick that gave USC the chance to tie it up in the first place; redshirt senior running back Vavae Malepeai, who ran for 33 yards combined on the first two plays of the deciding drive to set up the go ahead score; St. Brown, who picked up the aforementioned 36-yard reception and showed awareness of his own in tipping the first touchdown to McCoy.
The story of the other 55 minutes can’t be told without junior safety Talanoa Hufanga’s 10 tackles and forced fumble, St. Brown’s 100 receiving yards, the four turnovers and yes, head coach Clay Helton taking the much-needed risk-taking on fourth down a bit too far with a failed attempt in the third quarter when USC desperately needed to draw within one possession.
Neither of those stories — the comeback or the game at large — can be told without London, who led USC with 125 receiving yards and hung on for a somersaulting, fingertip-strength-testing, double-covered, supremely athletic grab on the dime from Slovis that won it.
I could’ve written about London, in my mind, the clear-cut MVP of that win. (I did it once, go read my profile.) But frankly, London didn’t surprise me one bit.
Slovis surprised me. I thought he was going to be elite all game Saturday, and he wasn’t. To be honest, I’m not quite sure what to make of his performance.
Ah, heck. I won’t try to make anything of it. I’ll take it for what it was: a fine showing followed by a four-minute stretch in which Kedon Slovis showed everyone how a great quarterback simply finds a way to get the job done, no matter the circumstances.
Nathan Ackerman is a junior writing about USC football. He is also an associate managing editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “The Wrap,” runs every Monday during football season.