Trojans face San Jose State

USC football players jump up in celebration while walking off the field.
USC has expressed confidence entering their season opener against San Jose Saturday afternoon. The Trojans have played the Spartans on four different occasions before, undefeated in all four games. (Daily Trojan file photo)

The last time USC met San Jose State on the gridiron in 2009, the Trojans steamrolled through the Spartans in a 56-3 rout. Head coach Clay Helton and his squad will look to replicate this success in their season opener Saturday at the Coliseum. 

However, the matchup will likely not go as smoothly as it did 12 years ago. The Spartans’ confidence is riding high after thrashing Southern Utah 45-14 last weekend in their season opener. This potent San Jose State offense could give defensive coordinator Todd Orlando some headaches come Saturday. 

“They’ve got experience,” Orlando said in a media briefing after practice Wednesday. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a team with this many years of experience, just all the way through,
offensively and defensively.”

At the helm, graduate senior quarterback Nick Starkel started off his second season at SJSU with a bang, finishing with 394 yards and 4 touchdowns against Southern Utah. Starkel could use the deep ball early to test a USC secondary that lost one of its best playmakers, safety Talanoa Hufanga, to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFL Draft. 

Stepping into Hufanga’s spot as the lead safety will be redshirt senior Isaiah Pola-Mao, who landed on Pro Football Focus’ “prospects to watch” list this season. Despite the crater-sized hole left by the departure of Hufanga, Pola-Mao is unfazed by the spotlight, confident in his team and their preparation heading into the season opener. 

“I think we can be the number one defense in the nation,” Pola-Mao said in a post-practice media briefing Wednesday. “If we’re firing on all cylinders, [defensive line], linebackers, [defensive backs], I think it’s going to be hard to get past us. We make plays, and that’s what this defense is set up for.”

If all goes right for the Trojans on Saturday, Orlando’s defense will be able to contain Starkel and keep head coach Brent Brennan’s offense off the field, with junior quarterback Kedon Slovis and USC’s offense dominating the time of possession. 

However, one of the biggest question marks for the Trojans over the last couple years under Helton still persists this season: the offensive line.

If USC hopes to be successful this season, protecting their number nine in the pocket is key. San Jose State may be the perfect opponent to test the validity of this offensive line, with senior defensive end Cade Hall and sophomore edge rusher Viliami Fehoko on the flanks of the defensive line. The duo of Hall and Fehoko led  the Spartans’ pass rush last season, recording 16 of the team’s 26 total sacks. Hall and Fehoko were the only San Jose State players to finish with more than two sacks in 2020, recording 10 and six, respectively.

“Guys like [Cade Hall], [E.J Ane], [Viliami Fehoko],” redshirt freshman offensive lineman Courtland Ford said, naming off some players that coaches have been focusing in on in the film room. “I’m just picking up piece-by-piece, taking notes on what’s their tendencies, getting in and knowing what I can do to combat their moves.”

Four of the five starting offensive lineman from last season will suit up and start on Saturday, led by new offensive line coach Clay McGuire. 

“It’ll be a huge challenge for us,” McGuire said. “These are really good football players … we are going to come out there and play our best game.”

Fans will enter the Coliseum for USC football for the first time in almost two years Saturday. The atmosphere will be a refreshing experience for the crowd, the players and the coaches. 

“We’re excited,” Pola-Mao said. “We’re tired of hitting each other, we’re just happy to be going up against some other color jerseys.”

The Trojans kickoff against the Spartans at 2 p.m. on Saturday.