Anthony on LA: Jaxson Dart starting is what we’ve all been waiting for

Freshman quarterback Jaxson Dart tucks the ball on a run.
Freshman quarterback Jaxson Dart carries the ball during USC’s game against Arizona. Dart has thrown for 198 yards, 2 touchdowns and 1 interception in the two games he’s been back. (Patrick Hannan | Daily Trojan)

When freshman quarterback Jaxson Dart entered the game against Arizona three weeks ago, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum noticeably exploded. The crowd erupted, chanting “Let’s go, Dart.” The stadium’s energy increased substantially. The Coliseum became lively again.

As interim Head Coach Donte Williams flipped between Dart and junior quarterback Kedon Slovis as if he was going through TV channels, I found myself asking: Why?

It made no sense to me then; it makes no sense to me as you read this column and it surely wouldn’t have made any sense if Williams did it again Saturday against UCLA.

Williams announced Monday Dart would start, not Slovis. Everyone knew it was coming and on Tuesday, they saw the news and sighed in relief. 

Sure, a leg injury to Slovis forced the change of hand, but this has been bound to happen. 

To put it lightly, Slovis has not had the year we all expected him to have, throwing 11 touchdowns and 8 interceptions. After he threw for a career-low 223 yards against Stanford and was booed off the field, it seemed like the writing was on the wall. 

He didn’t have a chance to bounce back the next game against Washington State because of an early injury and in came Dart.

The offense continued to struggle in the first half. But, in the second, wow, did Dart dash and drive his way through the Cougar defense. 

A memorable performance added juice to a Trojan offense that looked like it needed an IV at times. 

Dart’s blonde, flushing hair flowed down his helmet as he delivered darts to multiple receivers for touchdowns and huge gains. The air raid offense finally looked like a true air raid as Dart’s swagger and radiant personality bled through the TV screen. The line of black paint down the side of his face gave him the look of a gladiator and the leader USC desperately needed. 

Redshirt senior center Brett Neilon said Dart reminds him of former star quarterback Sam Darnold — the Darnold that led USC to its last bowl victory. 

“He’s a young dude, but I tell him all the time, he’s a leader,” said junior cornerback Chris Steele after the win against Washington State. “When he speaks, people listen. Today I feel like he played like a leader, too.”

Dart’s a leader that threw for 391 passing yards — the most in a Trojan debut — and 4 touchdowns.

Remember that? It was only two months ago, not two years, and the sequel is Saturday at 1 p.m. where Dart will get the chance to run it back. Get to the Coliseum early, get your hot dogs and burgers grilled and get your popcorn ready. 

You won’t want to miss this. 

No more struggling to find his rhythm because of a quarterback switcheroo. No more defenses making mid-game adjustments he can’t read since he’ll be on the field the entire time. No more guessing game from USC fans to see who will be under center.

It will be one man, one number, one eye covered in black paint and one electric quarterback that has already won over the Trojan faithful. 

If he’s USC’s future, this is his chance to write his story. What a stage to make his starting debut. USC and UCLA. Storied rivals in a huge game where stars such as Dart are bound to take off. 

It’s a Hollywood screenplay USC alumnus George Lucas would be proud of. And it’s a storyline that can captivate a Coliseum crowd that has been bleak this season.

However, it hasn’t been all fun and games for Dart recently.

He doesn’t seem to be exploding with the same force as the Washington State game. Remember, he suffered a torn meniscus just under two months ago. 

In the two games he’s been back, he’s thrown for  a combined 198 yards, 2 touchdowns and 1 interception averaging a 56.9% completion rate. He’s also had 3 rushing attempts for 16 yards and a touchdown. 

Some of this can be attributed to the spontaneity of his appearances and some rust. There will likely be an adjustment period early on, but once the game gets going it will be interesting to see how Dart settles in.

USC will not be able to rely too much on the run game — UCLA is the second-best run defense in the Pac-12 but ranks last in pass yards allowed in the conference — which isn’t ideal since this passing game is still hurting with out Drake London. Dart doesn’t look 100% healthy either, making this appearance a little bit of a risk.

But, gosh, this match is now more intriguing and captivating with Dart getting the chance to lead USC in a full game. His incumbent Slovis has dominated the Bruins the last two games, leaving the door open for Dart to do the same.  

And this is not to take anything away from Slovis, who has been a great quarterback and leader, but in a season that is without London and won’t end in a prominent bowl game, seeing what Dart can do in a huge rivalry game is a
major storyline. 

If Dart can lead the Trojans to a huge win over the Bruins, it will surely be a bullseye.

Anthony Gharib is a junior writing about all things Los Angeles sports. His column “Anthony on LA,” appears every other Friday. He is also a sports editor at the Daily Trojan.