Saturday night’s season opener for USC was supposed to be a fresh start. There was a fancy renovated Coliseum to showcase, a brand new offense to unveil and a chance for the Trojans to wash away the memories of last year’s losing season.
Unfortunately for the once proud Pac-12 bell cow and their embattled head coach, anything that could have gone wrong in their contest against Fresno State probably did early on in a slim 31-23 win over the defending Mountain West champs that was anything but easy.
Trojans starting quarterback J.T. Daniels was undoubtedly the story of the game. After getting off to a good start in running the team’s Air Raid offense for the first time (215 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT), the sophomore suffered the double whammy of taking a sack just before halftime that also resulted in a serious lower leg injury. Trainers checked out his knee for several minutes and had to carry him off the field before eventually loading him into the cart.
Daniels did not return and later returned to the sidelines on crutches and with a brace on his right knee — casting doubt on his status for the rest of the young season.
Taking over behind center was true freshman Kedon Slovis, who surprisingly won the backup job out of camp and seems to be the likely starter going forward. While he did throw an absolute arm punt of an interception, he also lofted a superb deep ball down the sidelines to set up a third quarter touchdown and finished the night 6-of-8 for 57 yards and plenty of promise.
Wideout Velus Jones, who had his first kick return of the game (61 yards) called back on a penalty, turned on the jets for a 101 yard touchdown return in the second half to help the cause. Fellow receiver Tyler Vaughns also went off in the passing game by hauling in 11 catches for a career-high 150 yards while tailback Stephen Carr chipped in with a score rushing plus receiving and Vavae Malepeai had a career-high 134 yards on the ground.
Despite all of that firepower, Fresno State would not go quietly into the Los Angeles night under old foe Jeff Tedford and made things interesting throughout.
Making his first start as the new signal-caller after several seasons as the backup, Jorge Reyna did what he could to rally the Bulldogs with his arm and his legs. The senior from Southern California wound up throwing for 256 yards and two touchdowns (one INT) while also torching USC to the tune of 109 on the ground as the team’s leading rusher. It often felt like he was a one-man band at times given the amount of scrambling he needed to do in the face of a tough SC front seven but it just wasn’t enough as his supporting cast couldn’t quite come up with equally elevated play.
Still, there were plenty of nerves on high alert around the Coliseum as a result of Fresno State’s efforts and even more folks left wondering if Clay Helton’s tenure on the sidelines in Los Angeles is all but certainly over in the wake of Daniels’ injury and some questionable decisions down the stretch. The night started out with a penalty on the very first kick return to sour things from the get-go and the crowd for the first game at the renovated stadium was nearly 20,000 under capacity for a fellow in-state team.
There’s still a ton of season left to go at USC but Saturday night sure felt as much like a loss for some around the program as it did the first win in 2019.