It wasn’t always pretty, and at times it was downright ugly, but the USC Trojans are 1-0 in 2019, after shaking off an injury to starting quarterback JT Daniels and beating Fresno State 31-23.
After nearly blowing a 31-13 lead, USC hung on as Isaiah Pola-Mao intercepted a pass in the endzone with less than two minutes left and the Trojans clinging to an eight-point lead.
“Good win for our football team against a good Fresno State team,” USC head coach Clay Helton said. “There’s a lot to clean up for us. We left some opportunities out there. Thank goodness for a stout defense at the end there. Great play by Isaiah Pola-Mao.”
Despite committing four turnovers, several penalties that wiped out huge gains — including one on the opening kickoff for two players wearing the same number jersey — losing their starting quarterback, and suffering another offensive lull after taking an early 14-0 lead, the Trojans did just enough to come away with the win. But ultimately, the win will raise far more questions than it answered.
The injury to Daniels will overshadow anything else that happened Saturday night, as the Trojans will now wait to hear the severity of his injury. With the Trojans driving just before half and well inside field goal range, Daniels took a sack under a heavy blitz and fumbled the ball while suffering what looked to be a knee injury.
“Gut-wrenching,” Helton said of Daniels’ injury. “When you see a guy who’s poured so much into the game and into this team and into his becoming better physically and mentally as a quarterback.”
Helton said there was an X-ray done on Daniels that came back negative, but they are still waiting for official word as to the injury.
At the time of his injury, Daniels was 25-for-34 for 215 yards, with one touchdown and one interception. He led the Trojans to a 14-0 lead over the first seven minutes of the game, connecting with Stephen Carr on an 8-yard touchdown and then hading to Carr for a 14-yard score.
With Daniels out of the game, the Trojans turned to true freshman Kedon Slovis, who looked like the talented freshman he is, with some nice throws mixed in with some uneasiness in the pocket and a few mistakes, including a deep heave downfield that was easily intercepted.
But even before the injury, the Trojans’ offense sputtered and Fresno State was eventually able to cut the USC lead to 17-13 with a field goal with 8:25 remaining in the third quarter.
It looked like Slovis would need to make some big plays to keep the Trojans out front, but arguably the biggest play of the game came from Velus Jones, who immediately responded to that field goal with a 101-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. It was the sixth 100-yard kickoff return in USC history, as Jones joins Anthony Davis (twice), Adoree’ Jackson (twice) and Marquis Lee.
Slovis connected late in the third quarter with Tyler Vaughns on a 41-yard pass that put the Trojans at the three-yard line. A short Malepeai touchdown run put USC up 31-13 and looked like it would provide all the offense USC would need.
But the finish to the game was not without some drama, as Fresno State scored 10 points and stopped the Trojans on a fourth and one with 2:44 remaining to get the ball back with a chance to tie, before Pola-Mao’s game-saving interception.
So many of the same issues that USC struggled with last season plagued the Trojans throughout the game, with turnovers, penalties, and lack of attention to detail. It started with the penalty on the opening kickoff. That penalty negated a return from Velus Jones that would have set the Trojans up inside the Fresno State 35-yard line.
A deep completion to Amon-Ra St. Brown was wiped out by a penalty for illegal hands to the face, and a long run by Vavae Malepeai was negated by a holding call.
The Trojans couldn’t contain Fresno State quarterback Jorge Reyna, or wide receivers on jet sweeps, as they got around the edge a number of times.
Tyler Vaughns fielded a punt at the five-yard line and was dropped almost immediately, then dropped what should have been a first down on the ensuing drive. That led to a short field for Fresno State that the Bulldogs turned into a touchdown. Vaughns also had a third quarterback fumble that Fresno State turned into a field goal.
A fourth and one with a chance to put the game away was stuffed by Fresno State.
And JT Daniels committed two costly turnovers in the red zone. On the first, he bobbled a snap, seemed to panic, then threw the ball directly to a Fresno State defender who had dropped into coverage. The second, with the Trojans driving at the end of the half and in field goal range, Daniels was sacked by a heavy blitz and fumbled the ball as he suffered the knee injury that knocked him out of the game.
Game Stats, via USC Sports Information
USC had 25 first downs in the game, but just seven in the second half.
Tyler Vaughns finished the game with 11 catches for 150 yards.
Pola-Mao’s interception was the first of his career. He also recorded the first sack of his career earlier in the game.
USC’s 31 points marked the first time in 26 games that Fresno State had allowed more than 30 points. The 25-game streak was the longest active streak in the FBS.