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In his debut, freshman Daniels makes the right plays on an anxious afternoon for the Trojans

In his debut, freshman Daniels makes the right plays on an anxious afternoon for the Trojans
USC quarterback JT Daniels scrambles to evade UNLV defensive back Jocquez Kalili during the Trojans' 43-21 victory Saturday at the Coliseum. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The final score failed to convey how close USC came to being embarrassed or how that fear spread throughout the stands in the Coliseum.

Special players can do that, make a play here, another there, and erase the memories of the anxiety that persisted for the majority of an afternoon.

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JT Daniels was that player Saturday.

The qualities that separated Daniels from the Trojans’ other quarterbacks were showcased in the 43-21 victory over UNLV.

The swift release. The velocity of the passes. The composure.

The third characteristic, this Zen-like calmness of the true freshman quarterback starting his first college game, was really what allowed the Titanic to miss the iceberg and reach the open ocean on the first weekend of the season.

There were some early nerves to temper, some passes that could have been delivered more precisely, but when the plays counted most, when the outcome was still in question in the fourth quarter, Daniels made a couple of spectacular throws that changed the course of the game.

That such late-game heroics were necessary against a team that was 5-7 last season should be of concern for the No. 15 Trojans.

They visit Stanford this week and Texas the week after that. Play them as they did UNLV and the Trojans will be 1-2, regardless of how Daniels performs.

By graduating from high school and enrolling at USC a year ahead of schedule, Daniels spared the Trojans from a potentially disastrous situation at quarterback in the wake of Sam Darnold’s early departure for the NFL.

And by taking control of the game Saturday in the opening minutes of the final quarter and by finishing the game with 282 yards on 22 of 35 passing, Daniels saved Clay Helton from the worst loss of his tenure as USC’s head coach.

However, as much as the Trojans have leaned on their wunderkind quarterback, they have to be mindful that he is only 18 years old. Daniels can get them out of only so much trouble, especially in the early stages of the season as he adjusts to a speed of play with which he was previously unfamiliar. The only other true freshman to start a season opener for them was Matt Barkley in 2009.

“We’ve got a lot to fix before we get to Stanford this week,” Helton said.

The Trojans didn’t commit any turnovers, but they weren’t particularly sharp, either. There were passes that were dropped, punts that were shanked and big plays that were conceded. Daniels admitted he was nervous early and it showed, as he misfired on several passes and had trouble linking up with receivers other than fellow freshman Amon-ra St. Brown, who was also his teammate at Mater Dei High School.

St. Brown had six catches in the first half. No other receiver had more than two.

The team’s shortcomings resulted in kicker Chase McGrath equaling a school record with five field goals, four of them in the first half.

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“It means that we’re not putting the ball in the end zone,” Helton said.

The Trojans trailed the Rebels until Vavae Malepeai scored on a two-yard run with a minute and four seconds remaining in the first half.

USC was ahead by only five points when the fourth quarter started.

That’s when Daniels made the play of the game, floating a 43-yard touchdown pass into the hands of St. Brown to increase the Trojans’ advantage to 26-14. St. Brown had seven catches for 98 yards.

On USC’s next possession, Daniels connected with Trevon Sidney for 41 yards to advance the football to the UNLV 15-yard line, from where running back Aca'Cedric Ware scored to provide the Trojans with a 33-14 buffer.

“Coach Helton made it clear that I’m not here to just hand the ball off and throw the short pass every single time,” Daniels said.

It’s not as if Helton had a choice. With little else working, the Trojans had to throw downfield.

Whatever the reason, Daniels was grateful Helton continued to grant him opportunities to make plays.

“Knowing that they had that faith in me and allowing me to go out and make mistakes and take a few shots, it’s really reassuring for me to know,” Daniels said.

Daniels said that the key to his success was to not think he had to do something drastic.

“The more you think that, I think the lower your chances of making the big play,” he said. “You just hype yourself up and give yourself too much pressure.”

The mind-set should serve Daniels well over the coming two weeks. Only that won’t be enough against the likes of Stanford and Texas. He will need a better team around him.

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