The first touchdown pass finally was under his belt. The defense had forced a three-and-out. JT Daniels had the ball back in his hands with a chance to build some real momentum in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s season-opening 43-21 win over Nevada Las Vegas.
But, on the drive’s second play, UNLV’s Roger Mann tackled Daniels from behind and forced the ball out into the hands of a Rebels defender. It had been that kind of day for the Trojans, no flow to be found, and now, UNLV had the ball back in USC territory trailing by just 12 with plenty of time left. Somehow, this was still anybody’s game.
Then, the whistle blew. The officials wanted to review the play to make sure it was a fumble. Daniels gathered the offense, and they watched the replay on the Coliseum video board.
“Halfway through the review, we knew we had it,” USC center Brett Neilon said.
Sure enough, Daniels’ knee was ruled down before the ball popped out. The Trojans were handed a third and seven. Daniels was handed a chance at swift redemption. Not that he would allow himself to see it that way.
“The more you think like that,” Daniels said later, “the lower your chances of making a big play. You just hype yourself up and give yourself too much pressure.”
He needs no more hype than has been heaped on him already. Five-star recruit. The next great USC quarterback. Gatorade athlete of the year. Daniels has lived with it for years, and it only grew when he went out and won the Trojans’ starting quarterback job within three months of arriving on campus.
USC offensive coordinator Tee Martin sent in the play, and Daniels did what he has been taught, what he loves. He processed it, poring over the details in his head. He needed just eight yards to keep the drive moving, and the play was designed to that end. It did include a deep seam route to Trevon Sidney in the slot, too, but Daniels would go there only if the safety lined up close enough. Daniels liked what he saw and tossed a precision pass over the top that Sidney reeled in for a 41-yard gain.
Aca’Cedric Ware burst for a 15-yard touchdown run on the next play. There was a lot to learn from Daniels’ day, but most of it could be gleaned from his rope to Sidney just one play after he took a lick and nearly turned it over.
“It shows that he doesn’t care,” Sidney said. “He’s going to put the ball up.”
“It would be easy for a freshman to kind of get rattled in that situation,” Neilon said. “He’s very flat, and that’s good. He threw that bomb, and it showed his poise and leadership that he wasn’t pouting about it.”
With USC ahead only 19-14 entering the fourth quarter, the coaches easily could have gone conservative in their play calling to protect Daniels. Instead, they encouraged him to start bombing away.
He finished 22 of 35 for 282 yards and a touchdown, but his most efficient work was done in the final stanza, when he completed five of seven passes for 138 yards — including a 43-yard touchdown strike to Amon-ra St. Brown, the deep seam to Sidney and a 36-yarder to Michael Pittman Jr.
“Knowing that they have the faith in me and allowing me to go out and make mistakes and take a few shots, it’s really reassuring,” Daniels said.
Daniels is a student of sports psychology. He knows how to control his emotions. But he acknowledged he felt nervous Saturday; entering the Coliseum for the first time on game day gave him “goosebumps.” It showed. His timing with starting receivers Tyler Vaughns and Pittman was off. Daniels’ first three completions as a Trojan went to St. Brown, his high school teammate at Santa Ana Mater Dei and college roommate and security blanket.
“Just not on the same page today,” said Vaughns, who finished with four catches for 37 yards. “It happens. It just so happens today was an off day for us.”
The Trojans trailed 14-9 in the second quarter, and the announced crowd of 58,708 was on edge. Daniels threw a well-timed pass in the end zone to Pittman that would have brought the place to life, but Pittman dropped it, and USC settled for the fourth of Chase McGrath’s five field goals.
“It’s just first game stuff,” Pittman said. “There are always jitters the first game.”
Marginal improvement will not be enough for No. 15 USC. Trips to Stanford and Texas await Daniels. He’ll be challenged to keep his mind and emotions in check much more than Saturday.
“Just trying to be as neutral as I can in my thoughts,” he said. “Not necessarily positive, ‘I can do this, let’s go,’ or negative, ‘I suck, I can’t do this.’ I try to be as neutral as possible and be as objective as I can in attacking the defense.”