USC’s young receivers slow to catch on
USC running back Ronald Jones II picks uo big yards against the Western Michigan defense during the first quarter at the Coliseum.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
USC quarterback Sam Darnold throws a pass against Western Michigan.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
USC quarterback Sam Darnold is all smiles after a rushing touchdown by Stephan Carr.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Jake Olson (61)is congratulated by teammates after snapping the ball for an extra point against Western Michigan during the fourth quarter.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
USC running back Ronald Jones II eludes the tackle of Western Michigan cornerback Darius Phillips during the first quarter.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
USC receiver Steven Mitchell Jr. finds room to run after a reception against Western Michigan during the second quarter.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Western Michigan defensive back Sam Beal intercepts a pass intended for USC receiver Jalen Greene during the third quarter.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
USC quarterback Sam Darnold beats Western Michigan’s Caleb Baily (8) for a touchdown during the third quarter.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
USC linebacker Porter Gustin, bottom, sacks Western Michigan quarterback Jon Wassink as Rasheem Green (94) helps during the fourth quarter.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
USC safety Marvell Tell III returns an interception for a touchdown against Western Michigan during the fourth quarter.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
USC quarterback Sam Darnold fumbles the snap as Western Michigan’s Asantay Brown tries to recover the ball during the second quarter. The Trojans retained possession.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
USC didn’t need to generate much offense other than on the ground Saturday — except on one crucial third down when it faced third and 17.
Western Michigan had just scored on a double-pass. USC was losing. Its offense was sputtering.
So quarterback Sam Darnold looked for a familiar partner. He unleashed a pass across the middle and connected with slot receiver Deontay Burnett, who made a diving catch for 27 yards, defibrillating a drive that ultimately tied the score.
The play highlighted a lone bright spot in USC’s passing game: Burnett and Darnold are on the same wavelength.
It also underlined a problem: Had Burnett not found open space, Darnold lacked other options. Burnett caught seven passes for 142 yards — nearly half of Darnold’s total of 289 passing yards.
Steven Mitchell Jr. caught four passes for 39 yards, and Jalen Greene, the third starter, caught one for 11 yards.
“Coming in, that was my primary concern,” coach Clay Helton said. “I said all camp because you just know, after doing it for 23 years, you understand when you’ve got young people and they step in that Coliseum for the first time, that there’s going to be some deer in the headlights until they get comfortable. And there were some big eyes.”
“We were out of flux, to be honest with you,” Helton said.
Burnett said the receiving group has heard persistent criticism. Mostly, he said, the critique is “that we’re young.”
“I know we’re young,” Burnett said. “But we have great ball catchers.”
Burnett is the only receiver who has displayed chemistry with Darnold so far, but, he said, the same trust exists with his teammates.
Darnold paused when asked how far away the passing game was from his ideal.
“I’m not really sure, honestly,” he said. “As the season progresses we’ll see where we are. But I think we’re in a good spot right now. I have a lot of chemistry with the guys.”
Darnold blamed himself for the first mediocre performance of his career: 289 yards, two interceptions and no passing touchdowns.
“I’ve just got to put the ball where it needs to be,” Darnold said. “I was trying to be too cute.”
The absence of tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe, one of Darnold’s favorite targets, for long stretches of the contest also hampered the passing game.
Imatorbhebhe is recovering from a hip flexor injury, and Helton talked with him about his role before the game. Helton told him to be ready only when needed. Then he started Tyler Petite.
In limited minutes, Imatorbhebhe caught one pass for 12 yards. But he emerged from the game healthy.
“I feel like I’m close,” he said. “I didn’t have any pain.”
Fans in the upper rows could see the La Tuna Fire burning in the hills within view of the Coliseum. The temperature gauge on the peristyle end of the Coliseum swung well past the 100-degree mark.
At kickoff, the official temperature was 98 degrees, making it the hottest game at the Coliseum since a 1998 game against Purdue, which was 99 at kickoff.
And the temperature climbed into triple digits during the game.
A total of 61,125 fans attended, USC’s lowest-attended season opener since 2001 and the lowest of any game since 2002.
“I’m sure everybody was sucking wind,” linebacker Cameron Smith said. “I’m sure the stands were sucking wind. It was hot outside.”
Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand
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