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USC struggled early, but the Trojans’ defense helped fuel a win over San Jose State

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San Jose State linebacker Alii Matau pushes USC quarterback Kedon Slovis out of bounds
San Jose State linebacker Alii Matau pushes USC quarterback Kedon Slovis out of bounds Saturday in Los Angeles.
(John McCoy / Associated Press)

USC coach Clay Helton’s offense stalled for much of the second and third quarters, but the formidable defense helped power the Trojans to a win over San Jose State.

USC quarterback Kedon Slovis struggled to find open targets in the second and third quarters, while the Trojans’ tailbacks could find few rushing lanes.

The Trojans’ defense rallied, delivering a game-changing pick-six that gave USC life until the offense could put away the win.

USC’s defense delivers in season-opening victory over San Jose State

USC safety Greg Johnson celebrates with defensive lineman Tuli Tuipulotu.
USC safety Greg Johnson, right, celebrates with defensive lineman Tuli Tuipulotu after Johnson returned a fourth-quarter interception 37 yards for a touchdown. The Trojans beat San Jose State 30-7.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

What little remained of USC’s momentum was waning, its return to a fan-filled Coliseum threatening to collapse, when Greg Johnson spotted the opposing quarterback’s eyes scanning toward his target and waited to make his game-saving move.

All afternoon, as its offense flailed amid all-too-familiar issues, USC’s defense routinely saved it from certain doom. When Kedon Slovis and Co. came unraveled in the red zone, the defense came alive on third down. When the offense failed to produce big plays, the defense produced some of its own.

And so, as another red zone trip fell flat, leaving USC clinging to a nine-point, fourth-quarter lead over San Jose State, it was Johnson’s turn to put the weight of USC’s uneven effort on his shoulders. The senior defensive back anticipated the pass, stepped in front of his man, and saw nothing but open grass and fan-filled bleachers on his way to the end zone.

It would take a heroic effort from USC’s defense to save the day in its 30-7 season-opening victory over San Jose State that felt far less like the blowout it wound up being. The fact that the box score would suggest as much was a product of just how often the USC defense stepped up.

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Commentary: USC offensive coordinator Graham Harrell still has to show he was worth a big raise

USC offensive coordinator Graham Harrell looks on during practice.
USC offensive coordinator Graham Harrell
(Associated Press)

After just one season as USC’s offensive coordinator, Graham Harrell suddenly had one of the most desired minds in football.

Never mind the disgruntled Trojans fan base, frustrated that “Tailback U” still couldn’t grind out the tough yards in Harrell’s version of the Air Raid offense. There was a logical argument bolstering Harrell’s perceived brilliance. He had lost his starting quarterback, JT Daniels, and quickly developed true freshman Kedon Slovis, a relative unknown, into a budding star. Harrell was young, a former backup to Aaron Rodgers and a proud protégé of Mike Leach. He was all too sellable.

So first came a dalliance with the Texas Longhorns, then real interest from the Philadelphia Eagles as the calendar turned to 2020. But USC convinced Harrell to stay with a significant raise, believing he was an integral part of athletic director Mike Bohn’s spirited attempt to revive the program’s pulse under Clay Helton.

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USC defense closes with a final stop to seal 30-7 win

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Trojans overpower wilted Spartans, add another touchdown

USC is now running over San Jose State’s defense, which seems to have run out of gas.

Drake London continued to be Kedon Slovis’ top target during the next scoring drive.

USC put the game on ice with a 20-yard touchdown from tight end Erik Krommenhoek.

Trojans lead 30-7 with 5:13 left in the game.

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USC defense delivers big red-zone stop

San Jose State responded to USC’s score with a drive into the red zone before stalling on fourth-and-six at the Trojans’ nine-yard line.

After a timeout, the Spartans went for it and couldn’t convert.

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Greg Johnson delivers game-changing pick-six

USC’s Greg Johnson steps in front of a Nick Starkel pass, and he’s off to the races.

A game-changing interception for USC’s defense, and the Trojans have a 23-7 lead with 11:42 remaining.

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Trojans can’t punch in touchdown from the red zone to open fourth

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USC gets key stop and drives to red zone before third quarter ends

San Jose State fumbled and recovered but was forced to punt, giving USC a boost.

The Trojans’ offense finally began clicking. Kedon Slovis found Drake London for his ninth catch of the game and USC reached the red zone before time expired in the third.

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Kedon Slovis continues to struggle and Trojans are in danger of surrendering the lead

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San Jose State offense hits gas to open third quarter

USC got the ball to open the third quarter, but the Trojans couldn’t gain much traction.

San Jose State found its footing on the first drive of the third quarter, converting its first third down of the game with 10:30 left in the third quarter.

The Spartans completed a 24-yard pass play to reach the red zone and then pushed forward into the end zone.

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USC defense helps Trojans maintain 13-0 lead at the half

USC’s offense couldn’t do much to close out the second quarter and San Jose State seemed content to enter halftime trailing 13-0 at the Coliseum.

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Trojans tack on another field goal after drive stalls in red zone

Keaontay Ingram took a draw play on third-and-11 for 16 yards, breathing life into USC’s offense.

The Trojans couldn’t make the most of the drive and stalled in the red zone. Parker Lewis kicked a 23-yard field goal, and USC at least earned some points. Still, a big missed opportunity to stretch out the lead.

USC leads 13-0 with 4:42 left in the second quarter.

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USC offense stalls and San Jose State misses a field goal

USC’s run game struggled to find holes early in the second half and the Trojans punted on back-to-back drives.

San Jose State’s Derrick Deese Jr. got loose for 28 yards.

However, Calen Bullock delivered another good tackle on third down to halt San Jose State’s drive.

The Spartans miss their 28-yard field goal attempt and USC keeps its 10-0 lead with 9:13 left in the second quarter.

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Trojans give up first turnover of season, close first quarter with 10-0 lead

USC seemed poised to pile on more points after forcing San Jose State to punt, but the Trojans couldn’t hold onto the ball.

Erik Krommenhoek fumbled at the USC 49-yard line after pulling in his first catch of the season for a gain of four yards, and it’s San Jose State ball.

USC’s defense responded by forcing another San Jose State three-and-out drive.

The Trojans were driving again to close the first quarter, holding a 10-0 lead with an expectation of more scoring soon.

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USC playmakers deliver interception followed by quick scoring drive

USC receiver Tahj Washington celebrates with tight end Erik Krommenhoek after catching a touchdown pass
USC receiver Tahj Washington (16) celebrates with tight end Erik Krommenhoek (84) after catching a touchdown pass against San Jose State Saturday in Los Angeles.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

Drake Jackson snagged an interception out of midair at the line of scrimmage at the 7:41 mark in the first quarter and USC was in business at San Jose State’s 30-yard-line.

Huge momentum play for USC.

On the ensuing drive, Trojans quarterback Kedon Slovis lofted one deep toward the end zone, and Tahj Washington jumped to grab it for a 29-yard touchdown.

Parker Lewis knocked through the extra point, and USC leads San Jose State 10-0 with 7:01 remaining in the first quarter.

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USC can’t make most of promising opening drive, settles for field goal

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USC defense gets early stops

USC’s 2021 football season is under way, with San Jose State receiving the opening kickoff.

The Trojans’ defense held San Jose State to a three-and-out on the Spartans’ first possession. Good start for USC.

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USC-San Jose State kickoff can be seen on Pac-12 Network LA or Pac-12 app

With Oregon-Fresno State still going down to the wire, you’ll have to catch the start of USC’s opener versus San Jose State on Pac-12 Network LA or the Pac-12 Network app.

The Trojans’ game will shift back to the Pac-12 Network once the Oregon-Fresno State game ends.

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USC band takes the field ahead of kickoff

Fans are slowly making their way into the Coliseum. Tailgating resumed this season after a year off due to COVID-19 restrictions.

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Isaiah Pola-Mao out after after entering COVID-19 health and safety protocols

USC will open the season without its two-time captain at safety.

Isaiah Pola-Mao is out for today’s season opener against San Jose State after entering COVID-19 health and safety protocols earlier this week.

Pola-Mao, who is vaccinated, was ruled out in the latter half of the week. His status for next week’s game against Stanford is unclear.

USC will most likely employ a rotation of safeties to make up for the loss of Pola-Mao, among them transfers Xavien Alford (Texas) and Chris Thompson Jr. (Auburn). But after a standout preseason, freshman Calen Bullock could be the main beneficiary in Pola-Mao’s absence.

Replacing Pola-Mao right out of the gate will be no easy task for a USC defense that was expecting to take a major leap forward after a full year learning defensive coordinator Todd Orlando’s scheme. Pola-Mao was the third-leading tackler on USC’s defense last season and was expected to take on a bigger role in 2021.

Read more here about the Los Angeles County health and safety protocols that will impact how USC deals with any close contacts to COVID-19 cases this season.

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USC’s Kedon Slovis enters the 2021 season feeling ‘the best I’ve felt in a long time’

After a sophomore season spent in the throes of pandemic protocols, slogging his way day after day through Zoom calls and COVID tests and unwavering uncertainty, Kedon Slovis was — to put it lightly — emotionally spent.

It’d been a frustrating season for USC’s quarterback for many reasons, even before it all unraveled during a Pac-12 title loss to Oregon. While USC won its first five games — and the Pac-12 South division — every step felt like a struggle. Slovis had hoped to step up as a sophomore, to prove himself as a leader in the locker room, but with the pandemic, the opportunity never really presented itself. The team, forced to comply with stringent restrictions, didn’t feel much like a team at all, and Slovis, fresh off a dynamic debut season, didn’t feel much like himself.

“I think I speak for a lot of dudes on the team — it wasn’t easy,” Slovis said. “It wasn’t the most fun time.”

USC coach Clay Helton talks with quarterback Kedon Slovis on the sideline during a game
USC coach Clay Helton talks with quarterback Kedon Slovis the 2020 season.
(Chris Gardner / Getty Images)

Most frustrating of all, his mechanics were failing him, and there was no time to fix them. Keen observers could intuit something was off. Months later, Slovis learned it was largely a matter of timing. His weight was shifting forward too quickly, leaving his arm to catch up. He was finishing throws using solely the strength in that right arm, leading some to wobble out of his hand.

But for most of the season, Slovis couldn’t pinpoint the problem. As a result, the confidence behind his passes suffered.

A season’s worth of frustration culminated in the title loss to Oregon. After, he says, the entire team was worn out.

“You can’t expect to play like that the whole year and win consistently,” Slovis said. He described the defeat as “the epitome of our frustrations.”

Slovis is still hard on himself for how it all unfolded, even while, on paper, everything seemed fine. He led the Pac-12 in passing yards (1,921) and touchdowns (17) and was named to the All-Pac-12 first team. He led winning drives against Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA. To Slovis, though, his season felt like a step in the wrong direction.

“That wasn’t me,” he said.

But these days, on the doorstep of a critical campaign for USC, the junior quarterback is feeling much more like himself. His mechanics have been fine-tuned by the quarterback gurus at 3DQB in Hermosa Beach. His arm, he says, feels better than ever. All around him are signs that the frustrations of last season are in the rear-view mirror. USC’s campus is buzzing with students. There’s energy at practice again.

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