A hazy orange glow peered over the outer rim of the renovated Coliseum as JT Daniels stood behind the line of scrimmage, a new offense at his fingertips, a new football season brimming with hope still ahead.
In that moment, before hope took a hard left turn into dread, anything felt possible for USC and its sophomore signal caller. Both had spent the entire offseason washing their hands of recent history.
And here, in the wake of a 5-7 season, was a chance to start anew.
Less than two quarters later, Daniels lay crumpled on the turf, clutching his right knee in pain, and that brief glint of hope dissolved into disbelief.
Mere seconds remained in a half that USC had controlled outright. But suddenly, the hum of the Trojans’ new Air Raid offense mattered little.
In an instant, everything had changed.
The Coliseum, reduced to a disquieting din, held its breath as a crowd of coaches kneeled next to Daniels. There was little they could do but hold their breath too. They helped Daniels to his feet, bearing his weight.
Even as USC held on for a 31-23 victory over Fresno State, the dread in that moment lingered over the rest of Saturday’s proceedings as Daniels, on crutches, watched from the sideline.
There was no update on Daniels immediately available, but the prognosis did not seem positive after he hobbled off.
“Gut wrenching,” coach Clay Helton said. “You see a kid that’s poured so much into the game and into this team and him becoming better, physically and mentally, as a quarterback. Said a prayer as soon as I saw it. I’m hoping that we get the best results tomorrow.”
The pall was tangible as the staff lifted Daniels from the turf. The 19-year-old former Santa Ana Mater Dei High star had started strong in USC’s new offense, completing 15 of his first 17 passes.
Before he fell to the turf, he had 215 yards and a touchdown.
But in the final seconds of the second quarter, a Fresno State blitz broke through the center of the line, overwhelming Daniels, who fell in a twisted heap to the turf.
“I feel terrible about it,” said center Brett Neilon. “JT is a good kid who works really hard. To see him go down in the first game, it hurt.”
After a few minutes, Daniels was helped to the sideline. He put no weight on his right knee.
It was an image that would be burned into the collective vision of USC fans everywhere — one which, after just two quarters this season, could come to define everything that comes after.
What it would mean for the immediate future was still uncertain. Soon, a cart took Daniels to the locker room, where an X-ray was negative. An MRI was to follow Sunday.
As a disquiet settled over the stadium, freshman Kedon Slovis loosened his arm on the sideline.
Suddenly, the hope of USC’s season rested on the shoulders of a freshman who’d once been a forgotten member of the most recent recruiting class.
Until his emergence in fall camp, it was entirely unlikely Slovis would receive any meaningful playing time this season.
In the locker room, Helton approached the 18-year-old backup and offered his vote of confidence.
“He just gave me a little pep talk,” Slovis said. “That really gave me a lot of confidence.”
As he took the reins of an offense he’d likely command for the foreseeable future, Slovis began somewhat apprehensively. On his first drive, he threw two passes for one total yard, the second of which ended in a fumble that led to a Fresno State field goal.
Still, in the huddle, teammates said they could sense Slovis’ confidence.
“He showed us he wasn’t scared,” left tackle Austin Jackson said.
A 101-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Velus Jones offered a brief respite from the deep sense of foreboding in the stadium as USC took a 24-13 lead and snatched back the momentum it had lost.
But over the final two quarters, the Trojans simply did their best to hold on.
Slovis completed six of eight passes for 57 yards. But most of that passing total came on a 41-yard deep pass to Tyler Vaughns. On his next drive, a similar deep ball from Slovis was intercepted.
Without Daniels, the Trojans were forced to rely mostly on their run game. For one night, that would be enough. The returning rusher from last season, Vavae Malepeai, ran for 134 yards and a touchdown, while all-purpose back Stephen Carr added 99 total yards and two touchdowns.
For a brief while, it seemed as if a new offense finally would cure what ailed USC’s program. On his first drive, Daniels marched down the field, slinging the football to every open player he could find. He threw just one incompletion on that drive and none on the next, smoothly taking what the defense gave him.
He threw a touchdown to Carr, who juked his way into the end zone after eight impressive yards. On USC’s next possession, Daniels calmly led the Trojans again down the field for another Carr touchdown, a rush from 14 yards.
After two drives, USC led by two scores, its new Air Raid offense firing on all cylinders for new offensive coordinator Graham Harrell.
And then, everything screeched to a halt. Disbelief settled over the Coliseum, and the hopeful glow of dusk gave away to the dark of night.