The freshman quarterback stood alone, surveying the scene from an empty backfield set. For Kedon Slovis, there would be no trial period, no slow ramp-up. USC’s offense was his now, for better or worse.
Only four other true freshman quarterbacks had ever stood in this position at USC, and the weight of that significance had kept him wide awake the night before, buzzing with anticipation. Now, as his unexpected tenure began, Slovis looked left, then right, with an anxious Coliseum crowd staring down at him, unsure what to expect.
Hours later, in the afterglow of a career-defining performance and potentially season-defining 45-20 victory over No. 23 Stanford, teammates and coaches would claim they’d seen his coronation coming. They’d watched Slovis’ cannon arm up close and felt his fearlessness firsthand, and so, they proclaimed, this seemed like the natural progression.
“Since the beginning, I’ve been trying to tell you the kid can be special,” said Graham Harrell, USC’s offensive coordinator.
But this special? No one could’ve possibly imagined this. A week after the Trojans lost sophomore quarterback JT Daniels, the touted signal caller on which the Trojans’ hopes seem to hinge, here was the overlooked three-star recruit from Scottsdale, Ariz., who’d sent USC his own scouting video suddenly reigniting hope in a season that seemed lost last Saturday.
This was stranger than fiction — a 377-yard, three-touchdown performance bordering on football fairytale. And so, it seemed only right, amid this surreal, unexpected coronation, that Slovis would end his historic night at the center of it all, clutching a sword in front of USC’s band and leading the proceedings, unlike any 18-year-old freshman before him.
“He’s not afraid of anything,” left tackle Austin Jackson said. “So this was the perfect stage for him.”
As debuts go, this was one USC only could have dreamed about from a player who was never expected to play. From the start, Slovis threw confidently downfield and stood strong in the pocket, unfazed by pressure.
Even as USC’s defense threatened to break in the first half, Slovis never so much as bent. On his first possession, he marched the Trojans’ up-tempo offense down the field on a scoring drive.
But by the second quarter, with its defense struggling to keep its discipline, USC trailed by two scores. A fumble on a kickoff by Velus Jones, who had a 101-yard touchdown return last week, made matters even worse, as Stanford gained possession 21 yards from the end zone, threatening to bust the game open with a three-score lead.
After the defense held, Slovis gathered the offense. He looked around the huddle. “We’re scoring on every drive from now on,” he declared.
Six of USC’s next seven drives would end in touchdowns, as its quarterback had his way with a secondary that a week ago held Northwestern to a meager 117 yards passing.
Before the game, Helton told his quarterback he didn’t need to be Superman. But from then on Saturday night, Slovis might as well have worn a red cape over his shoulder pads.
With USC still trailing by two scores, the freshman cocked back his right arm on the next possession and launched a 39-yard bomb into the L.A. night. The high-arcing pass floated down between two Stanford defenders, landing perfectly in the outstretched arms of Amon-ra St. Brown for his first of two touchdowns.
“I saw that pass go for a touchdown,” center Brett Neilon said, “and I turned around and thought, ‘Dang, this kid is for real.’ ”
It was a sentiment few believed months earlier, but there was no denying it now. Even as the Trojans trailed, their quarterback’s confidence only seemed to grow.
Over two scoring drives to the end the first half, Slovis didn’t throw a single incomplete pass, even as time ticked off the clock, testing his composure. After halftime, he only had two incompletions.
As the third quarter arrived, so did help on defense. Stanford’s offense, led by its own injury fill-in at quarterback, Davis Mills, ground to a halt, as USC worked out issues that plagued its inconsistent first half. A once-thriving Stanford ground game dried up, finishing with fewer rushing yards (98) than it boasted at halftime (102).
“We just needed to clamp down,” freshman defensive end Drake Jackson said.
More than once, the Cardinal threatened to score. A taxing, 14-play Stanford drive to start the third quarter finished with a missed kick. The Cardinal’s next possession, which began near midfield, ended in a blocked field-goal attempt.
Slovis would shut the door on Stanford soon after, closing the book on a performance no one around USC will soon forget.
All week, the expectation had been that Slovis would be eased into the role that was thrust upon him, but on Saturday nothing proved further from the truth. USC’s run game was efficient but unimpressive. Vavae Malepeai led the team again with 42 yards and two touchdowns.
Until the second half, when it held Stanford without a single point, the defense hadn’t done him many favors, either.
It was Slovis, instead, who carried USC on his own shoulders, even if he wouldn’t admit it himself.
“There’s such talent around me,” Slovis said. “For me, it was kind of like, ‘Don’t take away from these guys.’ Get it in their hands and let them do the work.”
It was a humbling sentiment from USC’s electric new quarterback. But as the fourth quarter wound down, it was obvious whom Saturday night’s win was about. With a victory in hand, the student section began chanting his name.
“We love Slo-vis!” they screamed.
After a first start for the ages by their freshman quarterback, they weren’t the only ones.