Three weeks ago, after his third interception clinched an overtime defeat at Brigham Young, a frustrated Kedon Slovis returned home from his first brutal trip eager to redeem himself.
He never got the chance. USC’s freshman quarterback was concussed on the second play of its game against Utah, then sat out the next week against Washington, leaving third-string quarterback Matt Fink as the only option under center.
But as the Trojans return recharged from a much-needed week off, so will Slovis. With No. 9 Notre Dame on tap in a crucial road rivalry matchup Saturday, Slovis is officially set to step back into his starting role, coach Clay Helton said Tuesday.
It’s hardly a soft landing spot for a freshman quarterback who’s been sidelined for multiple weeks. Notre Dame’s secondary is among the best in the nation, with only 183 yards passing allowed per game and only three touchdowns allowed through the air all season. And at home in South Bend, Ind., that group has been even better, as opposing quarterbacks have completed only 55% of passes.
Slovis, meanwhile, has yet to prove his mettle on the road. In his first collegiate game away from the Coliseum, he struggled to find any semblance of rhythm, as BYU dropped eight defenders into zone coverage, forcing him to throw into tight windows. He responded with three picks.
Those windows will only get tighter this weekend in a far more hostile environment. But as far as Slovis and USC’s coaches are concerned, his issues on the road three weeks ago have little to do with what he’ll face in South Bend on Saturday.
“I don’t think it was the atmosphere or the moment,” offensive coordinator Graham Harrell said. “That’s what I’ve been impressed with him about. Since the day he’s been here, I don’t think it’s ever been too big of a moment for him. He never had the big eyes or the deer-in-the-headlights look. He always carried himself with confidence and expects good things to happen.”
In his first road tilt, it was a lack of discipline that doomed Slovis — and, by extension, USC’s offense. The freshman found himself skipping reads and pressing after throwing his first two picks.
In South Bend, the same issues would be a recipe for disaster. Notre Dame ranks second in the nation in turnover margin at plus-10, while USC is a paltry 122nd at minus-seven. Any such turnover disparity Saturday could end an upset bid in a hurry.
But with Slovis returning, so should the more efficient passing attack that fell by the wayside the past two weeks with Fink at the helm. In spite of his four interceptions this season, Slovis still ranks second in the nation in completion percentage at 77.9%, trailing only Louisiana State’s Joe Burrow.
Out of the concussion protocol last Monday, a healthy Slovis had all of last week to find his rhythm again through the air. Whether that’ll be enough in a hostile environment, against one of the nation’s top pass defenses, remains to be seen.
“We had that bye week, and even though he wasn’t cleared for contact, he began throwing,” Helton said. “He began working with the receivers last week during the bye, and that helps to garner those reps. Being cleared and practicing, he does not look out of form to me. He looks really good.”
Two years ago, as a senior at Cathedral Prep in Indiana, Markese Stepp had plans of playing at Notre Dame. But when former running backs coach Deland McCullough headed to USC, those plans changed in a hurry.
Now, Stepp will return home to play the team he once committed to play for, and he’d be lying if he said he wasn’t a little extra motivated this week.
“It adds a lot to this game,” he said.
As his workload increases, Saturday’s game could also add a lot to his resume. Stepp carried the ball a career-high 10 times before the week off, and Helton said Tuesday that he envisions the redshirt freshman running back garnering more opportunities in the coming weeks.
That doesn’t mean that USC has any plans of stopping its relatively even backfield split among Stepp, Vavae Malepeai and Stephen Carr.
“We’ve just got a lot of guys back there, and you can’t get them all touches,” Harrell said. “I think we’ve done a good job getting him touches, and when he has the ball, he’s done a pretty good job with it. I don’t think his role will be increased or decreased much from what it’s been because we have three guys that we feel really good about, that we feel like need to be in the game.”
Safety Talanoa Hufanga (concussion protocol) and cornerback Olaijah Griffin (back) are both expected to return to action against Notre Dame. … Linebacker Jordan Iosefa, who was aiming to return this week, is still not cleared for contact in his recovery from surgery on a dislocated kneecap. … USC’s next home game against Arizona on Oct. 19 will kick off at 6:30 p.m.