When USC quarterback Kedon Slovis had his first pass intercepted in over a month last Friday, the freshman considered the occasion of his last turnover in the air. That day, in an overtime loss to Brigham Young, one turnover turned into two, then three, as Slovis stewed on his mistakes.
As he looked back, that felt like a lifetime ago. Now, he thought, don’t overthink things.
He hasn’t had much of a chance over USC’s last three games. After starting the season with one of the nation’s worst turnover margins, the Trojans have just two turnovers since the start of October, while its defense has forced three.
Slovis, with his 72% completion rate, is a big part of that. But on Saturday, he faces perhaps his stiffest test of the season in that regard. No. 7 Oregon has intercepted a nation-leading 14 passes this season.
If USC has any hope of staying in contention in the Pac-12 South, it starts with protecting the ball.
The Ducks, who boast the nation’s third-best turnover margin, have perfected that art this season. Justin Herbert has had just one pass intercepted in eight games, while completing a career-high 68% of his passes.
That precision makes taking advantage of mistakes especially difficult for any defense, let alone one as short on depth as USC. It’s also part of the reason why USC coach Clay Helton joined the chorus of those hailing Herbert as “one of the best quarterbacks in the country.”
“This kid has been playing since he’s a freshman,” Helton said. “He’s a really, really experienced QB that has a lot of confidence in his decision-making and his arm strength. It’s evident on tape.”
Slovis, who set career highs in passing yards (406) and touchdowns (four) last week against Colorado, could find himself on a similar path, if he’s able to find a rhythm earlier in games.
Slovis has played his best late in games, completing better than 78% of his passes in the fourth quarter, with five touchdowns to one pass intercepted. Three of his five interceptions have come in the first quarter of games.
“I think it’s a great test,” Helton said. “You put four games in a row of doing what [Slovis] is doing, eight touchdowns, one pick, that’s what we need.”
As USC prepares for a surging Oregon ground game, it could see one of its top tacklers return.
Linebacker Palaie Gaoteote IV practiced in a limited fashion on Wednesday and Thursday, after sitting out the last two games with a high ankle sprain. Helton called him a “game-time decision”.
“He looked good,” Helton said, “so we’ll see how he’s feeling tomorrow and make sure there’s no setbacks.”
USC will also get back defensive end Christian Rector after he rested his injured ankle for two weeks. But the outlook is less optimistic for the rest of USC’s injured players.
The Trojans will again be without their top three running backs this week, as well as defensive end Drake Jackson (ankle) and safety Talanoa Hufanga (shoulder). Both Jackson and Hufanga are considered “day to day,” while among the running backs, only Stephen Carr (hamstring) appears set to return in the near future.
With four games remaining, USC will soon face tough decisions on whether certain players should burn their redshirt eligibility or be shut down to maintain it.
Freshman wideout Kyle Ford, who played for the first time on special teams last week, will continue to contribute for three of the next four games, with plans to keep his redshirt intact.
Tight end Jude Wolfe has just one game remaining to stay eligible. USC may opt to shut him down.
Perhaps the most interesting case is with Kenan Christon, the freshman running back, who would have assuredly redshirted this year, if not for injuries. Considering its depleted depth in the backfield, USC may no longer have that option.