One after another, the deep passes fell from the pitch-black sky over Memorial Stadium, delivered from the cannon right arm of Kedon Slovis. One after another, a seemingly unstoppable corps of receivers reeled them in, reminding all who were watching exactly what USC’s offense could be.
In fits and starts we’d seen that potential this season — in blowouts of Stanford and Arizona, in an upset of Utah, in a fourth-quarter escape from Colorado — but not until Saturday night, as its fearless freshman quarterback sent pass after pass soaring into the teeth of an otherwise stalwart California secondary, had it all come together so thoroughly and overwhelmed a defense so completely.
When the offensive onslaught had finally slowed — and Slovis was mercifully pulled after 406 yards and four touchdowns — one of the Pac-12’s best defenses had long since waved the white flag. From there, USC was left with the spoils of a 41-17 victory, its third straight on the road.
The win kept the Trojans (7-4, 6-2 Pac-12) in the race for the Pac-12 South title, a half-game behind Utah but holding the tiebreaker, with a reeling UCLA awaiting in the regular-season finale. For Clay Helton, USC’s coach, the Saturday nightcap was a statement on its own, even if it’s too late for the Trojans to make more of a lasting statement this season.
“They have a chance to win five out of the last six games next week and really put an exclamation point on the season,” USC coach Clay Helton said.
That exclamation point will become a question mark soon enough, as decisions over the direction of the program cast an unavoidable shadow over the rest of the season. But on Saturday night, in what’s likely to be its final respite of the regular season, USC turned its attention skyward and never looked back.
It started with Slovis, who had long since shattered any reasonable ceiling for a freshman season that began on the bench. Almost three months ago, he was just an unheralded three-star recruit backing up JT Daniels, with no likely path to playing time. Now, as the end of an uneven USC season nears, Slovis has begun to unleash on opposing secondaries unlike any Trojan quarterback in recent memory.
His recent tear, which includes three 400-yard, four-touchdown games in four weeks, has many already wondering what he might be capable of in years to come.
“He’s showing us that he’s an elite college quarterback,” said Michael Pittman Jr., who caught 11 passes for 180 yards, surpassing the 1,000-yard mark for the first time on Saturday.
For Pittman and the rest of USC’s play-making weapons on the perimeter, it was another showcase of the immense talent the Trojans possess on offense. Freshman Drake London finished with 111 yards, and Amon-ra St. Brown added 85.
“Gotta say, I’ve never seen a receiving corps like USC’s in this conference,” Cal coach Justin Wilcox said. “Not in 20 years.”
But it was up to Slovis to get the ball to that fleet of wideouts, and here again was proof of the burgeoning potential the freshman possesses. With the first half drawing to a close and the Trojans locked in a 10-10 slog, Slovis calmly created room in the pocket, cocked back his arm and launched the first of many deep balls in the night sky. As it fell in the corner of the end zone, it found a leaping Pittman for a 33-yard score with less than a minute remaining.
“We’d talked about how important ending the half and beginning the half was going to be,” Helton said. “It was the last thing we talked about in our team meeting. We’d lost that last year here.”
A season ago, the Trojans’ eventual loss turned on a series of mistakes, most notably an errant snap at the start of the third quarter. This time around, there was no mistaking the tone USC was trying to set during that same stretch.
With Cal down its starting quarterback, Chase Garbers, after a little more than quarter, that tone was ripe for the taking. Backup quarterback Devon Modster, a UCLA transfer, managed a meager 95 yards through the air, while throwing two third-quarter passes, which were picked off to defensive backs Greg Johnson and Isaiah Pola-Mao.
“You could definitely tell they weren’t feeling it anymore,” defensive end Drake Jackson said. “You could feel the passion leaving them. We just turned it up from there.”
It took just three plays into the third quarter for Slovis to chuck up another soaring deep ball, 50 yards in the direction of St. Brown. The pass landed between two Cal defenders, in perfect position. Two plays later, Slovis fired another perfectly placed dart between two more defenders, hitting London for an eight-yard score and a 24-10 lead.
The consecutive tone-setting touchdown throws came after a first half spent under a heavy rush for Slovis, who spent much of the first half dodging defenders in the pocket. But aside from the three sacks Cal managed in the first half, the pressure mattered little.
Neither did striking an offensive balance. Even as the Trojans returned one of their top backs, Stephen Carr, the run game remained grounded. Of USC’s 462 yards, just 12% came via rush.
Freshman Kenan Christon, who again got the start, finished with nine carries for 44 yards. Carr was even less effective, rushing nine times for 19 yards.
Nonetheless, there was no stopping the Trojans, who had so often let their opponents climb back into games. On the first play of the second drive of the second half, Slovis hit Pittman again for 45 yards, demoralizing Cal’s defense even further. The drive ultimately ended in a field goal, but the damage was done. USC led by three scores and didn’t stop there, piling on two more touchdowns on consecutive drives.
“To finally pull away from a team, to keep a lead, it’s something we were all looking for,” St. Brown said.
Both teams opened the game with their own scoring drives, as USC opted for the first time this season to defer the opening kickoff. It was an unusual choice, given that the Trojans had returned every opening kickoff this season, but Helton said he’d done it as a challenge to his defense.
The shift in kickoff karma eventually kicked in. Cal wouldn’t score a touchdown again until just eight minutes remained in the game. By then, Slovis was left to rest on the sideline, another huge night already in the books.