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USC again has the final say, and score, to beat Arizona

USC quarterback Kedon Slovis throws a pass against Arizona on Nov. 14, 2020, in Tucson
USC quarterback Kedon Slovis threw for 325 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions and for the second straight week led the Trojans on a late, winning touchdown drive.
(Christian Petersen / Getty Images)

Here they stood again on the brink of disaster, tiptoeing along the edge with fingers crossed and eyes closed, their fate resting for a second consecutive week on a single drive, the right arm of the USC Trojans’ star quarterback, and a prayer.

Kedon Slovis, like the rest of USC’s offense, had looked off for most of the game. Some of his passes sailed over receivers’ heads. Others wobbled out of his hand. But after an afternoon filled with missed opportunities and head-scratching mistakes, USC and its sophomore quarterback still somehow had 95 seconds left to drive 75 yards to and stay unbeaten.

This week, it wouldn’t require a lucky end-zone tip or a miracle onside kick to deliver the Trojans back from the brink. It would, however, take a fortuitous fourth quarter and two near-perfect drives led by Slovis to overcome a sloppy performance and sneak out of the Tucson desert with a 34-30 victory over Arizona (0-1).

“We’re fortunate to get out of here with a win,” coach Clay Helton said.

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Kedon Slovis passed for 325 yards and led USC to another comeback victory, but he admits he wasn’t at his best and vows to fix his throwing mechanics.

“Fortunate” is certainly one way of describing the first two messy-yet-miraculous Saturdays of the Trojans’ season. USC (2-0), with its hyped offense and rebuilt defense, has yet to play anywhere near the caliber of a College Football Playoff candidate. On Saturday, it nearly stumbled against an Arizona team that hasn’t won a college football game in a calendar year.

And still, USC survived. Even after back-to-back drives in the third quarter Saturday reached the Arizona one-yard line and turned into zero points. Even after converting just five of 13 third downs and committing 11 penalties. Even after Arizona quarterback Grant Gunnell, who tortured USC’s defense all afternoon, found Stanley Berryhill for a six-yard touchdown pass to take a lead with 1 minute and 35 seconds remaining.

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Key plays from USC’s 34-30 comeback victory at Arizona on Saturday.

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The Trojans had offered every possible reason to doubt them. Still, on the sideline, two running backs reiterated that they believed. Last week, with odds similarly stacked against them, Vavae Malepeai and Stephen Carr told themselves that “somehow, some way” USC would mount a two-touchdown comeback against Arizona State. This week, they said it again.

“Somehow, some way,” they told each other just before Saturday’s final drive.

It was Malepeai who would stretch into the end zone for an eight-yard touchdown, giving USC a lead with just 25 seconds remaining. And in another parallel to last week’s win, it was sophomore sack artist Drake Jackson who finished the job, taking down Gunnell for a seven-yard loss with three seconds to play.

“it felt like it was spoken into existence,” Malepeai said.

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USC running back Vavae Malepeai is pictured in the second half against Arizona on Nov. 14, 2020.
USC’s Vavae Malepeai scored the winning touchdown on an eight-yard run with 25 seconds left.
(Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)

USC’s offense offered a few reasons to still believe Saturday. After a slow start on the ground, USC settled into a rhythm with its rushing attack late, finishing with 173 rushing yards and a touchdown for each of its top three backs. Slovis’ late poise, as he completed 13 of his final 15 passes, was instrumental. Helton proudly pointed out that the team cut its turnovers from four to zero.

“That was one of those games to be honest with you, if we turn it over one time we may lose that game,” Helton said. “So there’s positives that came out of it. Now, was it perfectly clean? Heck no, it wasn’t, and we understand that.”

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Until that final drive there was little redeeming value in USC’s effort in other areas it had hoped to improve. Namely its work in the red zone.

A 49-yard sprint from Markese Stepp put USC into such a position late in the third quarter. Another strong carry put the offense within inches of the goal line. Then, USC came apart.

A false start inside the one-yard line gave way to a delay of game and a rushed pass out of bounds. Then, freshman kicker Parker Lewis missed a 28-yard field goal.

On its next drive, USC again drove inside Arizona’s five-yard line, only to have Stepp swarmed in the backfield on fourth and one.

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No. 9 Miami rallied to edge Virginia Tech, while No. 2 Notre Dame prevailed at Boston College and No. 11 Oregon won at Washington State.

“Any time that you get it inside I think it was the 15-yard line twice, you come away with no points, that’s your opportunity to separate yourself in the game,” Helton said. “And that’s something that we improved a little bit on this week, we gotta get more because I think this can be a 45-, 50-point offense when we’re running on all cylinders.”

We’ve yet to see that high-powered version of USC’s offense. Malepeai pointed to “miscommunication” in the run game, and Slovis acknowledged that his throwing mechanics were off.

“I don’t know what it is, but I’ll get it fixed next week,” said Slovis, who still threw for 325 yards and a touchdown. “We got a lot of time to get it fixed, and my arm feels great, so I just need to get it fixed mechanically.”

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USC bought itself another week atop the Pac-12 South. But after two consecutive heart-stopping comeback victories, it might have used up all its miracles for one season.


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