USC rallies to rout Washington State in big debuts for Jaxson Dart, Donte Williams
On the first Saturday of a new era, a steady rain fell over the rolling hills of the Palouse. For USC, at the end of a long, emotional week, it was fitting imagery. Here was a chance to start anew, to wash away all that came before under Clay Helton, to salvage a season already slipping from its grasp. All week, Donte Williams preached the importance of moving forward, and here, in a driving downpour, was the chance to follow through on the promise of their new interim coach.
But as the rain came down, everything started to unravel. USC’s defense was on its heels. The offense had no answers. Even the team plane had refused to stay upright, tipping on its tail the night before in what seemed, over two foreboding quarters, to be an ominous bit of foreshadowing. And then, on the Trojans’ first drive, Kedon Slovis was slammed to the turf, wrenching his neck, and didn’t get up.
Filling in for an injured Kedon Slovis, backup quarterback Jaxson Dart made an immediate impact, steering USC to a comeback win over Washington State.
To think then, as its worst fears unfolded, that USC (2-1) would roar back, scoring 45 consecutive points behind a freshman backup quarterback would’ve seemed stranger than fiction, like a plot stolen from a sports movie script too dubious to be made. But here was undeniable evidence in the form of stellar freshman Jaxson Dart, clutching the postgame sword in front of the band, lingering on the bleachers long enough to snap selfies with whomever wanted their own proof, determined to soak in as much of the afterglow of USC’s stunning 45-14 victory over Washington State as he could.
A 391-yard, four-touchdown debut didn’t seem in the cards as the freshman first entered the huddle, buzzing with nervous energy. Stay in the moment, Dart reminded himself. Keep your emotions in check. But with USC driving, Dart threw an errant pass into traffic, and it was picked off. A few drives later, he lost a fumble.
Highlights from USC’s 45-14 victory over Washington State on Sunday.
“Things were going a little fast for me at the start,” said Dart, whose yardage total in his debut broke JT Daniels’ school record of 282 yards set in 2018. “I felt like, you know, for me to succeed I had to just forget about it and just move on.”
That had been the message all week from Williams, who was handed the role of interim coach on Monday without any head coaching experience. The ace recruiter and cornerbacks coach had done what he could to focus the Trojans on the future, making only minor changes throughout the week, most intended to address culture rather than scheme. The little things — from a new dress code to a cleaner locker room — would add up, he promised them.
After pressing early, that progress began to show early in the second quarter, albeit only briefly at first. As Washington State threatened inside the two-yard-line, USC’s defense stopped the Cougars on four consecutive plays forcing a turnover on downs.
“All of a sudden they stepped up, and they stepped up in a big way,” Williams said.
The Cougars scored once more to take a 14-0 lead. But from then on, USC did not give up a point. Until midway through the fourth quarter, it didn’t even give up Washington State a first down.
“Once we’re like that,” linebacker Drake Jackson said, “you can’t stop us.”
There was no stopping Dart from that point either, even after one particularly hard hit to his left knee left him hobbling to the huddle throughout. He started to find his stride, anyway. As USC faced a fourth and nine with 38 seconds left in the half, players lobbied Williams to let Dart take a shot.
Bryce Young, a former Santa Ana Mater Dei star, threw for three touchdowns in his first college road start, helping Alabama defeat Florida 31-29.
“I was thinking maybe at this moment in time, we were thinking field goal a little bit,” Williams said. “And I looked at a couple guys and Drake [London] came to me and said, ‘We going to kick a field goal? I said, ‘You know what, you guys told me you believe in me, I believe in y’all. Let’s score.’”
Dart changed the play call at the line. And as Gary Bryant Jr. sprinted past Washington State’s last line of defense, Dart unloaded a deep pass, finding him in perfect stride for a 38-yard touchdown that turned the tide.
“I looked up and it was just a great ball, right into my hands,” Bryant said.
There was plenty more where that came from after halftime, as USC emerged from the locker room determined to run the Cougars out of their own building. After failing to score a third-quarter touchdown in seven of its last eight games, USC tallied four touchdowns in the third quarter. USC’s defense even got in on the party, forcing a fumble that Tuli Tuipulotu recovered in the end zone.
With barely any help from his backfield, which registered a paltry 25 yards in 16 carries, Dart took over. He found Bryant again on a short swing pass and London twice for touchdowns in traffic, all in the third quarter. London finished with 170 yards in 13 catches.
“He proved to us that he’s got heart,” Bryant said of Dart. “We always knew he had the talent. He always competed at practice every day. But he had the heart to come out and fight when we needed him.”
How long they’ll need Dart is to be determined. Williams said he expects Slovis to practice this week and “we’ll take it from there.”
Whether he remains starting quarterback, after such a dynamic debut from Dart, is up in the air. “Every day, every position, of everybody on this team, it’s always a battle,” Williams said.
It wasn’t long after the Trojans’ four-touchdown quarter that the battle was decisively won, the last week finally behind them.
As the Trojans walked to the locker room, Dart lingered in the bleachers, enjoying the spoils. The freshman posed for every possible photo, offering up instant mementos of a debut no one would soon forget.
Then, Dart hobbled toward the tunnel and into glory, never once looking back.
Go beyond the scoreboard
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