Rookie Kedon Slovis' record performance sparks rally over Stanford, changes complexion of USC’s 2019 campaign
LOS ANGELES -- Kedon SZN is upon us.
Somewhere around the 14:49 mark of the second quarter is when Kedon Slovis took ownership of the USC football team for the first time in his young career. The Trojans already trailed by double digits and kickoff returner Velus Jones had just fumbled, putting Stanford in position to go ahead by 18.
“(The game) was getting away in a hurry,” Coach Clay Helton admitted. “A touchdown there could have been devastating.”
That’s when the true freshman quarterback huddled up the offense on the sideline and spoke their success into existence.
“‘No matter what happens on the field, when the offense gets it, we’re going to score,’” center Brett Neilon recalled Slovis saying. “That was pretty impressive for a younger guy. You do that to get us all there.”
After USC’s defense held the Cardinal to a field goal, spurred by six-foot Olaijah Griffin’s pass breakup against 6-7 Colby Parkinson in the end zone, Slovis followed though on his promise. He completed his next three throws while directing a 75-yard drive, punctuated by a 39-yard tear-drop touchdown between two defenders to Amon-Ra St. Brown.
“When I looked up, I saw the ball was kind of high and it made me nervous because it was going to give the safety some time to come over,” St. Brown said at USC’s postgame press conference.
“A little too much air on that one,” Slovis interjected.
A laughing St. Brown replied: “But it was perfect, dropped right in my hands.”
The perfection continued, as Slovis connected on 12 consecutive throws after the fumble. He would close out the game by completing 19 of 21 passes as the Trojans scored touchdowns on six of his final seven drives.
All the carnage added up to a 45-20 win at the Coliseum that seemed improbable when Saturday night began but season-changing by the end of it. Now, no game on the remaining docket appears unwinnable for USC, even during this next four-game stretch that involves road games at BYU, Washington and Notre Dame and a home date with Pac-12 favorite Utah.
“It’s just a matter of, are we going to come to work on Monday, are we going to lock in and are we going to execute when it comes down to it?” running back Vavae Malepeai said.
That’s typically the case for USC, but not since a September 2017 meeting with Stanford have the Trojans played this well on both sides of the ball. They scored the game’s last 35 points and outscored the Cardinal 42-3 over the final 44 minutes. The program hadn’t gone on that big of an offensive run without allowing a TD since 2012 against a 1-win Colorado team. Stanford, regardless of whether it ultimately proves to be overrated, is certainly not that.
Several Trojans joined Slovis' coming out party, including Austin Jackson (blocked field goal), Greg Johnson (interception), Griffin (4 PBUs), the defense as a whole (10 TFLs, zero points allowed in the second half) and an O-line that paved the way for 8.1 yards per play and 492 yards of total offense.
Most importantly, having a quarterback that can drive the Air Raid engine alters everything for a program that for the past 12 months has been stuck in neutral. As you might remember, the Trojans led in all but one game last year and blew double-digits leads in four losses and second-half leads in two others en route to finishing 5-7.
Despite being younger almost across the board, Saturday's team hardly resembled that one.
“I don’t know if I’ve had more fun in a game,” Helton said afterward.
He knows firsthand how elite QB play can transform a locker room. Slovis’ opening act quickly landed him in the school's storied record book. He completed 28 of 33 passes for 377 yards, which smashed JT Daniels’ record (282) for a USC freshman in his first start.
Just as important, Slovis added three touchdowns and no interceptions and led seven scoring drives.
“He’s a great quarterback,” St. Brown said. “We saw it the first day of him throwing the ball. We all knew what his potential was and he showed it tonight."
Safety Isaiah Pola-Mao beamed: “He’s the guy. He’s been tearing us apart (in practice). I’m just glad it wasn’t against us this day.”
Technically, only a few opposing defenses have been hit with such an onslaught by a USC QB. Slovis’ line of 350-plus yards, three passing touchdowns and no picks against an AP ranked team is a feat neither Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart nor Sam Darnold managed to pull off at any point in their respective careers, per Jason Starrett of the Athletic. Slovis had thrown eight career passes prior to Saturday.
“There’s no real ceiling. There’s no ceiling for him,” Malepeai added. “He’s just going to get better.”
Slovis is good enough now that it’s fair to wonder, should he have been the starter coming out of training camp?
“I think he was in it until the end,” offensive coordinator Graham Harrell said. “From Day 1, I’ve told you the kid’s special and the kid’s really good and does a great job in our offense. So you shouldn’t be surprised when he comes out and performs like that. I tried to tell you the kid’s going to be really good. ...
"It's what I expected him to do."
Harrell did reiterate that Daniels initially won the job because he was the most consistent in practice, which isn’t debatable. But in 11 starts last season he never performed at the level Slovis did in his first. That was in a completely different offense, of course. Perhaps Harrell didn’t look much at Daniels’ tape from 2018.
He added that the injured sophomore's first half against Fresno State last week was comparable to Slovis’, outside of the turnovers. The yards might have been but the efficiency wasn’t quite as good. Daniels isn’t as decisive. Slovis’ arm talent is greater, as Harrell has noted. So is his pocket awareness and mobility.
The OC’s favorite aspect, however, was his decision-making.
“That’s the most important thing,” Harrell noted. “You spend a lot of time with those guys as a quarterbacks coach and talk to them and hopefully they see the field the way you’re seeing it. Almost every throw where I thought the ball should go, it went.”
Those throws made this Slovis' team overnight and might have changed the course of the 2019 campaign. It was just three years ago that USC rode a generational talent at QB all the way to the Rose Bowl. That experience perhaps made it easier for Helton to trust his new OC to be aggressive with their new QB in his first start, which included having Slovis throw on fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter while leading by just 11 at the time.
The 18-year-old fired a strike to Michael Pittman for the conversion and USC scored the game-sealing touchdown soon after.
“We understood his talent,” Helton said. “And it’s not hard with Graham. I said Graham, let’s cut it loose. … That’s not hard for Graham because he’s always looking to cut it loose.”
Before heading back to the locker room, Harrell said he pulled Slovis aside to tell him two things: “‘I’m really proud of you. Be sure you come back tomorrow ready to work again because we got a long season ahead of us.’”
For the Trojans, that will entail playing more than the 12 games they had last year and possibly a return trip to Levi's Stadium in early December. For Slovis, it could mean claiming a role that won't be relinquished until he decides he's ready to move on.
Someone check the transfer portal…