Neither USC nor Clay Helton could afford to lose Friday, for different reasons. A double-digit comeback required great fortune and freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis learning on the fly.
BOULDER, Colo. -- Frustrating. Nervous. Scary. Gut-wrenching. Lucky. Relieving. Exciting.
USC coaches and players used these words to describe the two plays on the final offensive drive in which the ball was in the hands of Colorado defenders but ultimately recovered by the Trojans. The terms aptly characterize their comeback win Friday night, if not so many other parts of a football program flirting with peril.
“Glory to God and a bunch of great kids,” is how Coach Clay Helton opened his postgame presser, transparently expressing gratitude and praise for a season-saving win. “… Literally, those kids just fought and fought and fought all the way to the last second.”
They had to. This was a total team effort in that USC made as many plays on either side of the ball to win as it did to lose. The stakes were sneakily high in what would typically be a welcome matchup for the Trojans (5-3, 4-1 Pac-12). They knew a defeat could have cost them the South Division title and perhaps their head coach. Interim AD Dave Roberts said a couple weeks ago that Helton would finish the season "unless something extraordinary happened."
Losing to the last-place Buffaloes, who had never beaten USC in 13 previous attempts, would seem to suffice. The current administration is not in the tarmac business, but you have to think falling to .500 in this manner would initiate action.
There were a ton of what-ifs from USC's 35-31 triumph, as there always have been in Helton’s tenure. Four quarters at Folsom Field proved that betting on Kedon Slovis continues to be one of his best.
The final line for the under-recruited true freshman -- 30 of 44 for 406 yards and four touchdowns with an interception -- really only tells half his story. The truth is he didn’t always play great throughout.
But he had guile. He had grit. He had gusto.
Given the funk he was in coming into Friday, the 18-year-old grew up before our very eyes.
“I think it defines him,” Helton said of Slovis’ performance.
That’s fair for now. Slovis began the short week looking to flush the most frustrating individual performance of his young career out of his system. Against Arizona, he says he repeatedly dwelled on mistakes and followed them up by making more. It makes his flawed moments in Boulder that much more fitting. His first crucial error came on a late throw to Tyler Vaughns that was intercepted. With three-plus quarters to play, Slovis couldn’t remain in his feelings.
“I looked back and remembered me making that alter my game and for the worst,” he said. “Going forward I reminded myself, just go through your reads, be disciplined, and it’ll work out for you.”
His progress was hardly linear, as USC went three-and-out on its next two drives and Slovis missed more than a few open throws on the evening, ones that he had casually completed earlier in the season, including some on third downs.
But he regrouped in time to pass his three toughest tests.
After Colorado took a 17-7 lead late in the second quarter, Slovis drove USC down the field only to run recklessly into a defender near the goal line, taking a shot in the thigh and coughing up the football in the process. The ball caromed off a Colorado defender before wide receiver Drake London recovered, enabling Slovis, who had limped away from the self-inflicted collision, to find running back Kenan Christon for a touchdown on the next snap.
The 75-yard drive was followed by the defense's best series of the game until that point, giving USC new life heading into halftime.
“We’re playing for something bigger than this,” defensive back Greg Johnson asserted afterward. “We’re trying to get to that Rose Bowl. At halftime we just told each other we got to lay it all out there in the second half.”
For Slovis, that again included his body and the ball. Trailing 31-28 in the final minutes, Slovis was a half-second from being sacked when he hastily shoveled the ball to Christon. The fellow freshman, making the first start of his career after catapulting from fifth-string to feature back in the span of six days, wasn’t looking and tipped it directly toward two defenders who couldn’t corral it.
"Sometimes the ball bounces your way," Helton said. "Sometimes it hasn’t done that for us this year. Tonight it did. … Luck was on our side."
One play later, with Colorado flashing seven rushers and sending five, Slovis stood tall in the pocket as one of them came unobstructed up the middle and hit Michael Pittman for the third-and-long conversion while taking a hit himself.
“Steps right into it and gets ear-holed and delivers a ball on time, accurately, with unbelievable poise," Helton said. "I’m not trying to blow his head up, but me and Graham (Harrell) are there going, Wow, that’s a big-time play. That’s who he is. I think in the brightest moments, when it’s time to show immense poise in a situation, he’s done that.”
Slovis wasn’t done. On the very next play, he was sacked and coughed up the ball, again through the arms of the opponent before it squirted away and into Christon’s for a 10-yard loss. Slovis showed off his newfound short-term memory once more by firing a 19-yard laser through the crosshairs to London. He then completed the legacy drive by hitting Pittman over the middle and watching as the senior tiptoed the sideline and dove into the end zone to complete a game-winning 90-yard TD drive.
“To be a true freshman and play as well as he did, really in the second half at Notre Dame and do what he did here,” Harrell said. “Like I said since the spring, he’s a special player.”
Colorado, a double-digit underdog, had led for the previous 42:40, including almost all of the final frame by 10 points. It wouldn’t be the Helton era if it wasn’t hard. The rally required two fourth-quarter TD drives from Slovis, who linked up with Pittman for the first one as well.
The first-year QB never had the chance to put his team ahead in the second half against the Fighting Irish. But he intimated that for the past month he’s had regret about not delivering in a similar spot in the altitude of Utah, throwing an interception on the final play of USC’s first loss of the season.
“I think looking back at BYU, having an opportunity to win the game in overtime and losing, I think (Friday) more so was redemption in terms of that,” Slovis said.
By the end of the night, he’d earned a fan in LenDale White. The former Trojan took in the game from the sideline. He walked off it beaming about USC’s precocious field general.
“I like Slovis,” White said, unprompted. “He stays with it. Doesn’t get too high or too low.”
Even as his play did, on this occasion. His teammates said his maturity had them believing they would win despite their deficit.
“He’s a tough kid,” center Brett Neilon said. “He acts a lot older than he really is and I’m proud of him for pushing through.”
Offensive tackle Austin Jackson added: "His first road win -- it wasn’t an easy one.”
That goes for everyone. It had been nearly a full calendar year since the Trojans had won away from home. It’s been more than that since they’ve won three in a row, which they’ll attempt next week versus Oregon in what figures to be their toughest home game of the season.
The Trojans, of course, will be without at least two of their top backs and three of their top defensive players. In a regime that’s been marked by questionable snap distribution, it’s ironic that so many of their best players won’t be available for a must-win game for Helton.
But two months into his college career, Slovis has shown he gives USC a puncher’s chance in less-than-ideal situations. As he finished up explaining how he overcame error after error, Helton uncharacteristically interrupted his quarterback to emphasize the value of opportunity.
“Reps and experience matter,” Helton said. “Every time you get to play a game and you get those reps and you get those plays, you just get better and better and better. You can tell, he wasn’t even fazed and came right back.”
That might also prove true one day with USC’s head coach -- at another school. Slovis’ heroics likely won’t be enough to save his job here, but Helton's hand in building the rookie's foundation will be an enduring part of his coaching legacy.
-- Adam Maya is a USC graduate and has been covering the Trojans since 2003. Follow him on Twitter @AdamJMaya.