What little remained of USC’s momentum was waning, the Trojans’ return to a fan-filled Coliseum threatening to collapse, when Greg Johnson spotted the opposing quarterback’s eyes scanning toward his target and waited to make his game-saving move.
All afternoon long, as its offense flailed amid all-too-familiar issues, USC’s defense routinely saved it from certain doom. When Kedon Slovis and Co. came unraveled in the red zone, the defense came alive on third down. When the offense failed to produce big plays, the defense produced some of its own.
And so, as another red-zone trip fell flat, leaving USC clinging to a nine-point fourth-quarter lead over San Jose State, it was Johnson’s turn to put the weight of USC’s uneven effort on his shoulders. The senior defensive back anticipated the pass, stepped in front of his man, and saw nothing but open grass and fan-filled bleachers on his way to the end zone.
It would take a heroic effort from USC’s defense to save the day in the Trojans’ 30-7 season-opening victory over San Jose State that felt far less like the blowout it wound up being. The fact that the box score would suggest as much was a product of just how often USC’s defense saved the day.
It dominated on third down, allowing the Spartans to convert just three of 14 tries. It stood tall in the running game, holding Tyler Nevens, a back who ranked among the best in yards per carry in college football last season, to 58 yards in 15 carries. And while it didn’t register a sack, USC’s pass rush routinely forced quarterback Nick Starkel to get the ball out. He completed just 52% of his passes as a result.
All the more impressive, the defense’s stingy performance came without top safety and captain Isaiah Pola-Mao, who was ruled out after entering COVID-19 health and safety protocols. Other key defenders spent spurts on the sideline, fighting through injuries.
“That’s our job,” said cornerback Chris Steele. “As a defense, we’re supposed to hold our offense down when they’re not necessarily doing what they think they should be doing. Defense, we definitely put on a show today.”
No play was more heroic, though, than Johnson’s pick-six, which pulverized the little momentum San Jose State was able to build late in the third quarter. When it got the ball back following the interception, USC put together its most successful drive of the game, rolling 91 yards in nine plays to put last year’s Mountain West champion away.
“They really did bail us out,” Slovis said of the defense. “That was a huge, huge turning point for us. But we have to be better and take some pressure off of them in the future.”
Finishing drives would certainly help in that regard. Three times, USC found itself in the red zone Saturday. And three times, it was forced to settle for a field goal. Before Slovis found Erik Krommenhoek for a 20-yard touchdown on that final scoring drive, USC’s only other offensive touchdown came after a first-quarter Drake Jackson interception left the Trojans deep in San Jose State territory. Slovis hit a leaping Tahj Washington for a 29-yard touchdown a few plays later.
USC coach Clay Helton acknowledged after the game that he would prefer better red-zone efficiency, but he called the 30-point afternoon “a great start”.
“I think there are some things we can correct on, definitely,” Helton said. “To come out of here, to be here in the Coliseum with these fans, with our students back and our fans back, I don’t think I could be more happy than coming out 30-7 against a good San Jose State team.”
Some might feel differently coming out of a less-than-satisfying victory for an offense that was supposed to have ironed out its issues from 2020. Slovis finished with 256 yards and two touchdowns on 24-for-36 passing in his 2021 debut, but said he believed USC didn’t come out with enough energy on offense to sustain its initial, first-quarter flurry.
“We can’t get caught in a lull. I think that’s what happened,” Slovis said. “We had low energy. I think that was the biggest thing.”
He did get some help from USC’s rushing attack, as Keaontay Ingram found some room to run in his debut. Ingram finished with 86 yards in 15 carries, while Vavae Malepeai managed 65 yards on 14 attempts.
It was a positive sign considering all the talk about its revamped running game. But like the rest of its offense, that progress was often muted when it mattered most.
Instead, it was the Trojans’ long-overlooked defense, in its second season under coordinator Todd Orlando, that swooped in when its supposedly explosive offense sputtered.
That was the case as Johnson swooped in for his first pick-six, setting USC on course for a season-opening victory. As the Trojans flooded the field after the game, Johnson climbed the ladder in front of the student section with sword in hand, ready to conduct the band like no one had in over a year, the hero of an especially heroic defensive effort.
“It felt like a dream, man,” Johnson said.
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