The Trojans' 31-23 win against Fresno State produced more questions than it did answers. Here are five of the biggest.
1. What is the offensive identity now?
Be prepared for a week’s worth of thin slicing on Kedon Slovis. I just wouldn’t draw any real conclusions about him or the offense as a whole until he plays a full game. Even though he played for an entire half, already more than backup Matt Fink has ever gotten, Graham Harrell called a completely different game than he did in the first with JT Daniels. USC was essentially playing not to lose once Daniels went down, as Slovis really wasn’t asked to do a whole lot. It’s understandable, given that a) Slovis is a true freshman, b) he was making his debut, and c) USC was always leading -- by double digits for half of the second half. Thus, USC had Slovis pass on just eight of 28 plays, whereas Daniels attempted a whopping 34 passes (plus a sack) while handing the ball off only 15 times. We got a great glimpse of what this offense could be with Daniels. We really have no idea how it will manifest moving forward with Slovis.
One common denominator between the QBs were the short passes. Daniels completed 73.5 percent of his passes but it produced just 6.3 yards per attempt. Slovis was at 75 percent and 7.1, with 41 of his 57 yards coming on one completion. He averaged just 2.2 yards per throw otherwise. That obviously won’t suffice. His pocket awareness and timing weren’t sharp, but the only way that can (and will) improve is reps. You can appreciate the two downfield throws he did make -- one setting up a TD, the other an INT -- because they’re more indicative of the types of plays he’ll inevitably have to make at times to win games for USC. It’s doubtful he throws as often as Daniels would have. The Trojans ran the ball really well -- I thought the offensive line was superb in all facets -- but how will they fare when the ratio isn’t as lopsided? It’s almost as if the season is starting over again on this side of the ball.
2. Will Drake Jackson transform the defense?
If Drake Jackson looked like USC's best defensive player, it's merely a continuation of what we've seen since spring practice whenever the team went live. His debut line of three tackles, 1.5 for loss, 0.5 sacks and two pass breakups undersells the impact he had for the Trojans. He provided constant pressure and was basically playing in the backfield Saturday against Fresno State. USC hasn't had a disruptive down lineman since Leonard Williams, and even his biggest impact was typically in the run game. You'd have to go back to Morgan Breslin in 2012 for the last big pass-rushing season from an edge player. The JuCo transfer had 13 sacks that year before moving to outside linebacker as a senior and playing just five games. Nick Perry strung together three strong years at defensive end (2009-11). But at 250 pounds, he wasn't affecting the game in all the facets the 275-pound Jackson did in the opener.
In other words, it's been a while since USC had a player like Jackson. Lawrence Jackson might be a good comp, but I think Drake will prove to be better. His value is especially noteworthy on this team because of the Trojans' young secondary, which experienced its highs and lows in Game 1. Jackson will be needed to play at this level on a weekly basis. Perhaps the lone blemish in his performance was not finishing a couple sacks, which was a team-wide issue. Without the benefit of actually tackling QBs in practice, Jackson remarked afterward that it's something he and the rest of the defense will have to simulate with added reps against the tackling bag. The floor is already so high for the rookie that any fine-tuning could elevate him to star status by this season. He's that good. More importantly, a dominant defensive end is more impactful to a defense than any other position.
3. Where were Markese Stepp and Devon Williams?
No running back had a better training camp than Stepp. Devon Williams was one of the top playmakers on offense. So why were both healthy scratches in the season opener against Fresno State? It was understood that neither of them are starters at this juncture but both have demonstrated a readiness to contribute, perhaps a lot. USC ran 78 plays on offense and Stepp and Williams couldn’t get in for a single one? After Clay Helton said there would be an 8-man rotation at wide receiver? After Stepp dominated short-yardage and red-zone situations for the past month of practice? It’s true that Vavae Malepeai had a career-best rushing performance. I personally did not see him as a 23-carry guy, but he showed otherwise while tallying 134 yards and a touchdown. I just think there were a few carries there that Stepp would have helped on.
After scoring touchdowns on their first two possessions, the Trojans repeatedly stalled once they got inside the Fresno State 30. The one exception was when Slovis’ 41-yard completion to Tyler Vaughns put USC on the FSU 3-yard line. While I think Stepp would assert himself well in a feature role, the hard yards are what he’s built for. Malepeai averaged a strong 5.8 yards per carry, but it’s worth noting that averaged dropped in each quarter. He did pick up the last yards needed to seal the win, but that was only after USC was stopped on third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 the previous possession, giving the Bulldogs an opportunity to tie the game. It's also peculiar that the Trojans cut their so-called rotation at WR in half against an overmatched secondary. Maybe the staff wasn’t comfortable using Stepp and Williams because the game was tight, but these aren’t rookies anymore. If they can’t get on the field against Fresno State, when is a good time? They’ve proven they belong. If they remain on the bench, they won’t belong to USC much longer.
4. Why was this game close?
Saturday should never have come down to an interception in the end zone. Fresno State is clearly not the team that it was a year ago. We can’t say for certain that USC isn’t. It’s easy to postulate that the Trojans would have rolled had Daniels not gone down, only the scoreboard wasn’t any different in the second half. They actually increased their lead after halftime. They just didn’t put the Bulldogs away, although they might have thought they had. At least one player told the crowd while standing on the sideline that the game was over once USC went ahead, 31-13, late in the third quarter. It’s that mentality that seemed to permeate throughout this opener, and some would say throughout the program. I asked a handful of players after the game how satisfied they were with the win. Answers varied, but it sounded like they were relieved. You’d think they would have been frustrated. While USC moved up and down the field on five of seven first-half possessions, it only produced 17 points because of two turnovers in the red zone. The concern ahead is whether the Trojans will be disciplined enough to capitalize after a long drive.
Aside from the short field the defense provided by forcing a fumble on Fresno State’s opening possession, the offense needed at least eight plays to advance on its four other trips to the red zone. Penalties weren’t a factor on offense, but the two turnovers robbed the team of at least 10 points, and a third one gifted Fresno State three points in the third quarter. All of them could have been avoided. We heard a lot of talk afterward about “first-game jitters.” It’s an odd excuse considering this team is coming off a 5-7 season, and most of the players who took the field Saturday experienced that first-hand. What happened to the chip on everyone’s shoulder? Moreover, the fact that it was a season opener should have no bearing on Helton’s handle on the game. From the nullified opening kickoff return to the clock management issues and precarious decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 late in the game, he’s clearly still learning on the job. When the Trojans play a better team, and at least four of the next five opponents would qualify, they have to be better or they will lose. It’s that simple.
5. Is Slovis ready?
There’s a saying Pac-12 Networks analyst Yogi Roth is fond of using that when a quarterback goes to USC he becomes a household name, and when he becomes the starter he’s a Heisman candidate. That standard has likely waned a bit in the post-Pete Carroll era. The spotlight isn’t the same when the team isn’t in contention for the national title. But the pressure might not be much different. For the better part of two decades, quarterbacks have won or kept the starting job only by performing at a high level. It’s why the program was recently tabbed "Quarterback U" in the BCS/CFP era by ESPN. A number of four- and even five-star prospects have been at USC over this period and didn’t really play. The past 19 seasons have essentially featured just eight starters. No program in the country boasts such stability at the position. Until now?
Not since 1999, when Carson Palmer broke his collarbone in the third game of the season, has the Trojans’ QB situation been so unsteady. At least back then you knew Palmer would return the following year and reclaim his role with three years of eligibility remaining. The next three months will be fascinating for USC, as the play of its rookie QB could determine the fate of his head coach, offensive coordinator, Daniels, 2020 commit Bryce Young and, of course, his own. Will Helton be given a mulligan for this season because Daniels is out? Can Harrell make magic with the quarterback he heaped the most praise on leading up to the season? Will Slovis play well enough to win the job beyond this season? If so, what does Daniels do? Does Young sign up to play behind a sophomore (Slovis or Daniels)? That’s a lot of weight on Slovis’ shoulders. He might not be thinking about all that, but he’s no doubt aware of it.
He knows this is his chance. It’s one that he couldn't possibly have foreseen when he signed with USC last December. At that time, the Trojans were still making a late push to sign a second quarterback in the class, and Slovis was already going to arrive behind three other quarterbacks with multiple years of eligibility, including a sophomore who started all of 2018. That he would come anyway speaks to his confidence in himself. This would seem to be an ideal situation for him because not only could he play the next 11 games, he doesn’t have anyone looking over his shoulder. Daniels’ season-long absence, and to a lesser extent Sears’ defection, allows Slovis to play free and fearless. If he’s good, it will change not only his fortunes but likely so many around him.