Southern California

Same Old USC as Trojans Escape Fight From Fresno State, Lose QB JT Daniels to Injury

The USC Trojans escaped their opening game with a 31-23 win over Fresno State, but the same mistakes from last season reared their head again, and the team may have lost QB JT Daniels to a significant injury.

Hours before the first game of the 2019 season for the University of Southern California, up until the opening kickoff, everything felt different for the Trojans. 

After a dismal 5-7 season in 2018—the first losing season at USC since 2000—2019 was built up as the bounce back year.

Armed with a new Air Raid offense, a newly refurbished stadium, and a new lease on life for head coach Clay Helton, the Trojans had high hopes and expectations for what used to be the West Coast's perennial power program.

However, all it took was 15 seconds for the same old Trojans to rear their ugly head and return to their fallible form of football that allowed them to underachieve just eight months prior. 

Over $315 million dollars in renovations had gone into the Los Angeles Memorial coliseum over that span. Including dozens of luxury suites, two new lounges, and new seats for fans to watch the action. Unfortunately, despite the new digs around them, on the field it was more of the same.

False hope is a funny thing. It can act as a mask, allowing you to see something differently than it is in reality. That was the case after the opening kickoff. 

Velus Jones Jr. sent the Coliseum crowd into a frenzy when he returned the opening kick 61 yards to the Fresno State 26-yard-line. The Trojans were in business, the red seats were rocking, good times were rolling…then the flag came.

After a short huddle, the referees called a penalty on the Trojans for having two different players wearing the No. 7 jersey on the field simultaneously during the kickoff. The play was nullified and the Trojans eventually started on their own 19-yard-line.

The gargantuan gaffe was head scratching. Helton and the Trojans had eight months to prepare for this game, over 240 days to prove that the mental errors and mistakes were a thing of the past and things would be different this season. Then you have two players wearing the same number on the opening kickoff. 


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"We had a late substitution and the mechanics didn't go," said Helton of the silly mistake. "I wasn't very happy about it, but it happens. It's a learning lesson for all of us, including the coaches, and I bet you it won't happen again."

The Trojans would later score on their opening drive, but the mistakes of the past continued to haunt them again in the first game of the season. Penalties were an Achille's Heel for the Trojans last season, and they had four for 35 yards in the first half on Saturday, not including the 61 yards erased on the opening kick. 

Offensively, turnovers plagued USC last season, especially when it mattered the most: inside the red zone. A lot of that was the struggles of the offensive line last year, and it was more of the same in the opening game of this season. The Trojans turned the ball over four separate times, including inside the red zone.

Defensively, the Trojans struggled with tackling last season, including fundamentals like tackling in space, and angles. On Saturday, the Trojans were unable to take down Bulldogs quarterback Jorge Reyna in the backfield and likely left half a dozen sacks on the field. 

To add insult to injury, the Trojans star quarterback, JT Daniels, the silver lining in an abysmal season last year, went down with a knee injury at the end of the first half.

Fresno State blitzed seven, and the Bulldogs easily walked through the meek USC offensive line, sacking Daniels aggressively as the 19-year-old quarterback twisted awkwardly on the grass, grabbing his right knee in obvious pain.

"It's gut-wrenching," said a somber Helton of the moment he saw his star quarterback writing on the field holding his knee. "You see a kid that's poured so much into the game and into this team and into his development becoming better both physically and mentally as a quarterback. I said a prayer as soon as I saw it." 

X-rays on the knee were negative, but Daniels returned to the sideline in street clothes, on crutches, and with a knee brace on. Many fear he suffered an ACL injury, and he is expected to miss weeks, if not the entirety of the season.

In his place, true freshman Kedon Slovis passed for 57 yards in his collegiate debut, and led the Trojans to a 31-23 victory.

Under Daniels, the Air Raid offense implemented by new offensive coordinator Graham Harrell had flashes of brilliance. Playing entirely under shotgun, Daniels threw for 215 yards in the first half before getting hurt. 

Wide receiver Tyler Vaughns caught 11 passes for a career-high 150 yards and USC's offense looked impressive before Daniels injury. Vave Malepeai rushed for a career-high 134 yards, and the Trojans led by as many as 18 points at one point. 

Nonetheless, the injury to Daniels definitely dampened the mood, and it showed on both the sidelines and in the seats. The Trojans were 14-point favorites in the game, and if not for a 101-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Jones Jr. late in the game, USC could have been upset.

As it was, the Bulldogs trailed by just one possession late in the game when Isaiah Pola-Mao intercepted Reyna in the end zone to seal the victory for the Trojans. Reyna, a Los Angeles native, finished with 256 yards and two touchdowns, and rushed for 88 yards on the ground. 

The Trojans may have done enough on Saturday to escape the clutches of an upset at the hands of Fresno State, but the same mental mistakes, errors, and turnovers won't fly against Top-25 ranked Stanford next Saturday.

After the Cardinal, the Trojans schedule only gets worse as they play three top-15 ranked teams in Utah, Washington, and Notre Dame over their next four games. All of which will likely occur with an inexperienced true freshman under center.

Needless to say, Helton and Harrell have their work cut out for them in the weeks to come, and the already scorching hot seat will only reach a boiling point if the Trojans start the season 2-4 as many expect. Trojans fans best prepare for a long fall and winter.

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