A third quarter surge on the shoulders of an unlikely hero in backup freshman quarterback Jaxson Dart propelled the Trojans to a 45-14 comeback victory Saturday against Washington State.
“The guys played hard. They came out after halftime and they played even harder,” said interim head coach Donte Williams in the post game press conference Saturday. “Our whole motto is make sure we go 1-0.”
Williams couldn’t catch a break early as starting junior quarterback Kedon Slovis was forced to exit the game with an injury after being sacked on the third play of the game. Williams said Slovis should be able to practice this week.
Dart stepped in, thrust into his first college football game, facing a 7-0 deficit with the entire Trojan fanbase looking to get a glimpse into the post-Clay Helton era.
On his first drive, Dart had a solid 18-yard scramble and strung together a couple of completions. However, Dart had a pass intercepted by graduate student Daniel Isom and the Cougars capitalized to put the Trojans in an early 14-0 hole.
USC looked like it was headed for a second consecutive loss until a 38-yard bomb from Dart to sophomore wide receiver Gary Bryant Jr. on fourth down electrified Williams’ group heading into the halftime break.
The Trojans came out of the locker room for the third quarter with continuity and with one distinct goal in mind: get the ball to Drake London.
The junior star wide receiver exploded in the third quarter, finishing with 13 catches, 170 yards and two touchdowns. Dart consistently looked to London as the momentum of the game shifted, before London took a hit to the head during his second touchdown reception that held him out of the rest of the game.
Dart threw for 391 yards and four touchdowns, the most yards by a USC quarterback in their debut. The Trojans abandoned the run game for a large portion of the game, with Dart attempting a total of 46 passes.
“I’m super fortunate to be around a group of guys and a group of coaches who show a ton of resiliency and have a lot of confidence in one other,” Dart said.
The offense wasn’t the only side that looked like a completely different team — defensive coordinator Todd Orlando’s reinvigorated defense pitched a shutout in the second half after two Washington State touchdowns in the first.
Some of USC’s defensive success can be attributed to sophomore quarterback Jayden de Laura’s left knee injury midway through the game, turning this into a battle of the backups.
Orlando implemented more schemes that placed junior linebacker Drake Jackson on the defensive line, where he inflicted terror on the Cougars’ offensive line. His sole sack of the day came toward the end of the third quarter to put the Trojans up 28-14, by stripping sophomore quarterback Victor Gabalis in the endzone. Sophomore defensive lineman Tuli Tuipulotu pounced on the football to give USC a two-touchdown lead, seemingly ending the game.
“Really we just want to fly around and run and hit,” Jackson said. “We really don’t want to give up any points, so the 14 points that we did give up [made us] kind of angry about that and [we] came out the second half and really showed that.”
USC’s comeback victory on the road could turn out to be the morale-boosting win the Trojans needed to prove they are capable of dominating the Pac-12.
USC will look to build on this win as it returns to the Coliseum Saturday to face Oregon State at 7:30 p.m.
Anthony Gharib contributed to this story.