PULLMAN, Wash. — If there was any question whether this USC football team would play hard for interim head coach Donte Williams, it was answered … eventually.
If there was any doubt as to the future of the quarterback position for the Trojans, that was answered resoundingly Saturday.
Freshman QB Jaxson Dart came off the bench in the first quarter — after starter Kedon Slovis was shook up on a hard sack and held out after visiting the medical tent — and spurred the Trojans back from a 14-point deficit with 45 straight points in a 45-14 win.
Dart was 30-of-46 passing for 391 yards, 4 touchdowns and 2 interceptions, marking the most yards ever for a USC QB in his debut, while Drake London set a career-high with 13 catches for 170 yards and 2 touchdowns.
And the defense was every bit as good.
After giving up touchdowns on two of its first three series (sandwiched around a goal line stand), the Trojans not only held the Cougars scoreless the rest of the way but almost stifled them entirely while also forcing three turnovers.
USC didn’t allow any of the next eight full Washington State possessions to go longer than five plays or 18 yards. (Not counting the standalone final play of the first half.) The hosts totaled just 43 yards over the second and third quarters as the Trojans seized the game.
«You guys got a chance to see what Trojan football is all about,» Williams said afterward. «We’ve still got some things to clean up, just like I got some things to clean up coaching-wise and we’ll continue to do that. But the guys played hard, they came out after halftime and they played even harder. So that’s what I expect, that’s what this team expects.»
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Meanwhile, Dart’s first action, like the Trojans’ overall performance for much of the first two quarters Saturday, started inauspiciously … before swinging sharply.
Slovis was knocked out of the game on a punishing sack by Washington State’s Andrew Edson to end USC’s opening drive. He remained down on the turf for a couple minutes, being tended to by trainers. After a visit to the medical tent, he returned to the sideline in a big coat and without his helmet.
Washington State then marched down the field with seeming ease for an early go-ahead touchdown on a 12-yard pass from Jayden de Laura to Travell Harris as Dart warmed up on the sideline.
«I think those moments, it always hits you when you’re least expecting it,» Dart said. «It was the first drive, and we were just starting to get something going. I was just super excited. Obviously I felt terrible for Kedon because he’s such a great leader on this team. Hopefully he’ll be able to get back healthy. But really I was trying to lock in, don’t let my emotions get the most of me, kind of just stay in the moment.»
Dart’s first series ended with an interception on an ill-advised pass into congested coverage as WSU’s Daniel Isom easily stepped in front of his intended target London for the pick.
The USC defense would not allow the Cougars to score off that turnover, though, holding strong on a goal-line stand on four plays from inside the 2-yard line. Ditto for the next Dart turnover as he fumbled two series later after a run of 16 yards.
He never looked rattled, though, despite the early turnovers.
«I kind of like traced it back to my freshman year in high school. Kind of same thing, I made some early mistakes in my career. Back then I kind of hanged on them a little bit. And I felt like for me to succeed I had to just forget about it and just move on,» Dart said. «We play for each other, so I felt like if I just wasn’t thinking about myself and thinking about everybody else and just trying to do my job from then on.»
Said center Brett Neilon: «I’m like dang, this kid’s a freshman. It was encouraging. I just knew, I’ve been a big Dart fan. He’s in my locker room pod, he’s just good kid. I just knew he was going to make plays. It still is kind of crazy he’s a true freshman, three games in. That’s a true freshman throwing it up like that and having the confidence and making plays with his legs. He had some early turnovers and that’s going to happen … but he kept throwing it, he kept going at it.»
Washington State, which had gone up 14-0 on a 7-yard de Laura touchdown pass to Harris, would take over at the USC 36 after Dart’s fumble and follow with one of five three-and-outs the Trojans defense forced.
Still, USC’s beleaguered fan base was already fearing a repeat of last week — a game the Trojans were expected to win unraveling in all the worst ways.
Except that didn’t happen this time. In Williams’ debut as interim head coach, after former head coach Clay Helton was fired following that 42-28 loss to Stanford last week, the Trojans played their best stretch of football yet this season over those final two and a half quarters.
They just needed a spark, and Dart provided it.
Facing a fourth-and-9 from the Washington State 38 in the final minute of the second quarter, Dart showed the poise that made him the Gatorade National High School Player of the Year in 2020 and a top national prospect.
Sophomore receiver Gary Bryant Jr. beat a linebacker on his route from the slot to get wide open behind the defense and Dart dropped in a dime on that fourth down for what was at the time a most unexpected touchdown.
«They actually checked the play at the line, but my main focus, I was reading the coverage, was just getting my dude to miss. I looked up and it was just a great ball right into my hands by Jaxson,» Bryant said.
Williams noted after the game that he initially considered going for a long field goal, but he quickly changed his mind.
«I was thinking maybe at this moment in time, we was thinking field goal a little bit. And I looked at a couple guys and then Drake [London] came to me and said, ‘We gonna kick a field goal?!’ I said, ‘You know what, you guys told me you believe in me, and I believe in y’all. Let’s score.’ And shoot, we did it,» Williams recalled.
The scoring strikes would start feeling more and more familiar from there — as a refreshing change of pace for the Trojans.
Harris fumbled the opening kickoff of the second half for Washington State, forced by Micah Croom and recovered by kicker Parker Lewis, and USC went back to work from the WSU 27.
Dart capped the short drive with an absolute dar … err, missile to London, who was double covered in the end zone. Just like that, it was a tied game.
Dart drove the Trojans 81 yards next time, including a 32-yard strike to London and a pair of third-down conversions, and a USC offense that has looked befuddled in the red zone dialed up its best play call of the year. Bryant went in motion right to left and then cut back right as Dart faked the handoff and tossed to Bryant, who was credited with a 3-yard touchdown run to put USC ahead 21-14.
The Trojans defense delivered another three-and-out with a Kana’i Mauga sack on third down. Dart tossed his second interception, but it was a low-risk throw downfield on third down and left the Cougars at their own 5, and two plays into the ensuing possession Drake Jackson blew past the left tackle to pummel backup QB Victor Gabalis from behind and force a fumble with the sack. Tuli Tuipulotu recovered the ball in the end zone for another touchdown — and a 28-14 lead.
De Laura came back in at QB for Washington State and was immediately picked off by freshman Calen Bullock, and six plays later Dart hit London for a 31-yard touchdown down the middle.
Ultimately, the Trojans would make it 45 straight points while tacking on a late 34-yard Lewis field goal and a 36-yard touchdown strike from Dart to Kyle Ford on a perfect throw down the left sideline — which served as an emphatic exclamation point on his performance.
«He proved to us that he got heart,» Bryant said. «We always knew he had the talent. Talent was never the factor. He always competed at practice every day, but just had the heart to come out and fight when we needed him.»
Neilon, meanwhile, took it a few steps further.
«That’s just the type of guy he is. He’s just a warrior, he’s a gamer, reminds me a lot of Sam Darnold to be honest,» he said. «I kind of felt that way early. I just think he works hard, he enrolled early, he just makes plays. When he checks into the game, he’s going to make plays with his legs, with his arms. He’s going to be confident and he’s going to push us as an offense.»
It was just over two years ago that Slovis was thrust into action in the season opener and went on to seize the job from the injured JT Daniels and launch his career.
There will be questions now about what the Trojans do at QB moving forward, given what Dart showed Saturday and the added dimension he brings with his legs. In fact, it was already a question to Williams after the game, as he was asked whether he feels there’s a fresh quarterback competition brewing.
«I don’t, because for all I know it could be Miller [Moss’] turn next week. These guys, they get prepared to play. Graham [Harrell] does a good job of making sure when their number’s called, they make sure they go out there and they make plays, and we did that today,» he said.
So does that mean he views Slovis as the starter?
«Being clear, every day, every position, of everybody on this team, it’s always a battle,» Williams said, certainly not leaving anything clear about the position.
He didn’t specify the nature of Slovis’ injury, but he said, «All I know is he’ll be OK to practice this coming week and we’ll just take it from here.»
Either way, USC fans can now see the future is bright with Dart as the heir apparent at the position.
And they can also have some renewed optimism and excitement for the present as it’s clear this team is going to play for Williams.
That was USC athletic director Mike Bohn’s hope in making the change and firing Helton after just two games.
The Trojans still have plenty to prove — but they now at least have something encouraging to build upon moving forward.
«I think we’ve got something to prove — not to the world, but to ourselves,» Bryant said. «… Having that iron mindset of, it’s raining but we’re still going to do this; everybody’s against us but we’re still going to do this. The whole team bought in and right now we’re just united.»