Reigning Mountain West champion San Jose State seeks a landmark win Saturday, traveling to Los Angeles to face a No. 15-ranked Southern California team with designs on a Pac-12 championship in 2021.
It is the season opener for USC, which is 4-0 all-time against the Spartans. The Trojans will play in front of a home crowd for the first time since routing rival UCLA at the conclusion of the 2019 regular season more than 21 months ago.
Quarterback Kedon Slovis set a program record with 515 passing yards in that game, and returned as a sophomore in 2020 to guide USC to the Pac-12 title game.
Despite the Trojans’ 5-1 season, however, Slovis’ individual production regressed. He finished 2020 completing almost 5 percent fewer of his pass attempts, threw almost as many interceptions in six games (seven) as the previous season’s 13 games (nine) and his yards per attempt dipped from 8.9 to 7.3.
“Going through all those feelings and adversity and not feeling your best to now, feeling pretty good, the best I’ve felt in a long time,” Slovis told the Los Angeles Times of his efforts to get back to form after a slight sophomore slump. “It felt like a long journey. I’m just happy to be on the back end of that.”
Slovis is throwing to an outstanding wide receiving corps, including 6-foot-5 playmaker Drake London and veteran Colorado transfer K.D. Nixon. The running back rotation returns fifth-year contributor Vavae Malepeai and Kenan Christon, a promising change-of-pace back who showed flashes of brilliance in 2019.
But defense might be the central component to USC’s Pac-12 title chances.
Coordinator Todd Orlando has a talented rotation in his first full season with the Trojans, including defensive backs Chris Steele and Isaiah Pola-Mao, edge rusher Drake Jackson and the defensive line duo of Nick Figueroa and Tuli Tuipulotu.
The USC defense faces an immediate test from San Jose State (1-0). Veteran quarterback Nick Starkel led the Spartans to their first Mountain West championship a season ago, and opened the new season last Saturday with 394 yards and four touchdowns in a 45-14 blowout of Southern Utah.
“Our offense is built not around specific players, but around schemes,” Starkel told the San Jose Mercury News. “So being able to have 10 different guys that can catch the ball and more that you are trying to get the ball to is huge for this team.”
“(Offensive coordinator) Kevin McGiven is one of the best play callers in the country. He’s an incredible teacher, and I think Nick would agree with that,” San Jose State coach Brent Brennan said in his postgame press conference.
San Jose State held opponents to 19.9 points per game in 2020 thanks in part to an aggressive pass rush, and the Spartans return standout defensive ends Cade Hall and Viliami Fehoko. The duo combined for 16 sacks a season ago.
USC counters with an offensive line built around veteran All-Pac-12 honorees Jalen McKenzie and Andrew Vorhees. Saturday marks the 26th career start for Vorhees.
–Field Level Media