USC vs. Fresno State final score: Trojans survive after JT Daniels injury

Harry How/Getty Images
Harry How/Getty Images /

Saturday night’s USC vs. Fresno State game turned ugly for the Trojans. They weathered a JT Daniels injury with a closer-than-it-should’ve-been 31-23 win.

Unlike most up-and-down games of late under Clay Helton, the USC vs. Fresno State score was a mostly accurate depiction. The Trojans left it awfully close.

The lowdown: The Trojans jumped out to a red-hot start with quarterback JT Daniels completing 13 of his first 14 passes on way to earning USC a 14-0 lead with a pair of Stephen Carr touchdowns. But after the Graham Harrell air raid settled in, the game normalized and both USC and Fresno State traded blows.

Slippery Bulldog quarterback Jorge Reyna led a pair of scoring drives, while Daniels turned somewhat erratic. He forced a few throws, including an interception to wide-open Fresno State linebacker Justin Rice at the goal line.

But a frustrating second quarter for USC turned disastrous in the final minute before half. Daniels left the game after his leg nastily buckled underneath him on a sack at the 29-yard line. The Trojans took a 17-10 lead into the break, needing to call on true freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis.

READ MORE: JT Daniels left season opener with apparent leg injury

After back-to-back turnovers on the opening drives of the second half, plus a Fresno State field goal, Velus Jones became just the sixth Trojan to ever record a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. The score put USC ahead 24-13 and served as a much-needed jumpstart to a catatonic Coliseum.

Minutes later, Slovis set up a Vavae Malepeai touchdown run with a 41-yard strike to Tyler Vaughns. The 31-13 USC lead would be the Trojans’ largest and mark the final time they scored.

Fresno State wasn’t going away. Reyna continued to lead successful drives of 80 and 69 yards to bring the Bulldogs within a score, at 31-23, with under seven minutes to play. The Trojans just couldn’t consistently contain him on the ground or bottle up the passing game on key plays.

After USC handed the ball over with a horrific fourth down attempt just inside of Fresno State territory, the Bulldogs marched down the field one final time. Reyna connected on a 36-yard jump ball to a Greg-Johnson-covered Chris Coleman at the 15-yard line, but that’d be it.

Trojan safety Isaiah Pola-Mao intercepted a pass in the end zone to force the fourth and final Fresno State turnover. USC would drain the clock and win by eight, 31-23.

The takeaway: For a season intended to lasting provide conclusions on Clay Helton’s USC football program, Saturday night’s season opener left everything on the table and then proceeded to flip it completely over.

The Trojans showed promise. The air raid looked beautiful early on, the running game gashed Fresno State often, Slovis wasn’t an overwhelming liability in his first action and Drake Jackson put together a stellar debut at defensive end.

But they also showed all of the hallmarks of last year’s frustrations. They squandered the momentum of a 14-0 lead, had several defensive lapses, couldn’t set the edge, committed special teams penalties and struggled to consistently move the chains when they really needed to get momentum back on their side.

All of those errors led to yet another performance under Helton in which the Trojans left things far too close for too long, giving little to no confidence of the offseason’s changes taking hold.

It’s early. And having to go to Slovis in lieu of an injured Daniels certainly doesn’t help matters, but USC’s still got a laundry list of issues to address before their opening six-game gauntlet really starts to heat up next against Stanford.

Player of the game: Redshirt junior tailback Vavae Malepeai had the game of his career. He consistently ran through gaping holes and out found extra yardage by lumbering through defenders. He rushed for 123 yards on 23 carries and scored on a 2-yard run in the third quarter.

Next on tap: The Trojans will kickoff their Pac-12 slate with a home date with rival Stanford next Saturday night at the Coliseum. The Cardinal have injury concerns of their own, losing quarterback KJ Costello and left tackle Walker Little in their Week 1 win over Northwestern.