Kedon Slovis needs to change USC football’s fortunes with injury replacements

Harry How/Getty Images
Harry How/Getty Images /

USC football has been fortunate with quarterback injuries this century, but when backups have gone in, it usually hasn’t gone well. Kedon Slovis will look to change that.

REPORT CARD. Grades vs. Fresno State

When was the last time USC football won a football game with a backup quarterback replacing an injured starter?

The year was 2007 and the quarterback was Mark Sanchez. He stepped in for John David Booty and led USC to victory against Arizona. Since then, four backups have been called upon to start in place of the injured starter in five games. The Trojans have gone 0-5 in those games.

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On Saturday against Stanford, true freshman Kedon Slovis will look to buck the trend with a win in his first career start, replacing JT Daniels.

It hasn’t been smooth sailing for backup quarterbacks at USC, with Sanchez and Sam Darnold providing notable exceptions (Darnold rose from backup status to starter, but not through injury).

In 2009, Aaron Corp took the place of Matt Barkley in September as the Trojans battled Steve Sarkisian’s Washington. Barkley had just led USC with late heroics to beat Ohio State, but injured his shoulder in the process.

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While hopes for Corp’s running ability adding another dimension to USC’s offense were high, the junior’s first outing was a dud. After hitting five of his first six attempts, Corp completed eight of his next 16, gaining a paltry 110 yards through the air and tossing an interception. There could have been more too as the quarterback never found his groove and the Trojans were left impotent as a result.

In 2010, Mitch Mustain was the one replacing Barkley when a high ankle sprain took him out of action against Notre Dame. It wasn’t Mustain’s first career start, as it will be for Slovis on Saturday. He had eight games of starting experience as a freshman at Arkansas in 2006. That experience didn’t do him much good on a rainy night at the Coliseum, nor did his receiver Ronald Johnson, who dropped a wide open pass for what could have been the game-winning touchdown.

Easy drops will be familiar to USC fans who watched the opening half against Fresno State. Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns committed such errors on third down plays.

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A receiver letting down the backup QB may also be familiar to Slovis himself, who watched his second career completion be fumbled away by Vaughns as his first drive came to nothing. Later, Slovis watched that same receiver adjust impressively to a long ball in the air and come up with a far more difficult catch than Johnson dropped back in 2010.

It’s a reminder that touchdowns and turnovers, wins and losses, don’t come down to the quarterback alone. It takes a village to raise a child and it takes a team to win a game.

Max Wittek was on the wrong end of the equation in 2012 when he stood in for Barkley in the final two games of that disappointing campaign. He performed admirably against No. 1 Notre Dame, completing 60.9 percent of his passes, though his performance and USC’s hopes of victory were doomed by two critical interceptions.

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His performance was considerably less encouraging against Georgia Tech in the gusty Sun Bowl, when he posted a completion percentage of 37.8 percent, with 107 yards passing, one touchdown and three interceptions.

“He was rattled the whole game and we knew we had him,” Rod Sweeting, a Georgia Tech cornerback, told the Los Angeles Times.

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Of all USC’s backup performances in the last 12 years, Jack Sears’ was undoubtedly the best, even though his result on the day was no different than the others.

Replacing JT Daniels with a concussion and Matt Fink with broken ribs, Sears completed 20-of-28 passes for 235 yards and two touchdowns against Arizona State in 2018.

His play has become the stuff of legends, and earned USC coaches the ire of a segment of the Trojan fanbase when he was selected as the fourth-string quarterback going into the 2019 campaign. He has since left the team with the intention of transferring.

Which brings us back to Slovis, the former three-star prospect and unexpected starter in cardinal and gold in Week 2.

His half of action against Fresno State had certain highs and lows. He went 6-of-8, getting the ball to his receivers with accuracy. He didn’t display the same poise and high-level decision-making of Daniels from the first half, though that is to be expected. His 41-yard pass down the right sideline to Vaughns was a thing of beauty. His 50-yard interception into double coverage was the best punt of the night for the Trojans, but the worst throw, especially since it came on a first down.

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Since it became clear Daniels’ injury would take him out for the rest of the season, USC’s coaches and players have given Slovis a clear vote of confidence.

“He’s a really talented passer, fundamentally he’s very sound, the ball jumps out of his hand. His talent level definitely gives him a chance to be really successful,” offensive coordinator Graham Harrell said. “From there, it’s going to come down to decision making. He’s going to have to make good decisions.”

Harrell cautioned that freshman mistakes will be a reality on Saturday.

“We’re gonna have to live with those and overcome those if he does,” Harrell said. “But I’ve got a ton of confidence in him.”

Striking a balance between sufficient backup QB performance and overcoming the expected mistakes has not been USC’s strong suit over the past decade. Saturday is a chance to change that.

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