Los Angeles, CA – All the talk leading up to the season was the air-raid offense new offensive coordinator Graham Harrell was implementing at USC but it was the running game that helped the Trojans hold on to 31-23 win over Fresno State in the season opener Saturday night at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Junior running back Vavae Malepeal rushed for a career-high 134 yards with a touchdown on 23 carries. Stephen Carr added a touchdown reception and rushed for another score.
“I said it all night, this is fun,” Malepeal said. “You know, coming on the ball and keeping it uptempo. I told coach Helton that many times and it’s the best feeling in the world when you have a head coach that’s always going to bet on you no matter what.”
The Trojans got a spark in the third quarter when Velus Jones Jr.returned a kickoff 101 yards for a touchdown. Velus Jr. found a crease and was off to the races with only the kicker to beat.
“Everytime I touch it, I expect to take one back,” Jones Jr. said. “When you get a chance to hit a homerun, hit a home run. I couldn’t have done it without my brothers blocking for me. That’s where it all started.”
USC scored on its opening possession with a 13-play, 81-yard drive. J.T Daniels hit Carr out of the backfield for an 8-yard touchdown. Carr side stepped a defender to get into the end zone.
After Marlon Tuipulotu forced a fumble that Hunter Echols recovered, Carr scored on a 14-yard run to give USC a 14-0 lead with 7:45 left in the first quarter.
Towards the end of the second quarter, USC starting quarterback JT Daniels went down with a right leg injury. Fresno State came with a blitz on third down and sacked Daniels. As he went down, Daniels reached for his right knee and had to be helped off the field.
USC coach Clay Helton said Daniels had an x-ray and it was negative but they will wait on the results of the MRI.
“It’s gut wrenching,” Helton said. “You see a kid that’s poured so much into the game and into this team. I said a prayer as soon as I saw it and I’m hoping we get the best results tomorrow.”
True freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis replaced Daniels and finished 6-of-8 for 57 yards with one interception. Slovis showed off his arm on a deep pass to Tyler Vaughns who hauled in the 41-yard reception.
The Trojans had an 18-point lead heading into the fourth quarter but a field goal and Chris Coleman’s 8-yard touchdown reception cut the lead to eight with 6:39 remaining. The Bulldogs had one final chance to tie the game but Isaiah Pola-Mao intercepted Jorge Reyna in the end zone to seal the victory.
The defense played well in spots, forcing three turnovers but gave up 462 total yards. Reyna led the Bulldogs with 256 yards passing and two touchdowns while rushing for 88 yards.
“A lot to clean up for us,” Helton said. “I thought we left some opportunities out there. Thank goodness for a stout defense at the end and a big play by Isaiah Pola-Mao. We’ve got a lot to fix before the next game.”
USC will open Pac-12 play when they host Stanford next Saturday.