At the most desperate of junctures in a season swiftly slipping into ennui, USC’s freshman quarterback stood in the shadow of his own end zone, a half-empty Coliseum laid out before him. The last time Jaxson Dart had taken the field, six weeks earlier, his electric debut defibrillated the Trojans’ fan base and injected hope into a team that just lost its coach.
That fervor suddenly returned along with USC’s freshman quarterback Saturday in the second quarter of what would become an unnecessarily narrow 41-34 win over Arizona. As his first series at home was announced over the loudspeaker, the Coliseum came to life. The student section chanted his name. And once Dart capped a 15-play, 96-yard touchdown drive, an entire stadium buzzed with the anticipation of what could be.
But by the end of the next drive, that fleeting sense of hope for the future had taken a hard left turn toward despair as Drake London, one of the nation’s best wideouts and the Trojans’ only consistent weapon, lay crumpled in a corner of the end zone, clutching his right ankle in pain.
The life that once coursed through the stadium was sucked away in an instant as trainers surrounded London, who had just scored his second touchdown of the first half. When London finally was lifted to his feet, his right leg was in an air cast. Tears were in his eyes. He was loaded onto the injury cart and taken up the tunnel, waving to the Coliseum crowd as he left, perhaps for the final time.
Asked whether there’s concern London’s ankle injury could be season-ending, interim coach Donte Williams agreed. “That is a fear,” he said.
For eight weeks, London had carried USC’s offense largely on his own, dominating through regular double teams, leaping for impossibly contested catches, reaching 1,000 yards after just seven games. In an otherwise dark season, London was a lone bright spot, a shooting star bound for the top of the upcoming NFL draft.
Losing him was a blow USC would barely recover from Saturday. “The whole team felt it,” running back Keaontay Ingram said.
“When they brought out the cast, I knew it wasn’t good,” quarterback Kedon Slovis said. “It sucks. Best receiver, best player on the team, so it hurts a lot.”
Now, both London’s immediate future and USC’s were suddenly in serious question. The Trojans’ top receiver eventually returned to the sideline in a hard cast. USC, meanwhile, could only manage to go through the motions as Arizona, a loser of 19 straight, continued to climb back into a game it had no business being in.
With six minutes remaining, a USC lead that once seemed destined to grow into a runaway was cut to a single score. And with the stakes at their highest, Williams turned to his freshman to keep USC afloat.
All the while, the Trojans’ All-Pac-12 passer watched from the sideline. Slovis had torched Arizona through Saturday’s first quarter, completing nine of his first 11 passes for 145 yards. He hit Gary Bryant in stride for a 62-yard touchdown and, right before halftime, found Bryant again with a soft touch in the corner of the end zone.
But after one quarter, the streaking Slovis was replaced by his freshman counterpart as part of a planned split. It was a scenario the junior quarterback had been expecting since Friday, when Williams notified him that Dart would get “a few series in the game,” Slovis said.
“I wanted to know why, honestly,” Slovis said. “Not to take away from Jaxson, he’s a great player. But I wanted to know if it was something I was doing and what the reason was.”
It wasn’t clear to Slovis, who finished with 204 yards and two touchdowns, that Dart would be in the huddle for that decisive fourth-quarter drive.
When asked about the decision to go with the freshman at such a crucial moment, Williams said only that it “was already planned for him to come in at that moment in time in the game.”
However, it was Ingram who ultimately did the heavy lifting from there, as he had all afternoon, breaking away for a 45-yard sprint — one of his few long runs that wasn’t called back with a penalty. He finished with a career-high 204 yards to go with a touchdown, carrying USC when it needed him most.
If not for USC’s predisposition to penalties — nine that cost USC 100 yards — Ingram could’ve had even more.
Even then, USC needed a 40-yard field goal from its backup kicker, Alex Stadthaus, to fully put an end to a nightmarish afternoon.
The Trojans’ first victory in four weeks could offer only so much solace. As USC embarks on the last four weeks of its season, it will be without its best weapon in an offense that’s unsettled at quarterback.
Williams wouldn’t say how USC will approach its quarterback situation for the remaining games. Slovis said sharing the position was “definitely something to get used to.”
“I’m not really sure what’s going to happen here on out,” Dart said.
The same could be said for USC, now staring down the barrel of a final four weeks that on Saturday felt anything but hopeful.