San Jose State Football: First Look at the USC Trojans

San Jose State Football: First Look at the USC Trojans

Mountain West Football

San Jose State Football: First Look at the USC Trojans

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San Jose State Football: First Look at the USC Trojans


The Spartans will take aim at USC in their first road game of the 2021 season.


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In most circumstances, the fact that the San Jose State Spartans will head to the historic Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to face the USC Trojans would make one wonder whether the visitors had any chance at all for an upset.

These Spartans, however, are the defending Mountain West champions and these Trojans… well, their recent history has been something of an adventure, as the men of Troy have never fully climbed back to the heights they reached under Pete Carroll in the 2000s. That’s not to say USC has fallen off, far from it, as they remain a perennial contender for a berth in the Rose Bowl at worst but have become the most mercurial blue blood program anywhere in the country.

Location: Los Angeles, California

Mascot: Traveler

Conference: Pac-12

2020 Record: 5-1 (5-0 Pac-12)

Head Coach: Clay Helton (seventh year, 45-23 overall). Considering how hot his seat seemingly all the time, it starts to make you wonder whether anything short of a College Football Playoff berth will ever give Helton a reprieve. If that’s the case, then depending on what you value 2020 was either a big step in the right direction or more proof that his position is as tenuous as ever. They were perfect in conference play but also 3-1 in one-score games, including the title game loss to Oregon. They had five players selected in the NFL Draft this past spring, but that’s a far cry from the program’s heyday in the early part of the century and the top-end talents that remain are still equal parts tantalizing and frustrating. As always, no pressure, coach.

Key Players

QB Kedon Slovis

Since assuming the starting job back in 2019, maybe no player puts the Trojans’ scuffles into more focus than Slovis. He threw 30 touchdowns and averaged nearly nine yards an attempt in that freshman year, but his occasional struggles were a killer and remained so in 2020, most notably in that Pac-12 title game against the Ducks.

When he’s on, though, even strong defenses can have a difficult time stopping the USC Air Raid, so there are good reasons why his name is still bandied about as a potential first-round NFL Draft pick next year.

WR Drake London

An Air Raid offense needs targets, and no Trojan is more established in that regard than London. Like Slovis, he emerged as a freshman back in 2019 and followed that up last year by leading USC as a sophomore with 502 receiving yards on just 33 catches, scoring three times. He might not yet have the national profile of a Michael Pittman Jr. or a Juju Smith-Schuster, but it wouldn’t be a shock if he did by New Year’s Day.

OL Courtland Ford

USC reloads in one way or another every year and Ford is at the forefront of their ability to do so successfully in 2021. That’s because, after starting just one game last fall, the 6-foot-5 and 305-pound redshirt freshman is the front runner to replace Alijah Vera-Tucker, who protected Slovis’s blind side before becoming a first-round draft pick this spring. If Cade Hall or Viliami Fehoko can get the better of him from play to play, it could give San Jose State a serious edge in slowing down the USC offense.

LB Drake Jackson

Jackson has been a USC playmaker from day one, when he collected 1.5 tackles for loss and two pass breakups in the team’s 2019 opener against Fresno State and became a Freshman All-American later that year. His pass-rushing bonafides remain intact after picking up two sacks and 5.5 TFLs in six games last fall, so he’ll be a challenge off the edge for every offense.

DL Korey Foreman

It’s hard to say just how much impact Foreman will have, but that’s only because he’s a true freshman… who happens to have been the number one prospect at any position from the 2021 class. That he chose to stay in southern California rather than leave for Clemson or Alabama gives you the impression that he’s ready to do his part to bring the Trojans back to the promised land, so it’s a matter of whether he’ll fire out the gate like Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux or take some time to develop.

Overview:

Offense

It probably won’t come as a surprise to learn that offensive coordinator Graham Harrell often contented himself to put the game in Kedon Slovis’s hands last year. No quarterback in the country threw more times per game (44.4) but his numbers weren’t quite as good as they were in his freshman year, though he acknowledged a crisis of confidence played a part in that drop-off. You can assume that has subsided by now.

There’s a decent chance that offensive philosophy also came about by necessity, though, since the Trojans possessed far and away the worst running game in the Pac-12. The team’s top three running backs averaged a mediocre 3.99 yards per carry, so it may be a good thing that only one of them, senior Vavae Malepeai, is back for 2021. He may cede the lead back role to Texas transfer Keaontay Ingram or a younger talent like former four-star recruit Brandon Campbell, but the committee will have to be better to help Slovis thrive.

Finding more reliable pass catchers to keep defenses from focusing on London will help, too, and the Trojans have no shortage of options. Bru McCoy, the subject of a lot of recruiting fuss a couple years ago, had 21 catches and two touchdowns last year, so his spot seems secure. K.D. Nixon, who transferred in from Colorado, caught 87 combined passes in his two best years with the Buffaloes and should lock down another. Beyond that, more blue-chippers like Kyle Ford and Gary Bryant Jr., the respective top recruits from USC’s 2019 and 2020 classes, might have arrived at their first big chance to shine.

Defense

USC’s defense was good but not great by both traditional and advanced measures in 2020, but do they have what it takes to become elite? As always, the talent is there and the bigger question regards consistency.

Up front, the Trojans return Nick Figueroa, who led the defense with seven tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks, and bring in Foreman and Alabama transfer Ishmael Sopsher, so the potential for stardom is definitely there. On the back end, junior cornerback Chris Steele could be a hot commodity within draft circles by this time next year because he had five passes defended in 2019 and four more in 2020, but there are a lot of questions around him. If San Jose State can stick to its game and get the ball out of Nick Starkel’s hands quickly, there could be chances to exploit a unit that allowed opponents to complete 64.7% of its passes in 2020.

Early Prediction

When this game was scheduled, it looked like any other cupcake game. That’s not the case anymore, but while San Jose State’s upset chances aren’t as far-fetched as they might have been a couple years, actually doing so would be a monumental statement for Brent Brennan’s program.

The trick will be to throw Kedon Slovis off of his game and then capitalize on his mistakes, though that will always be easier said than done when USC will always possess a very high baseline of talent. While the Spartans defense might be up to the task, it’s hard to see on paper how the offense will be able to keep up should the Trojans land a critical haymaker or two. It’ll be close, but even throwing a scare at USC could be a useful statement in itself.

USC 31, San Jose State 21

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