LOS ANGELES (AP) — Vavae Malepeai rushed for a career-high 134 yards, Velus Jones Jr. returned a kickoff 101 yards for a score and Southern California overcame the loss of starting quarterback J.T. Daniels to a right leg injury in a 31-23 victory over Fresno State on Saturday night.
Daniels passed for 215 yards before getting hurt on a blitz 27 seconds before halftime. The sophomore was unable to put weight on his right leg, and he returned to the sideline on crutches with a brace on his right knee for the second half.
Freshman backup Kedon Slovis passed for 57 yards in his debut for the Trojans (1-0), who opened a high-pressure season for coach Clay Helton with a major injury overshadowing strong performances across the rest of the Air Raid-style offense installed by new coordinator Graham Harrell.
Stephen Carr caught a TD pass and rushed for another score, while Malepeai scored a touchdown and grinded out plenty of tough yards in the second half. Tyler Vaughns had 11 catches for a career-high 150 yards for the Trojans, whose point total was hurt by two red-zone turnovers by Daniels before his injury.
USC still needed a strong defensive finish to hang on, and Isaiah Pola-Mao made an interception in the end zone with 1:45 to play.
Jorge Reyna passed for 256 yards and ran for 88 more for the defending Mountain West champion Bulldogs (0-1), who had won 21 of their last 25 games under coach Jeff Tedford.
Fresno State trailed by 18 points entering the fourth quarter, but trimmed the deficit to 31-23 on Chris Coleman’s 8-yard TD catch with 6:39 to play. USC then turned the ball over on downs at midfield, but Pola-Mao picked off Reyna’s throw to the end zone before Malepeai and the Trojans ran out the clock.
Reyna, a Los Angeles-area native, went 19 for 39 while taking over for Marcus McMaryion, one of eight Bulldogs offensive starters who must be replaced this fall. Reyna ran well, but glaringly missed a handful of key throws while Fresno State attempted to come back in the second half.
With big plays on defense and special teams, the Trojans hung on in the second half behind the 18-year-old Slovis, an unheralded recruit from Scottsdale, Arizona, who unexpectedly beat out Jack Sears and Matt Fink for the backup job in camp. Slovis went 6 for 8, but threw an interception that sparked the Bulldogs’ comeback hopes.
Jones broke free midway through the third quarter for his exceptional kickoff return, and Malepeai capped an 80-yard scoring drive with a TD run late in the third quarter.
Harrell’s highly anticipated offense had a fairly sharp start before Daniels’ injury. USC racked up 308 total yards in the first half, but a few untimely penalties and Daniels’ two red zone turnovers limited the Trojans to 17 points: He threw a goal-line interception in the second quarter before losing a fumble while getting injured.
Daniels completed 13 of his 14 passes on the Trojans’ first two drives, both ending in touchdowns by Carr, the oft-injured junior. Carr showed his enormous ability while turning a short pass into an 8-yard TD on the opening drive before rushing 14 yards for his second score on the second drive.
Fresno St: The Bulldogs couldn’t pull an upset at the Coliseum despite 206 yards rushing and decent moments of defensive play. It’s too early to gauge the quality of this loss, but Reyna’s inconsistency in important moments raises a few flags.
USC: Helton and Harrell have a huge amount of work to do in the next week. They must decide whether Slovis is ready to take charge during the Trojans’ brutal early-season stretch of games, or whether they go back to Fink or even Sears, who entered the transfer portal after missing out on the starting job.
Fresno State welcomes Minnesota to Bulldog Stadium next Saturday for the first visit from a Big Ten team since 2014.
USC opens Pac-12 play with a visit from Stanford next Saturday in the California private schools’ annual way-too-early meeting required by their mutual nonconference series with Notre Dame.
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