LOS ANGELES -- — Drake London racked up some incredible receiving numbers when Southern California’s offense was on the field.
When San Jose State had the ball, the Trojans’ defense often looked impenetrable.
Yet No. 15 USC’s lead was still stuck in the single digits until a fourth-quarter surge rewarded the Trojans with a suitable margin of season-opening victory.
London caught a career-high 12 passes for 137 yards, Greg Johnson returned a late interception 37 yards for a touchdown and the Trojans pulled away for a 30-7 victory over the Spartans.
USC still hasn’t lost a home opener played in the Coliseum in the 21st century. But until the fourth quarter, this victory was another version of the underwhelming starts that have been common under seventh-year head coach Clay Helton.
The Trojans led the defending Mountain West champions just 13-7 heading into the final period, but the USC defense capped its impressive day with Johnson's TD return to push the lead to 23-7 with 11:42 to play, followed by a stop of the Spartans on downs near the goal line with 7:20 left.
“We felt like the defense was dominating the whole game, but the score was still close,” USC defensive tackle Tuli Tuipulotu said. “We just had to keep working.”
They also had to get some help from the offense at the 98-year-old Coliseum, where USC's fans watched their team for the first time since 2019.
Kedon Slovis passed for 256 yards and two touchdowns, with more than half of his completions finding their way to the dominant London. Slovis also hit Tahj Washington with a 29-yard touchdown pass in the first half, but the rest of USC's passing game struggled until the Trojans' final surge.
Erik Krommenhoek made a sliding 20-yard TD catch with 2:07 to play for USC, which outscored the Spartans 17-0 in the fourth quarter.
“We just executed when it counted,” Slovis said. “Converting in those big moments counts. I thought the defense played great, too. They really did bail us out at some points.”
Parker Lewis kicked three field goals for USC in the California schools' first meeting since 2009. USC improved to 5-0 against San Jose State, which hasn't beaten a ranked team since 2013 and hasn't beaten a Pac-12 team since 2006.
Nick Starkel passed for 308 yards and Tyler Nevens rushed for a touchdown for the Spartans, who trounced Southern Utah in their season opener last week. San Jose State gave a stiff challenge to the talent-studded Trojans throughout the afternoon.
“It’s not what we learned, (but) what we already understood about ourselves,” San Jose State safety Jay Lenard said. “I expect us as a team, as a defensive unit to bring that fight. That's just how we are.”
San Jose State managed only one drive longer than 20 yards in the first half, and that one ended in a missed field goal. The Spartans finally scored when Nevens' 2-yard TD run capped a 74-yard drive midway through the third quarter.
The Trojans got breathing room when Johnson returned an underthrown pass untouched for a score. The three-year starter's interception was the third of his career and his first since 2019.
A coverage sack on third-and-goal forced USC to kick a short field goal on its opening possession, but linebacker Drake Jackson’s interception of a screen pass then set up the Trojans’ offense for its first TD. When San Jose State jumped offside before a snap, Slovis recognized the opportunity and lobbed a pass to Washington. The transfer receiver from Memphis hauled in the jump ball.
“It’s crazy how you play that so many times in your head, so when it happens, you just go do it,” Washington said of his big catch. “You don’t even think about it because you’ve done it so many times.”
Calen Bullock became the first freshman to start at safety for USC since Su’a Cravens in 2013. Bullock, who didn’t play high school football last season and enrolled at USC last spring, filled in after Isaiah Pola-Mao went into the COVID-19 protocols.
“My emotions were everywhere, but then I had a good game,” said Bullock, who led the Trojans with eight tackles.
San Jose State: The Spartans don't have USC's pure talent, but they were reminded they can hang with a five-star-studded program on both sides of the ball.
USC: The Trojans' defense and running game were solid. Their concerns are in the air, where the receiving depth behind London is suspect: Washington had four catches, fellow transfer Malcolm Epps had one — and no other wide receivers caught a pass.
Final score aside, the Trojans produced yet another edition of their September special for the past decade: An unconvincing victory that tempers the overwrought preseason expectations around this high-profile program and likely pushes it slightly downward in the rankings.
San Jose State: An off week followed by a trip to Hawaii.
USC: Stanford visits the Coliseum on Saturday night.
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