Elliott: Questions linger about USC quarterback Kedon Slovis after unsteady effort against Utes

The Trojans' Kedon Slovis completed 24 of 35 passes with two touchdowns and one interception against Utah on Saturday.
The Trojans’ Kedon Slovis completed 24 of 35 passes with two touchdowns and one interception against Utah on Saturday. (Associated Press)

Kedon Slovis’ performance against Utah on Saturday won’t stop the persistent questions about what’s wrong with his arm and why his throws don’t consistently have the zip they did last season, when he became the first true freshman USC quarterback to be named to the freshman All-America first team.

He doesn’t mind the social media chatter. “I think if anything it motivates me to be on my best game,” he said.

But he was far from his best on Saturday. He completed 24 of 35 passes (68.6%) — his lowest completion rate in the Trojans’ first three games — with two touchdowns and one interception. He threw some darts in USC’s 33-17 victory at Rice-Eccles Stadium but he also threw more of the curiously wobbly passes that he previously blamed on sloppiness with his throwing mechanics. He didn’t cite mechanics as a problem on Saturday.

“I didn’t think I had any issues throwing the ball. Coach was helping me figure out the game balls and getting that fixed,” he said during a postgame video session. “But I don’t think I played very well as a whole. I have to execute better.”

At least he’s honest. But that won’t silence observers who wonder if he’s covering up an injury or having a loss of confidence, or maybe a combination of both.

Former USC quarterback Matt Leinart, who won the Heisman Trophy as a junior, took to Twitter on Saturday to defend him. “Kedon Slovis was a Freshman AA last year and you guys want to move on???? He’s a stud, trust me this is not his fault!” said Leinart, now a college football commentator for Fox.

If Slovis really is a stud — and if there’s no physical cause for his lapses — it’s time for him to return to that level on a regular basis.

A hard-nosed effort by the Trojans’ defense, which held Utah scoreless in the second half, and four field goals by Parker Lewis meant USC didn’t need a spectacular performance from Slovis on Saturday. The Utes had lost nine defensive starters from last season and were making their 2020 debut after losing two games to coronavirus-related cancellations.

The Trojans should have been able to separate themselves early from a team that was, understandably, rough around the edges and also lost newly minted starting quarterback Cameron Rising to an injury in the first quarter. USC’s 357 total yards (93 rushing, 264 passing) was a season low, though it’s an undeniably small sample size in this pandemic-shortened season.

The score was 3-3 after one quarter and 24-17 for USC at the half, too close for comfort. A second-quarter fumble by Slovis and scoop by Nephi Sewell led to the touchdown that brought Utah even at 10-10; Sewell’s interception of a pass by Slovis after an apparent touchdown run by Vavae Malepeai was nullified by a penalty also temporarily slowed the Trojans’ attempt to pull away.

Slovis said the interception was a play the Trojans run all the time. “I think I was just kinda on a different page as Erik [Krommenhoek], where he was running. I thought he was gonna take a different angle, but still that’s on, that’s my fault, the interception,” Slovis said. “When they give us that look, I just got to check it down or just be smart with the football and it was a careless throw.”

The misplays made things tougher for the Trojans, but not impossible. “We let them stay in it into the second half and then we started to separate ourselves, which I’m proud of the kids for doing. But we will hit on all cylinders, and I’m looking forward to that here soon,” coach Clay Helton said. “We’re close. Defensively, I thought we took a major, major step ahead. Offensively, we’re doing the things to win but we haven’t reached our full potential yet, and I look forward to that day.”

Asked to evaluate Slovis’ game, Helton didn’t get into specifics. “What I love about Kedon is that he’s a winner, and winners find ways to win and he’s done that each and every week. The stat sheet probably won’t be as pretty as the last couple of weeks percentage wise but at the end of the day, winners win and that’s what he is,” Helton said of Slovis, who completed 40 of 55 passes (72.7%) against Arizona State in the opener and 30 of 43 (69.8%) against Arizona.

“He did the things that we needed him to do to walk out of Salt Lake City with a huge win, and all our kids did,” Helton said. “I know that we’re such perfectionists as coaches and as players and we know what this offense can be, and we’re going to look up and it’s going to turn in from a 30-point offense to hopefully a 40-, 50-point offense. But we all want more. We all want to do a little bit better. And we’ll continue to work at it.

“The one thing that Kedon does is he finds a way to put the team on his back and win ballgames and he’s done it again for us. He’s 1-0 on the week and 3-0 on the season.”

Slovis took responsibility for the Trojans leaving points on the board against Utah. “Mostly because of my play and not being disciplined,” he said. “So I think if you see my play increase, we’ll put up a lot more points and have a lot more success offensively.”

They didn’t need Slovis to lead them on Saturday. But they might need him to carry them next week when they face Colorado, the first time they won’t be playing a team that’s making its season debut. Win that game, and the Trojans could lock up the Pac-12 South. Win with a strong performance and Slovis can mute the speculation about his arm. Anything less will keep the chatter going and keep the Trojans guessing when they’ll be the kind of dominant offensive team Helton insists they can be.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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