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Jaxson Dart makes mistakes — and offers a glimmer of hope — in first USC start

Frustrations were already mounting. His first start for USC was falling apart. His workhorse back was sidelined. A desperate defense was in the process of self-destructing, and soon enough, the dam would burst. But for the briefest of moments, amid the wreckage of a 62-33 loss that would rank among the worst USC had suffered to UCLA, Jaxson Dart offered a glimmer of hope.

It was only fleeting, of course. Like most things in this dispiriting USC season, that glimmer would soon be forgotten, trampled under the weight of delirious disappointment. But as UCLA missed a field-goal attempt with two minutes left in the third quarter, USC’s true freshman quarterback stepped into the huddle ready to continue fighting.

Dart had already taken his fair share of hits. UCLA spent most of the afternoon pressuring the freshman with blitzes, making him as uncomfortable as it could. But with the Trojans trailing by 15, Dart seemed to settle in. He went deep on his first play of the drive, lacing a 28-yard pass down the left sideline for Gary Bryant Jr. The next play, he threw it deep again to Bryant, who this time had slipped behind UCLA’s secondary.

As Bryant sprinted for a 44-yard score, the Trojans suddenly had a pulse, trailing by only nine. All they needed was an extra point to cut the lead to a single score.

Instead, interim coach Donte Williams sent Dart out for an ill-advised two-point conversion try, and UCLA stamped out the sliver of hope still left on USC’s sideline. After faking a handoff, Dart was met immediately in the backfield.

It took only a few more seconds for UCLA to ring the last bit of life out of its rival, as UCLA’s Kazmeir Allen caught the ensuing kickoff, made a few Trojans miss and burst into the open field. By the time he stopped sprinting, 100yards later, Allen’s third touchdown was in hand, and the comeback was suddenly out of reach.

Frustrations would only pile up, along with more and more points for UCLA.

“It sounds like the same old story, every time,” USC center Brett Neilon said. “We’re just not playing together. Defense comes up big at the start, offense doesn’t really do much. Then offense gets a little hot, and defense lets up some scores, and special teams and whatnot.”

With Kedon Slovis sidelined by a lower leg injury, the hope was that the Trojans’ dynamic freshman quarterback could help write a different ending to an otherwise dismal season. He’d come in once before, taking over for Slovis on a rainy September afternoon in Pullman, Wash., and immediately injected life into USC’s offense.

That wasn’t quite the case Saturday. Where his dynamic debut at Washington State was a declaration of his extraordinary potential, Dart’s first start was a reminder of how far he still has to come. Dart completed 27 of 47 passes for 325 yards and a touchdown. But he also threw two interceptions.

“I just look at the result,” Dart said. “I felt like I missed a lot. I wasn’t able to do enough to help the win.”

His defense didn’t do him any favors. After giving away two interceptions to start the game, UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson came alive, dicing up USC’s secondary for 349 yards and four touchdowns. At one point, he completed 14 straight passes.

There was no such consistency from Dart, who opened the game similarly erratic. By halftime, he had completed fewer than 50% of his passes. It took USC being backed into a corner for the freshman to calm down.

Still, his confidence made an impression.

“That’s one thing about Dart,” USC running back Keaontay Ingram said. “He’s going to take shots.”

“That’s who he is,” added Bryant, who had a career-high 161 yards receiving. “I look forward to seeing him later on.”

USC tried to take the pressure off Dart by leaning on the run game. But just as Ingram found his rhythm, rushing for 96 yards in 17 carries, he was ruled out because of a rib injury.

“Jaxson, he made a couple mistakes [today],” Williams said, “but he was able to keep fighting.”

The worst of those mistakes came shortly after UCLA’s kick return for a touchdown. After Dart found Bryant to put the Trojans in the red zone, he rolled to his right looking for Tahj Washington. But without his feet set, the pass came up too short and landed in the outstretched arms of UCLA cornerback Cam Johnson.

“I tried to force it,” Dart said. “It was one I wish I had back.”

By then, however, it was too late to rewrite the nightmarish final act to come. The rout was on, and the freshman quarterback was helpless to stop it.

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