USC’s young receivers slow to catch on

on Sep3

USC didn’t need to generate much offense other than on the ground Saturday — except on one crucial third down when it faced third and 17.

Western Michigan had just scored on a double-pass. USC was losing. Its offense was sputtering.

So quarterback Sam Darnold looked for a familiar partner. He unleashed a pass across the middle and connected with slot receiver Deontay Burnett, who made a diving catch for 27 yards, defibrillating a drive that ultimately tied the score.

The play highlighted a lone bright spot in USC’s passing game: Burnett and Darnold are on the same wavelength.

It also underlined a problem: Had Burnett not found open space, Darnold lacked other options. Burnett caught seven passes for 142 yards — nearly half of Darnold’s total of 289 passing yards.

Steven Mitchell Jr. caught four passes for 39 yards, and Jalen Greene, the third starter, caught one for 11 yards.

“Coming in, that was my primary concern,” coach Clay Helton said. “I said all camp because you just know, after doing it for 23 years, you understand when you’ve got young people and they step in that Coliseum for the first time, that there’s going to be some deer in the headlights until they get comfortable. And there were some big eyes.”

USC’s passing game never found a rhythm in part because it couldn’t hold on to the ball early. Three Trojans dropped passes in the first half: Greene, Tyler Vaughns and tight end Cary Angeline.

“We were out of flux, to be honest with you,” Helton said.

Burnett said the receiving group has heard persistent criticism. Mostly, he said, the critique is “that we’re young.”

“I know we’re young,” Burnett said. “But we have great ball catchers.”

Burnett is the only receiver who has displayed chemistry with Darnold so far, but, he said, the same trust exists with his teammates.

Darnold paused when asked how far away the passing game was from his ideal.

“I’m not really sure, honestly,” he said. “As the season progresses we’ll see where we are. But I think we’re in a good spot right now. I have a lot of chemistry with the guys.”

Darnold blamed himself for the first mediocre performance of his career: 289 yards, two interceptions and no passing touchdowns.

“I’ve just got to put the ball where it needs to be,” Darnold said. “I was trying to be too cute.”

Imatorbhebhe close

The absence of tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe, one of Darnold’s favorite targets, for long stretches of the contest also hampered the passing game.

Imatorbhebhe is recovering from a hip flexor injury, and Helton talked with him about his role before the game. Helton told him to be ready only when needed. Then he started Tyler Petite.

In limited minutes, Imatorbhebhe caught one pass for 12 yards. But he emerged from the game healthy.

“I feel like I’m close,” he said. “I didn’t have any pain.”

Feeling hot

Fans in the upper rows could see the La Tuna Fire burning in the hills within view of the Coliseum. The temperature gauge on the peristyle end of the Coliseum swung well past the 100-degree mark.

At kickoff, the official temperature was 98 degrees, making it the hottest game at the Coliseum since a 1998 game against Purdue, which was 99 at kickoff.

And the temperature climbed into triple digits during the game.

A total of 61,125 fans attended, USC’s lowest-attended season opener since 2001 and the lowest of any game since 2002.

“I’m sure everybody was sucking wind,” linebacker Cameron Smith said. “I’m sure the stands were sucking wind. It was hot outside.”

zach.helfand@latimes.com

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand



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