Justin Davis was heard before he was seen after USC's game Saturday afternoon. The clacking of crutches marked his emergence from the locker room. When he hobbled out, his right foot was in a black boot.
Davis hadn't popped up from the turf immediately after a tackle in the second half of USC's win over Colorado. Trainers attended to him, and he had a limp when they helped him off the field. Later, he was carted to the locker room with ice on his ankle.
USC Coach Clay Helton said the diagnosis was a high ankle sprain, an injury that could sideline a running back for multiple weeks.
On a teleconference with reporters on Sunday, Helton said he did not yet have a timetable for Davis' return.
"Obviously a high ankle sprain to a running back is a hard thing," Helton said. "I hope it gets better tonight. But usually with high ankle sprains, it takes a little bit."
After taking just seven carries for two yards against Alabama, Davis, a senior, had enjoyed perhaps the best stretch of his career, starting with a 126-yard performance, in just 10 carries, against Utah. Against Arizona State, he rushed for 123 yards in 14 carries. He'd already rushed for 83 yards on Saturday before the injury in the third quarter.
The injury could damage his pursuit of his first 1,000-yard season. He finished 98 yards shy of the mark last season. He is on pace for 934 yards in the regular season.
Davis' patience and hard running, and his improved ability to break off longer runs, had reignited USC's running game as USC's other option, Ronald Jones II, struggled to get started.
In Davis' absence, Jones said he'd begun to find the rhythm that had eluded him this season. He rushed 10 times for 56 yards against Colorado and caught a screen pass on third down to move the chains — a promising sign, as he has been skittish, at times, in the passing game early in his career.
"When you get those back-to-back carries and a rhythm, you definitely get a better feel for the game," Jones said.
If Davis is unable to play, Aca'Cedric Ware would likely become Jones' the backup, with Dominic Davis working into the rotation.
A 2012 study, by researchers at the University of Michigan, of 20 players who suffered high ankle sprains found recovery time from the injury could vary widely, from two days to 30 days. On average, it took two weeks to return to the field.
"If Justin can't go, I know those guys will pick up the slack," Helton said. "It's next man up."
A day after USC's win, Helton mused that, "the good lord was watching over us yesterday."
It was a reference to USC's turnovers — all four of them — that, Helton said, are usually enough to lose a game.
Three of the four were credited to quarterback Sam Darnold, who has mostly avoided having passes intercepted but has had a troubling tendency to fumble.
Helton said ball security would be a point of emphasis in practice. He said he would stress two major points to Darnold.
First, he said, Darnold can't let the ball separate from his body, even if he is stretching at the goal line. That cost USC a touchdown early in the game against Colorado.
Helton said he has already underlined his second point.
"Sliding's not a bad thing," Helton said. "Did that later in the game. Needs to do it more."
Linebacker Michael Hutchings sustained a subluxation of his shoulder — effectively a partially separated shoulder. Hutchings will undergo an MRI exam, "but we feel like he can be back for this week," Helton said. … Right tackle Zach Banner (ankle sprain) did not play Saturday for the second straight game. "Hopefully he'll be back this week," Helton said. … Tight end Taylor McNamara (back strain) tried to warm up before Saturday's game but experienced discomfort and did not play. ... Linebacker John Houston Jr. sustained a minor knee injury. … Safety Jonathan Lockett re-injured his sprained shoulder. ... Jabari Ruffin (concussion protocol) remains out.