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USC Sports

Losses at defensive tackle put pressure on Brandon Pili against Notre Dame’s strong run game

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA SEPTEMBER 9, 2017-USC’s Josh Fatu, left, celebrates his sack on Stanford qua
USC defensive tackle Josh Fatu (98) celebrates his sack of Stanford quarterback Keller Chryst with teammate Uchenna Nwosu during the third quarter of their game on Sept. 9.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

USC defensive tackle Josh Fatu will not play on Saturday against Notre Dame because of a concussion, coach Clay Helton said on Wednesday, removing another important pillar from USC’s already wobbly situation at defensive tackle as the Trojans prepare for a heavy rushing attack from Notre Dame.

Fatu has started all season, including last week against Utah, but was subsequently involved in a multiple-car accident. Fatu is the third of USC’s top four defensive tackles to be ruled out for Saturday’s game. Marlon Tuipulotu, a freshman and the primary backup, underwent season-ending back surgery last week. And senior Kenny Bigelow Jr., whose playing time had dwindled, quit as a player to focus on becoming a coach.

That leaves Brandon Pili as USC’s only healthy option of the four. As recently as two weeks ago, USC had planned to redshirt Pili until Tuipulotu’s injury pressed him into action.

USC will also again be without outside linebacker Porter Gustin, who underwent an MRI exam and CT scan on his broken toe and torn biceps on Tuesday and was not cleared to play. But USC has a solid replacement in Christian Rector, who has blossomed into one of USC’s best defenders and leads the conference in sacks.

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“We’re a little light,” Helton said.

The losses put pressure on Pili, a promising, physically gifted defensive tackle from Alaska, who now finds himself on the front lines of USC’s run defense against maybe the best running team USC will see this season.

Notre Dame averages 308 yards a game, fifth in the nation. The Fighting Irish rush on 61% of their plays. And the left side of their offensive line, guard Quenton Nelson and tackle Mike McGlinchey are both All-American candidates.

“They’re really solid up front,” Rector said. “Their left side, that’s what everybody’s been really talking about.”

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“It’s pretty evident,” defensive line coach Kenechi Udeze said. “They average 300 yards of rushing.”

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USC freshman defensive lineman Brandon Pili looks on during a timeout against Oregon State on Oct. 7.
(Shotgun Spratling / Los Angeles Times )

Pili is listed at 320 pounds, though coaches have said he weighs as much as 340. He has uncommon athleticism to go with his size. But he is raw. He played three seasons of high school football in Alaska, where the competition isn’t as fierce, before playing his senior season in Oregon.

“I thought he played excellent against Utah,” Helton said. “He really stepped up big time for us. He holds the point of attack.”

Helton credited Pili and Fatu for drawing double-teams, which freed up middle linebacker Cameron Smith to make 16 tackles.

“That means a nose tackle is doing his job,” Helton said.

Behind Pili, USC will use a combination of Liam Jimmons and Malik Dorton, who at 280 pounds is best suited as a pass rusher.

Freshmen Jay Tufele and Jacob Lichtenstein also moved off the scout team to get work with USC’s defense this week. USC plans to redshirt both, but Tufele could be pressed into action with another injury, Helton said.

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Bush, Leinart talk Darnold

Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart each said on Wednesday they think quarterback Sam Darnold should return to USC next season over entering the NFL draft early.

Leinart said that Darnold is “a great player” now, and “he’s going to be a great player” in the NFL, but he and Bush both described Darnold as “raw.”

“He’s not refined yet,” Leinart said. “He makes throws that are unbelievable and he makes throws that are like, ‘No, don’t do that!’ So I think he still has so much room to grow.”

The former USC players and Heisman Trophy winners appeared on Colin Cowherd’s radio show on Wednesday. For Bush, it was one of the few times he has spoken publicly about USC since the NCAA imposed sanctions on the program after finding that Bush accepted impermissible benefits.

He and Leinart disagreed on what Darnold should do if he’s primed to be the top pick in the draft.

“If he’s guaranteed the No. 1 pick I think it would be hard for him to pass up that despite if it’s Cleveland or whoever,” Leinart said.

“Not Cleveland,” Bush responded. “Please. Not Cleveland. Don’t do that.”

Quick hits

Left tackle Toa Lobendahn did not practice Wednesday’s practice for the second day in a row with a pectoral strain. … Defensive end Rasheem Green was held from practice to rest. … Cornerback Isaiah Langley was pulled from practice because of an illness. … Running back Stephen Carr remained out with a foot injury.

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zach.helfand@latimes.com

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand


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