Deception helps Trojans get first score on punt return

USC linebacker John Houston Jr. celebrates after scooping up a Josh Rosen fumble during second quarter action at the Coliseum.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

USC’s punt returns have been mostly toothless this season, so the Trojans tried something different against UCLA. Very different.

In the first quarter at the Coliseum, Ajene Harris went back to field a punt by Stefan Flintoft. He drifted toward one sideline to field the ball. Except the ball wasn’t there — or anywhere close.

Near the other sideline, Michael Pittman Jr. had dropped back at the last moment. Somehow, all the UCLA defenders followed Harris, not the ball. Pittman was left all alone. He went 72 yards for the score.

Sack attack


USC defensive tackle Malik Dorton ran through his blocker as if he were stepping through a revolving door. Before UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen could do much, Dorton was in his face. He smothered Rosen. The ball popped loose. USC recovered.

On a day when Rosen dissected the Trojans’ secondary, the pass rush was again there to bail them out.

Entering the game, USC had 37 sacks — one off the national lead. UCLA was middling in sacks allowed, at about two per game. Coach Clay Helton had predicted that pressuring Rosen was essential.

“We have to get him off his spot,” Helton said.


USC got to Rosen four times on the evening, with defensive tackle Josh Fatu, safety Chris Hawkins and outside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu also recording sacks.

Marshall returns

Cornerback Iman Marshall, who had missed the past three games with a sprained knee, was back in the starting lineup against UCLA.


He began practicing very lightly two weeks ago and made the trip to Colorado but did not appear in the game. This week, he participated in most USC practices and did not appear to be limited during the game.

McGrath still limited

USC had a choice in the second quarter: go for it on fourth-and-eight from the 30-yard line or try a 47-yard field goal.

Usually, such a choice is not really much of a choice, Most teams would take the field-goal attempt.


But USC opted to go for it. Kicker Chase McGrath has been limited with a groin injury. He practiced more this week, and he kicked extra points, but his range remains shortened.

The gamble didn’t go well for the Trojans. Sam Darnold’s pass was intercepted by Jaleel Wadood.

Senior day

Saturday was senior day for 13 USC players. Five of them — center Nico Falah safety Hawkins, safety Matt Lopes, receiver Steven Mitchell Jr. and running back James Toland IV — are the last wave of USC players to have played for three head coaches:Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian and Helton.


NFL attention

Members of 18 NFL teams and one Canadian Football League team, the Saskatchewan Roughriders, were credentialed for Saturday’s game.

The New York Jets alone brought their general manager, vice president of personnel, and one scout, according to ESPN’s Rich Cimini.

Joc jams with USC


Dodgers outfielder Joc Pederson led USC out of the tunnel before the game.

Pederson was committed to play baseball for USC before being drafted by the Dodgers in the 11th round in 2010. He also planned to try out for the football team as a walk-on.

However, Joc’s sister, Jacey, is a Bruin. She plays on UCLA’s women’s soccer team, which plays Virginia in the NCAA Round of 16 Sunday night at UCLA’s Drake Stadium.

Quick hits


Left guard Chris Brown left the game with an injury in the third quarter. He was replaced by Roy Hemsley. Receiver and kick returner Velus Jones Jr. sustained what appeared to be an ankle injury in the first quarter and did not play the remainder of the game. ...The referee of Saturday’s game was Kevin Mar, who this season became the Pac-12 Conference’s first Asian American referee , according to the Asian American Sports Officials Assn. … Kobe Bryant attended the game.

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand