Colorado Coach Mike MacIntyre made a strange observation in the week before his team played USC. He said USC had changed into a spread offense — debatable, but certainly within reason.
Then he amended it. It was just like a spread, he said, just with “athletic tight ends.”
It begged the question: To which tight ends was he referring? USC has talent at the position, but it had hardly used it. Entering Saturday’s contest, which USC won, 21-17, Trojan tight ends had caught 12 passes, none for touchdowns.
But MacIntyre’s words proved prophetic. All three USC touchdowns were caught by tight ends — two by Tyler Petite and one by Daniel Imatorbhebhe.
“A huge day,” Petite said, smiling, after the game, dragging out “huge.”
Imatorbhebhe’s touchdown came on a 32-yard seam route, which he caught over a defender. A scramble by quarterback Sam Darnold left Petite wide open for his first touchdown. Petite later slipped his defender on a crossing route for his second touchdown, the game-winning score.
It was the first time two USC tight ends caught touchdown passes since 2011.
The numbers were not astronomical. Each tight end caught two passes (Imatorbhebhe for 45 yards, Petite for 18). But they added further diversity to USC’s expanding offense.
“We’re growing a lot right now,” Imatorbhebhe said. “It makes it so much harder, when we’re on contributing, to cover guys like JuJu [Smith-Schuster], guys like Darreus [Rogers].”
Petite said he hopes the game marked the start of a resurgence.
“I think the coaches, they want to recruit athletic tight ends,” Petite said.
On the sideline, Petite and Imatorbhebhe, who share a hotel room on the road, celebrated together. They hadn’t expected such production, Imatorbhebhe said: Taylor McNamara, the usual starter, was injured.
“With our best all-around tight end, T-Mac, not being in this game, it’s really weird that it worked out like that,” Imatorbhebhe said.
But by the end of the game, after Petite caught his second touchdown, the tight ends had developed a swagger.
Petite approached Imatorbhebhe and said, “OK, now we need to get you another one.”
Just when things started turning south on USC, when the Trojans started fumbling and throwing interceptions in the third quarter, letting Colorado back into the game, Adoree’ Jackson put on a show.
The all-everything junior — who splits his time between cornerback, receiver and returner — began the second half with a 38-yard kickoff return, then added a 47-yard punt return a few minutes later. Both of those plays gave the Trojans an opportunity to add to a 14-0 lead.
“This one right here,” Helton said after the game, putting a hand on Jackson’s shoulder, “is as special as I’ve ever seen.”
USC tight end Tyler Petite (82) scores the go-ahead touchdown against Colorado in the fourth quarter Saturday at the Coliseum.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
USC running back Ronald Jones II leans forward to try to pick up extra yards against Colorado defensive back Isaiah Oliver (26) in the second half.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Trojans defensive back Adoree’ Jackson (2) celebrates with defensive tackle Rasheem Green after intercepting a pass against the Buffaloes.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
USC running back Justin Davis (22) breaks through an attempted tackle by Colorado defensive back Chidobe Awuzie.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
USC running back Ronald Jones II dives for extra yards against Colorado during the first half.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
But when USC squandered both of Jackson’s returns, turning the ball over twice, he added the defensive play of the game, leaping to snag a Colorado pass along the sideline, twisting in midair.
“I was just trying to torque my body enough so I could get a foot down,” he said. “That’s the whole mind-set — to make sure I get one foot in.”
Jackson finished the game with six tackles and reached 1,723 career kickoff return yards, tying him with Curtis Conway for USC’s school record.
Justin Davis had been enjoying perhaps his best three-game stretch at USC when, in the third quarter, he limped gingerly off the field and was soon carted to the locker room.
Helton said Davis had suffered a high ankle sprain. He did not return.
“We’ll see how he is,” Helton said.
Davis had gained 83 yards in 13 rushes before the injury. In his absence, Ronald Jones II took the majority of the carries, gaining 56 yards in 10 carries.
Smith-Schuster caught five passes for 113 yards, putting him over 100 yards for the second game in a row. Steven Mitchell caught a season-high six passes. … ... Linebacker Uchenna Nwosu led USC with a career-high 10 tackles. He also recorded a sack, another tackle for a loss and deflected two passes.
Staff writer David Wharton contributed to this report.
Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand