Stephen Carr set the tone for a much-improved offensive attack for USC

USC running back Stephen Carr takes a handoff in the second half of a game against Washington State on Sept. 21.
(Shotgun Spratling / Los Angeles Times)

Stephen Carr took the second snap of the game Friday night 50 yards, showing a different gear as he nearly ran away from the entire Washington State defense. It was the type of explosive play that USC’s offense has been lacking this season from its running game and showcased the home run potential that fans have been salivating for since the five-star recruit out of Fontana Summit High joined the Trojans last fall.

Carr set the tone for a much-improved USC attack in its 39-36 victory over the Cougars, but he was not a big part of the game plan. After handling the first two carries of the night, Carr ran it just once during the next seven USC possessions, a span of about two and a half quarters.

He finished with 77 yards on eight carries — an average of 9.6 per tote that was buoyed by his early burst — and did not have an opportunity to build a rhythm.

“I wasn’t surprised at all,” Carr said after the game. “That’s just how the game goes. The running back rotation is just amazing, so any running back that they throw out there, they can handle it.”


While Carr’s light workload remains an intriguing topic for a team trying to find true offensive balance, it was hard to argue with the coaches’ decision to rotate when Vavae Malepeai carried 13 times for 78 yards and two touchdowns. Malepeai, who benefited from Aca’Cedric Ware sitting most of the game due to knee pain, has emerged as a touchdown machine with five scores and is now firmly pushing for more work in a crowded backfield.

“I feel like he’s really become an every-down back,” USC coach Clay Helton said during his weekly Sunday conference call. “Obviously we knew he was always a great runner, but he’s doing a really nice job catching the ball out of the backfield for us. Being a larger person at 220 pounds, his pass protection role, we feel very comfortable with. He did a nice job.”

Helton has said numerous times early this season that he has been cautious with Carr because of his offseason back surgery. Helton said Sunday that Carr “gets better with each game.”

Carr said Friday that his health has not been a limiting factor.

“I’ve felt good the whole year,” he said.

Helton said that Ware, who carried once for a five-yard loss against the Cougars, handled the news well when told he wouldn’t be playing much because they wanted to give his knee a break with an eye toward the rest of the season.

“The other two kids had practiced well during the week,” Helton said. “We gave them an opportunity. We’re hoping that he’ll be a full go this week. It’s something that’s been nagging him. We didn’t want him to get into a game and not be absolutely 100 percent.”

USC didn’t establish its ground game consistently after the first drive, when the Trojans pounded it five times for 75 yards and a touchdown playing with a two-tight end set, but Helton took great encouragement from the final series. Then, with the game on the line, USC ran it three times for 19 yards to ice the game on Malepeai’s 11-yard run.

“Everybody in the park knows you’re going to run it,” Helton said. “It was those two kids’ opportunity to go win a game, and I thought they did the things needed to win.”

Swann supportive

Helton said he and USC athletic director Lynn Swann meet every Monday during the season to talk about how things are going.

“One of the things I really appreciate in both athletic directors that I’ve had the opportunity to work for is they’re football guys,” Helton said, referring to Swann and Pat Haden. “I visit with Mr. Swann every Monday and have a chance to sit down with him, talk about the next game, talk about the team, bounce thoughts off of him. He’s been so supportive. … To be able to roll ideas off him and be able to have that much support is critical for our success.”


Helton said wide receiver Velus Jones Jr. is the only player who had to be removed from Friday’s game due to injury. Jones is day to day with an elbow injury.

Twitter: @BradyMcCollough