With 2 minutes 35 seconds left in USC’s 31-20 victory over Colorado on Saturday, Porter Gustin’s career with the Trojans ended.
It was not the end he deserved, but when the bone in his ankle broke as he tussled with blockers, Gustin was battling to keep USC ahead as the Buffaloes clung to faint hopes, and there was something morbidly poetic about that if you appreciate the history of the Trojans’ tragic hero.
Gustin was one of the last players to leave the field when the game was over. He had stayed around to do a TV interview, and let’s be honest, the man has been through enough injuries in the last few years to know when he’s been beaten by the gods. Perhaps he wanted to savor his last moment wearing a dirty and tattered cardinal and gold uniform before being carted off to the locker room to get the X-ray that would tell him he had played his last game in the Coliseum.
“We are all kind of numb right now, to be honest with you,” USC coach Clay Helton said Sunday night. “He’s a force of nature, and you think of him as a superhero, as Thor, as we say, and to know that he’s not going to be with us for the remaining part of the season is obviously something that hurts us all.”
Gustin will go down as one of USC’s all-time greats that never was — unless you hold onto enough of the moments he made you think anything was possible for the Trojans as long as he was lined up in that “predator” position.
After six games in 2018, he had seven sacks, tied for fifth nationally in sacks per game. If you adjust that number for the fact Gustin sat out the last half of the Texas game and the first half of the Washington State game because of a targeting ejection, he is leading the country in sacks per game with 1.4.
Instead of pursuing a Pac-12 championship and a slew of All-America lists and postseason awards for himself, Gustin will have surgery this week and go back to where he’s spent way too much of his USC career, the McKay Center training room, for another long slog of a recovery.
“It’s extremely hard because he’s put so much into it, has done so much for our team,” Helton said. “But now it’s about him going through this surgery, him getting well and us focusing on getting him well. It’s going to be a three-to-four-month process to get him back where he can show exactly what we all know, that he’s a NFL football player, to NFL general managers and scouts.”
Gustin did not play in 10 games last season as he dealt with a nagging toe injury that he suffered against Stanford and aggravated against Texas. Then, in fall camp, he tore his meniscus and spent a few weeks rehabbing that injury. Even as he proved himself to be one of the most intimidating defensive players in the country this season, he was coming back from the knee surgery and battling an ankle injury. Nearly every week, it seemed, he was having to address his likelihood of playing that weekend, and, of course, each time he vowed that he'd be out there.
The USC defense, which just played by far its best game of the season against the Buffaloes, won’t replace Gustin. But the Trojans do have plenty of bodies to rotate into different packages depending on the opponent. Helton said defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast will look at Utah tape and figure out the best way to employ the likes of Christian Rector, Palaie Gaoteote, Kana’i Mauga, Jordan Iosefa and Hunter Echols.
All of them will have Gustin's example to follow and his hands-on help the rest of the way.
“I thank him for everything he’s accomplished,” Helton said. “He’s now going to go from a great player to a great coach.”