They’d spent the last few months in what felt like a constant sprint. Since the spring, when Graham Harrell first installed his pace-pushing Air Raid offense, it’d been impressed on USC’s deep fleet of receivers just how much they’d be running — and rotating, as a result.
But last Saturday, as the proceedings slowed in the second half, so did the Trojans’ supposedly fast-paced offense. USC ran only 26 plays after halftime against Fresno State, leaving its receivers feeling surprisingly fresh.
“We were letting them police themselves,” Harrell said, “and they felt fresh. They said, ‘Coach, it’s a lot slower than what we’re used to.’ ”
That didn’t leave much time for rotating at the Trojans’ deepest position. After reiterating all offseason how many receivers would be involved on offense, only Tyler Vaughns, Amon-ra St. Brown and Michael Pittman Jr. ended up catching passes against Fresno State.
That won’t be the case Saturday. Harrell and coach Clay Helton have resolved to pick up the pace and rotate more receivers against a Stanford secondary that held Northwestern to 117 passing yards last week.
Maintaining that pace against the Pac-12’s preeminent ball-control offense is certainly no easy feat. Northwestern, while not a naturally up-tempo offense, managed only 60 plays against Stanford.
USC, meanwhile, had 51 plays in one half a week ago, before starting quarterback JT Daniels went down with a season-ending knee injury.
“Their average snap, the play clock goes down to 10 seconds,” Helton said of the Cardinal. “You have to make the most of each and every possession.”
Whether USC will be able to make the most of each of its receivers remains to be seen. Sophomore Devon Williams, redshirt freshman John Jackson and freshmen Munir McClain and Drake London were all expected to play a role on offense, but none of the four wideouts were given a chance last week.
Soon, that group will grow. Four-star freshman Kyle Ford, who tore his anterior cruciate ligament a year ago, was cleared to practice in full this week.
Even with freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis under center for his first start, Vaughns, who had 11 catches against Fresno State, expressed confidence that another slow start wouldn’t be in store.
“With us moving at a fast pace, everybody can get in, everybody can ball, everybody can do their jobs,” Vaughns said. “More plays, more opportunity.”
USC won’t be alone Saturday in forging ahead without its starting quarterback.
Stanford’s K.J. Costello was officially ruled out for the game Thursday, following a blow to the head he sustained last weekend against Northwestern.
Costello will be replaced by junior Davis Mills, who signed with Stanford as the No. 1 quarterback prospect in the 2017 class, according to the 247Sports composite rankings. Last week, following Costello’s injury, Mills completed seven of 14 passes for 81 yards.
Prior to that experience, Mills threw only two passes, both incompletions last season.
“It’s not something where they don’t have confidence in him,” Helton said of Mills. “They’ll stick to their system. It was evident that you go from one quarterback to the next, and nothing stopped.”
Still, without Costello, it’s fair to wonder how much Stanford’s passing offense can really accomplish. Last season, Costello was one of the conference’s best quarterbacks, completing 65% of his passes for 3,540 yards and 29 touchdowns.
Walk-on quarterback Brandon Perdue, who has led USC’s scout team offense, will enter Saturday’s game as the third-string quarterback behind Slovis and Matt Fink, Helton said. The Trojans also carry two other walk-on quarterbacks. … Junior offensive guard Andrew Vorhees will be available Saturday, but Helton said Jalen McKenzie, who surprisingly started over Vorhees a week ago, will retain his spot.