They were testing him. Olaijah Griffin could sense it.
Colby Parkinson stood seven inches taller and weighed 80 pounds heavier, and as he lined up across from Griffin, USC’s sophomore cornerback understood what Stanford’s strategy was going to be in the red zone. The Cardinal would loft it up to their tight end, and hope that Griffin, at 6 feet and 170 pounds, had no chance of challenging.
But he had waited for months for such a moment, recovering from two shoulder surgeries to get here. So as the Stanford tight end sprinted through the red zone Saturday night, size would make no difference. Stanford challenged Griffin once, then challenged him again.
Despite the height differential, Griffin leapt into the air and broke up one pass intended for Parkinson, then forced another out of bounds. As its drive stalled, Stanford settled for a field goal.
In retrospect, it might have seemed like a small play in the grand scheme of an unforgettable coronation for quarterback Kedon Slovis. But in the moment, it was a crucial play at a crucial juncture for USC, which went on to outscore the Cardinal 42-3 from that point on.
“That’s some ability that I didn’t even know I had,” Griffin said. “I feel like Superman after that. I’m just proud of myself. It’s hard work. I got myself to this level, and hopefully, I can get myself to the next level.”
Until that moment Saturday night, USC’s defense hadn’t quite played up to the level to which it aspired. Then, a fumble on a kickoff return from Velus Jones threatened to put the Cardinal in complete control, as they lined up on the Trojans’ 21-yard-line.
But as backup quarterback Davis Mills dropped back, Griffin locked down. After months of questions about USC’s secondary, the sophomore saw it as a chance to prove himself. He took on Parkinson, man-to-man, and outmuscled him.
“I’m not a weak link,” he said defiantly Saturday night.
Nothing was weak about USC’s defensive effort from that point on, as the Trojans held the Cardinal to 109 yards for the rest of the game.
Trojans coach Clay Helton admitted that USC was nervous heading into the game about the size of Stanford’s weapons on the perimeter. But Griffin’s performance was enough to ease his concerns.
“He was put in some situations against some really good receivers,” Helton said, “and man, did he play big.”
Impressive on the line
Helton understands that victories over Stanford often come down to the play in the trenches, so when he watched tape of Saturday night’s victory, it was the offensive line, naturally, that stood out to him most.
“I think they’re becoming the rock of our offense and our team,” Helton said. “They controlled the line of scrimmage and the run game. Three rushing touchdowns on the night, down in the red zone, and then when you look at the protection they gave Kedon ... it just felt like a ton of time for the kid to be able to operate.”
That time certainly helped spark an unforgettable first start for the freshman quarterback, who completed 28 of 33 passes for 377 yards and three touchdowns.
As Helton understands it, the offensive line’s chemistry has played a huge role in USC’s success on offense through two weeks this season.
“I thought they were the best-kept secret on our team coming into it, the most improved bunch on our team coming into it, and they’ve had two good games,” the coach said. “We’ll go as far as they take us.”
Defensive end Christian Rector was taken out of the game Saturday night in the fourth quarter after injuring his ankle. His status will be updated Tuesday.