The timing couldn’t have been worse. It was the middle of the fourth quarter, and Brigham Young had just cut USC’s lead to four, when on the ensuing kickoff, reserve linebacker Juliano Falaniko was called for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
The penalty effectively killed the drive, pinning the Trojans at their 13-yard-line, as opposed to the 41. It only got worse from there, as BYU started the ensuing drive at midfield and took just three plays to score a go-ahead touchdown.
It was a costly mistake for a team that’s grown accustomed to such backbreaking errors on special teams over the last two seasons. But when asked about that penalty — and the state of USC’s special teams units, in general — special teams coach John Baxter was generally dismissive.
“Here’s the deal,” Baxter said when asked about that critical penalty, “that’s for the head coach to deal with. There’s no place for that.”
It wasn’t the only question over special teams that Baxter shrugged off. When asked about a wedge penalty assessed against USC’s kickoff team in the same game, Baxter called it “a fluke.”
Questioned about punter Ben Griffiths, the longtime special teams coach passionately defended the freshman and his 38-yards-per-punt average, pinning that low number mostly on circumstances.
“Here’s the deal,” Baxter said. “He’s playing great, for the record. The thing is, you can never look at numbers. I’m not a statistically driven guy.”
Through three games, in which its special teams have yielded a few big plays — a return score against Fresno State, a blocked kick against Stanford — as well as a few boneheaded mistakes — the unsportsmanlike call against BYU —it’s hard to know what the deal really is with the unit.
Baxter, who has coached special teams at USC every year but one since 2010, seems entirely pleased with what he’s seen so far this season. USC coach Clay Helton, while supportive, was a bit less effusive in his praise.
“It’s not perfect right now,” Helton said, “but Coach Bax has it going in the right direction. There’s been some huge plays. You want your special teams to be special. When you look at the big plays they’ve made, that’s what you want.”
Another huge play or two on special teams could go a long way on Friday, if USC hopes to upend No. 10 Utah. But considering the state of the Trojans’ special teams the last two seasons, another crucial error could just as easily sink them.
Two of USC’s starting cornerbacks began the week in the concussion protocol and only one is likely to play against Utah.
Isaac Taylor-Stuart remains in the protocol, after sitting out the last two days of practice. The redshirt freshman outside corner is “questionable at best,” Helton said.
If he sits, freshman Chris Steele will start in his place.
“Chris has played a lot of ball now,” Helton said. “If you go back and watch that tape, he’s been lights out.”
Sophomore Greg Johnson was cleared to play and will step back into his starting slot corner role. He will, however, have another nickel corner with whom to rotate, as freshman Max Williams (knee) was cleared to return.
Senior defensive end Christian Rector, who practiced all week, has been medically cleared to play and said Tuesday that he expects to contribute against Utah. But Helton said he would sit down with Rector on Thursday to discuss the confidence he has in his injured ankle. … Sophomore wideout Amon-ra St. Brown practiced on Wednesday after sitting out earlier this week with a sore foot. Helton said they’ll “play it by ear” with his status for Friday.