With its depleted defensive backfield already dealing with injuries to all three of its starting cornerbacks, USC may have also lost its top safety Saturday night.
Talanoa Hufanga, who leads USC in tackles per game and has generally been one of the Trojans’ best defenders this season, left in the second quarter, following a collision with Arizona running back J.J. Taylor. After the play, trainers appeared to be examining his arm.
Even as USC rolled to a 41-14 victory in a flurry of injuries, Hufanga’s exit is a potentially devastating development for USC’s defense. Hufanga twice broke his collarbone over the last year, missing spring practice with the second injury. But he returned to become a crucial member of USC’s defense this fall.
The Trojans lost earlier this season at Washington when playing without Hufanga, while the sophomore safety was in concussion protocol. But if Hufanga again injured his shoulder, it’s possible he could face a more extended absence, leaving Chase Williams to fill in.
Hufanga wasn’t the only key Trojans defender to go down with an injury. Standout freshman defensive end Drake Jackson left in the third quarter and did not return, leaving USC down both of its starting defensive ends.
Senior captain Christian Rector also sat out, as he continues to deal with a high ankle sprain that he suffered against Stanford. Rector hadn’t missed a game since USC’s loss to Brigham Young at the end of September, but the injury clearly lingered into last week’s defeat at Notre Dame, where Rector struggled mightily on the edge.
Injuries had already swept through USC’s secondary over the last week, claiming all three of its cornerbacks heading into Saturday’s game. Olaijah Griffin sat out against Arizona while nursing an injured back. Nickel corner Greg Johnson sat with an injured shoulder. And Isaac Taylor-Stuart opened the game on the sideline, fighting through a sprained ankle, while freshman Dorian Hewett stepped into his starting spot.
Hewett, a freshman, joined USC as an unheralded safety recruit in the offseason. For weeks, he was so buried on the depth chart, with zero previous snaps on defense, that it was unclear that he’d changed positions to cornerback.
Taylor-Stuart, who had been a game-time decision, returned to the field in the second quarter. Soon after, Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate tested him on a deep pass downfield, and Taylor-Stuart, running even with the Wildcats wideout, nearly intercepted the throw.
Even with a depleted secondary, USC stifled the Arizona offense.
Taylor-Stuart and Griffin are expected back next week, but for USC’s star safety, the prognosis remains uncertain.
With leading rusher Vavae Malepeai out for the foreseeable future, it was Stephen Carr who got the first crack as USC’s starting running back.
But when Carr limped off in the second quarter, following an explosive 16-yard run, he gave way to redshirt freshman Markese Stepp, who has been USC’s most effective runner this season.
Stepp and Carr split carries nearly evenly in the first half, with Stepp receiving nine attempts — one fewer than his season high. The last of those carries went for a rumbling, nine-yard touchdown, just before the half.
Then, a few minutes into the third quarter, Stepp limped off, appearing to leave USC with a thin backfield led by a walk-on, Quincy Jountti, and a true freshman, Kenan Christon.
While Jountti fumbled on his first carry, Christon made the most of the opportunity, scoring on runs of 55 and 30 yards in the fourth quarter, finishing with 103 yards in eight carries.
With its depleted defensive backfield already dealing with injuries to all three of its starting cornerbacks, USC may have also lost its top safety on Saturday night.