One by one, key USC defenders continued to fall, each injury its own cruel twist of fate for the Trojans, whose season teetered on a razor’s edge.
Two of USC’s starting cornerbacks already were sidelined. A third was a game-time decision, gutting through an ankle sprain. There was a missing linebacker (Palaie Gaoteote IV) and a senior captain down at defensive end (Christian Rector).
A short-handed USC defense opened Saturday down five of its starters against Arizona and its electric offense. Then, it lost two more, as sacks leader Drake Jackson and standout safety Talanoa Hufanga left with injuries, further decimating the depth chart.
But as the blows kept coming, as the injuries piled up, a depleted defense standing on its last leg stood as tall as the Trojans have all season. Playing most of Saturday’s crucial Pac-12 South showdown down at least half of its starting defense, USC shut down Arizona in a 41-14 victory at the Coliseum, capping one of its toughest and most unlikely efforts on the defensive end.
“Obviously, a good night,” coach Clay Helton said, the tone in his voice noticeably subdued.
Even in victory, Helton couldn’t ignore how much the Trojans had lost. Hufanga suffered a shoulder injury and was in a sling after the game. Jackson suffered an ankle injury, and so did running back Markese Stepp, who was set to take on a much larger role. In all, USC (4-3, 3-1 Pac-12) suffered six injuries that Helton deemed “significant.”
As the Trojans enter a crucial stretch of their schedule, the harsh reality of Saturday night’s fallout was written all over their faces. USC may still control its destiny in the Pac-12, as Helton often reminds, but it may now be without many key players for much of that race.
“I feel terrible for those kids,” Helton said. “We’ll have to see where they’re at.”
For one night, though, injuries couldn’t entirely keep them down.
Despite most of the starting secondary being out, the Trojans held Arizona’s dual-threat quarterback Khalil Tate to 47 yards on six-for-10 passing.
All week, USC had focused on limiting his freelancing and stopping runs to the perimeter, even studying tape of how NFL teams stifled scramblers such as Houston’s Deshaun Watson. The study paid off, as USC contained Tate and the rest of the Wildcats’ run game from the start. Tate finished with minus-27 yards rushing, one of the worst performances of his career.
USC shut down the former Gardena Serra standout so thoroughly, in fact, that he was benched in the third quarter. His replacement, Grant Gunnell, came in and promptly threw a pass that was intercepted by linebacker Kana’i Mauga.
Neither Arizona quarterback had much time to throw, as USC’s defensive line, down both of its starting ends, dominated the line of scrimmage. Even without Jackson and Rector, the defense recorded a season-high seven sacks.
After USC gave up a season-worst 473 yards in a road defeat to Notre Dame the previous game, Helton assured that his defense had a chip on its shoulder.
Those words might have seemed like an empty promise. But Saturday, as injuries forced them to scrape the bottom of the depth chart, a patchwork Trojans defense shouldered the burden, just as the coach said it would.
It was a fortunate performance, given how flat USC’s offense was at the game’s start. Against one of the nation’s worst pass defenses, which had yielded an average of 320 yards per game through the air, the Trojans started without any semblance of rhythm in the passing game.
USC opened with two three-and-outs. Quarterback Kedon Slovis struggled to find options downfield. The ground game seemed stuck in the mud. A game that seemed destined to be a high-scoring affair slowed to an early crawl.
But a muffed Arizona punt opened the door in the first quarter, leading to a 31-yard Chase McGrath field goal, and from there, the Trojans defense refused to let up.
Mauga played a central role in that effort, after playing only sparingly this season.
But with Gaoteote out, Mauga left quite an impression in his first start. He forced a fumble, setting USC up with a short field, and it took the Trojans just five plays to score, as Slovis connected with Michael Pittman Jr. for a nine-yard touchdown and a 10-0 lead.
USC’s patchwork defense continued to prove itself. Mauga, who also led the team in tackles, added a sack and the interception of Gunnell, which set up a field goal to make it 20-0 in the third quarter.
“He’s called upon to be the starter,” Helton said, “and lo and behold, interception, forced fumble, tackles everywhere. It was like unleashing somebody that was just waiting for his chance.”
As its defense demoralized Arizona, USC’s offense finally found its stride in the second half. Slovis put together an efficient performance, completing 19 of 28 for 232 yards. He hit Tyler Vaughns late in the third quarter to give the Trojans a four-score lead, and from there, the offense settled into cruise control.
USC’s run game tallied 201 yards to bleed out the clock, but it wasn’t without casualties. Already down leading rusher Vavae Malepeai, USC saw each of its next two leading backs limp to the sideline.
Stephen Carr left shortly before halftime, while Stepp followed him in the third quarter. Both were limping as they exited the tunnel after the game, though Carr called his injury “just a tweak.”
Without them, though, USC’s ground game didn’t skip a beat. Freshman Kenan Christon stepped in and sprinted his way to a 103-yard, two-touchdown effort.
In the fourth quarter, the former track star twice blazed past Arizona’s unsuspecting defense, scampering to 55- and 30-yard touchdowns that left the Wildcats defense on its heels.
Where USC’s own decimated defense stands after Saturday remains to be seen. But even on their last leg, as injuries threatened to upend them, the Trojans stood as strong as ever for one night.
As for what the next day would bring, that was something that, for the moment, Helton and Co. would rather not think much about.