Down his top three running backs, with only a 185-pound freshman and a walk-on left to carry the load, USC running backs coach Mike Jinks promised he would get creative in Colorado.
So, on USC’s opening drive Friday, the Trojans turned to a receiver to run the ball.
Amon-ra St. Brown had only two career carries — and none this season — when he motioned from the slot to the backfield. But with USC down to mostly spare parts at running back, St. Brown took his first handoff of the season and never stopped.
If you hadn’t known any better, you might have thought by the 37-yard touchdown that followed that St. Brown was a running back by trade. He lowered a shoulder into a Colorado defender. He bounced off, speeding in the other direction. Then, one cut later, he was gone.
St. Brown’s carry before any healthy running back underscored USC’s skepticism that speedy freshman Kenan Christon, the breakout star of last week’s victory over Arizona, could carry a full workload.
After a half, both Christon and St. Brown had 50 yards rushing. Christon would still lead USC’s backfield with 14 carries for 76 yards. Quincy Jountti, who was expected to play a part as USC’s power back, only had two carries.
USC often trotted out five receivers in an empty set. That’s where St. Brown played his part, motioning into the backfield and handling three carries for 50 yards.
The Trojans wound up with 112 yards rushing, turning to the passing game as they rallied for a 35-31 victory with Kedon Slovis throwing for 406 yards.
With running back Stephen Carr potentially returning next week from a hamstring strain, it’s unclear if that approach will continue. USC might still try to maintain Christon’s ability to redshirt, meaning he would be able to play in two of the Trojans’ remaining four games this season.
Christon’s big-play ability may force USC to use him, regardless of when other backs return from injury. The freshman had a few chances to run between the tackles Friday, but found little room.
As he found the edge, though, the explosiveness that helped him bust 55- and 30-yard touchdown runs against Arizona was again apparent. With the first half winding down and USC content to run out the clock, Christon nearly broke another.
Steele stays home
Just as two of USC’s top cornerbacks returned this week, its most effective fill-in was sidelined.
Freshman Chris Steele didn’t make the trip to Colorado after tweaking his knee in practice this week. Steele started two of the last three games filling in for Olaijah Griffin, who returned Friday after lingering back issues kept him out.
Even without an official starting role, Steele has still been a vital part of USC’s secondary. His three pass break-ups rank second on the team, behind Griffin, who had six entering Friday.
Rector remains out
USC chose to rest senior defensive end Christian Rector, as he continues to recover from a high ankle sprain. Rector was considered a game-time decision, but he did not dress.
In his place, USC used a rotation of Caleb Tremblay, Hunter Echols, Eli’jah Winston, Connor Murphy and Nick Figueroa, and none were effective. USC gave up 196 yards rushing, and almost six yards a carry, as its line was consistently blown off the line of scrimmage.
With its top three running backs injured, USC used receiver Amon-ra St. Brown to run the ball against Colorado. His first carry resulted in a 37-yard touchdown.