It was a sight that Clay Helton had never seen in 25 years of coaching. Though, in a season defined by injury after injury, it seemed all too fitting for USC.
Kedon Slovis was lying on the turf, clutching his leg, the quarterback’s muscles seizing up with cramps in the dry desert heat. A few yards away, center Brett Neilon was also writhing in pain, surrounded by the remainder of USC’s trainers. On the same play, adding insult to injury in the third quarter of a 31-26 victory over Arizona State, USC lost both sides of its center-quarterback exchange.
Injuries have been a constant visitor in this uneven season. The Trojans have lost a quarterback, three running backs, two defensive ends, two cornerbacks, two linebackers, a safety and several rotation players for extended stretches. They’ve had to make due with a depth chart decimated by loss, and in a disappointing season, that unfortunate luck has played an undeniable part.
On Saturday, as USC’s quarterback sat in the medical tent, attached to an IV, and the center was on the sideline because of a strained calf, the backups took the reins again. What was once a three-touchdown lead had dwindled to eight points, and the Trojans, short-handed again, were in need of a tone-setting drive.
It was the type of setback that might have sunk them a season ago. Instead, behind backup quarterback Matt Fink and backup center Justin Dedich, USC kept its lead with an even-keel, 12-play, 71-yard drive that ended with a field goal.
It wasn’t always pretty, even as Fink completed three of four passes for 39 yards. On third and 18, with USC hoping to work its way back into field-goal range, Fink threw dangerous pass to two-sport freshman wideout Drake London that probably should’ve been intercepted. But London boxed his way into extra space and tore the ball from a defensive back as if it were a rebound. The catch didn’t earn a first down, but got USC close enough for a field goal and a two-score lead. It turned out to be USC’s only points of the final three quarters.
Helton called the drive “probably one of the biggest of the season.” At his staff meeting Sunday, Helton commended his assistants for helping develop the depth. He said later it was “one of the better coaching jobs I’ve seen by assistant coaches.”
“Coach everybody in the room as hard as you can,” Helton said. “You never know. You coach from the bottom up. Then all of a sudden, you see the Matt Finks and the Justin Dedichs and the Jude Wolfes and the Quincy Jounttis and the Malik McClains and Dorian Hewetts and the Nick Figueroas. Kanai Mauga, Elijah Winston — all these guys that when we started this season, they were backups, some third-, fourth-, some fifth-string. But they kept on progressing.”
Withtwo games to play, USC might finally get a few members of its first-string offense back this week. Helton said it could mark the return of running backs Stephen Carr (hamstring) and Vavae Malepeai (knee) after they warmed up before Saturday’s game. Their availability heading into this week’s trip to California is expected to color the coaches’ decision on whether to sit freshman Kenan Christon the rest of the season.
But the injuries on defense kept coming. After the game Saturday, defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast made clear his exasperation.
“It’s been that way all year,” Pendergast said. “Up front, it’s been a revolving door. [Defensive tackle] Marlon [Tuipulotu} didn’t make the trip. We hadn’t had our defensive ends healthy together a lot of the year. Inside linebacker, you don’t have [Palaie Gaoteote]. Then we’re on our third nickelback. When you have a lot of moving parts out there, you’re always trying to get continuity defensively.”
The status of Tuipulotu, who has been a standout at defensive tackle, was still uncertain Sunday, after he didn’t travel to Arizona State. Helton said that Tuipulotu was held out because of lingering back pain. Last season, Tuipulotu underwent season-ending back surgery in October.