Six weeks ago, before his USC freshman season finally got off the ground, Drake London leaped into the air at the edge of the end zone in Seattle, looking to reel in a deep pass over the middle. But as London hung in mid-air, the pass from Matt Fink was picked off by Washington. The Trojans lost 28-14 shortly after.
Afterward, fellow USC wideout Michael Pittman Jr. approached the freshman receiver with a challenge. The senior had seen London’s talent firsthand. He’d watched him box out cornerbacks in practice, like he was on the basketball court. Believe in your ability, he told him.
London had three total receptions at that point. But now, after a breakout month that included 277 yards, three touchdowns and a handful of jaw-dropping, boxed-out, circus catches, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t believe in London’s future as the Trojans’ top receiver.
“He has the opportunity to be as good, if not better than any of the guys we have, to be honest with you,” offensive coordinator Graham Harrell said. “He’s just that talented of a guy. He has a skill set that I’ve never seen before, with his size and still having the body control and ball skills and twitch he has. Haven’t been around many like him.”
On Saturday night, the talent of USC’s receiving corps was on display in the team’s 41-17 victory over California. Pittman finished with 180 yards. Amon-ra St. Brown had 85 yards and a touchdown. But it was London, with 111 yards and a score, who had his teammates and coaches buzzing.
“The game has slowed down tremendously for me,” London said. “Every week, it just keeps on slowing down and slowing down.”
Faced with third and 18 late in the first quarter Saturday, it was London who USC turned to again for a big play. As Kedon Slovis scrambled free, London took off deep, breaking away from his route. Slovis let a pass fly and London caught it over a defensive back for a 45-yard play.
“He’s playing above the rim right now,” coach Clay Helton said.
A week earlier, at Arizona State, he’d made a similar play on a crucial third and long, as Fink threw a pass in the direction of a cornerback. But London tore away the throw like a rebound and pulled the Trojans within field-goal range.
Harrell said he has seen London’s confidence building every week.
“You become more confident,” Harrell said. “You understand, I am good enough to belong on this stage. That confidence goes a long way. You’re starting to see that in him. You can see it in his route running, how he carries himself. He feels a lot more comfortable.”
Slovis had noticed that swagger growing in recent weeks. But on Saturday night, London fully cut loose.
“He tried to hurdle someone,” Slovis said with a grin. “So, definitely more confident than he was a few weeks ago.”
Waiting for Vavae Malepeai
After sitting out the last month after surgery, Vavae Malepeai seemed to be closing in on a return Saturday. He traveled with the team and warmed up before the game. But the junior, who still leads the team in rushing, was sidelined for a fifth consecutive game.
Malepeai experienced soreness in practices Wednesday and Thursday, and Helton decided Saturday that his “gut didn’t feel good” about the running back returning.
“I think he’s close,” Helton said Sunday. He added that it was “a good possibility” that Malepeai would return Saturday for the regular-season finale against UCLA.
Without Malepeai, USC’s run game took a back seat Saturday night, as Stephen Carr, who returned from a hamstring injury, and Kenan Christon combined for 63 yards and a touchdown.
Christian Rector ejection
Christian Rector was finally fully healthy when he burst through the line of scrimmage during Cal’s first drive. The senior captain immediately met running back Christopher Brown Jr., lowering his helmet in a split-second decision.
A flag was thrown and Rector was ejected. Helton said he felt bad for Rector, who has only one regular-season game remaining. But he agreed with the call.
“When you slow it down, you do see the crown of the helmet,” Helton said.