The two captains had been through it all. They’d toughed out a coaching change. They’d fought through injuries. They’d won a Pac-12 championship and a Rose Bowl.
Now, with those four uneven seasons behind them and their final game at the Coliseum ahead, neither of USC’s lone seniors on defense have any regrets about the road they took to get here.
“I wouldn’t change it for the world,” said defensive end Christian Rector.
“I feel like that made me who I am,” said linebacker John Houston. “Established me to be more of a patient guy that trusts the process, to be able to come in and fight through injury, fight to play a position, then work my way up to the position I’m in today. It made me who I am. You can’t take that from nobody.”
Rector and Houston took very different paths to their final matchup with UCLA on Saturday.
After playing outside linebacker last season, Houston shifted inside to take on a more significant role. The change paved the way for a career-best season from the fifth-year senior, as Houston responded by racking up 93 tackles, the most by a USC defender this season and good for fifth in the Pac-12.
“He’s taken the challenge on with all the things that go along with it,” defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said. “First and foremost, he’s been a leader.”
For Rector, his final season has drifted into far more frustrating territory. A high ankle sprain suffered early in the season hindered him throughout. By October, after a tough loss to Notre Dame, coaches suggested he rest and recover for a few weeks.
As the depth on USC’s defensive line diminished down the stretch, his absence was felt.
“He’s made a lot of big plays for us over the years,” Pendergast said. “We’ve missed him all year.”
By the time he was able to return, just three games remained in the season. Then, Saturday against California, he was called for targeting on the first drive of the game and ejected, leaving just him with just one regular-season game left in his career.
As he enters his final week, Rector has just 16 tackles and one sack this season.
“It’s frustrating,” Rector said, “but there are things that are out of your hands sometimes.”
This week, though, USC’s two lone seniors on defense will have a hand in whether they end the year on a high note. As their crosstown rivals come to the Coliseum, they bring with them a running back capable of stretching the defense and the kind of dual threat quarterback who has given USC fits in the past.
Last season, UCLA’s Joshua Kelley was USC’s undoing on defense, as he rolled for 289 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Sophomore quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson was in for only one play in the Bruins’ 34-27 victory, but USC is well aware of the damage he’s done on the ground in the past.
“Stop the run,” Houston said. “That’s our big mind-set for the day.”
Running back Vavae Malepeai practiced again on Wednesday, after enduring a full practice on Tuesday, as well. Malepeai, who hasn’t played since Oct. 12, leads the team in rushing. … USC will file for an evaluation with the NFL advisory committee on behalf of junior wideout Tyler Vaughns, who he said “warrants looking at and discussing” leaving early for the NFL.