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Clay Helton blames ‘rust’ for Markese Stepp’s miscues vs. Arizona State

USC running back Markese Stepp is tackled by Arizona State's Cam Phillips and Darien Butler.
USC running back Markese Stepp, center, is tackled by Arizona State’s Cam Phillips, left, and Darien Butler during Saturday’s season-opening victory.
(Sean M. Haffey / Associated Press)

Markese Stepp had already been stuffed once before on a crucial fourth down when late in the fourth quarter on Saturday, the Trojan back was trusted with another fourth-and-one handoff. This time, he sprinted across the line with ease.

But as Stepp was pulled down, the ball was ripped loose. A review confirmed the redshirt sophomore’s mistake, and with six minutes left and a two-touchdown deficit intact, it looked like the end of the line for USC.

It would be the last of Stepp’s 14 carries Saturday, but it wasn’t the end for the Trojans, who mounted a miraculous comeback over the final few minutes to beat Arizona State 28-27.

Stepp’s mistake might not have been so easily forgiven if the result were different. But when asked to evaluate the running back in his first game back, USC coach Clay Helton blamed that misstep — and a few others — on “rust.”

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The Trojans don’t look like a team that can contend for a College Football Playoff spot, but Clay Helton’s team showed Saturday it won’t give up.

“He made some nice plays, made some nice runs for us,” Helton said. “Remember, it’s his first game back after a pretty good injury. Sometimes, to be able to get the rust off and gain that experience and get the confidence back going, that was not only him but Vavae [Malepeai] coming off a knee surgery. To be able to come out with a win and gain confidence from those two backs, that’s important.”

It was more than a year ago when Stepp first suffered an ankle injury against Arizona that lingered deep into the offseason. When he returned to full health this fall, he quickly added a turf-toe injury that put his status in question up until last week.

Stephen Carr got the start at running back and Malepeai led the team in rushing yards (60), adding 38 on USC’s fateful final drive. But Stepp carried the ball the most of the three.

Helton said Sunday that the plan going forward is to continue sharing the ball among USC’s four backs, including sophomore Kenan Christon, unless “one guy’s getting heated.”

“With the amount that hopefully we run the ball with them and get them those touches, not one back can do it,” Helton said.

USC recovers an onside kick late in the fourth quarter before Drake London scores on a 21-yard touchdown pass from Kedon Slovis to defeat Arizona State.

Last season, Stepp often seemed the most capable of filling an every-down role. But after an uneven debut, it may be a while before the Trojans lean on anyone in particular as their top back.

Center down

Brett Neilon opened this season as the only lineman still in the same position he played in 2019. But after Neilon suffered an ankle sprain against Arizona State, the Trojans may take their first road trip of the season without their starting center.

Neilon was replaced Saturday by Justin Dedich, who coaches have long described as their top reserve lineman. Helton didn’t rule out Neilon returning for USC’s upcoming matchup with Arizona but said that freshman Andrew Milek and backup guard Liam Dougless will also add depth behind Dedich at this position this week.

“We’ll see where Brett gets to,” Helton said. “He’s a tough kid. We’ll monitor it through the week.”

Kicker competition

The biggest surprise on USC’s initial depth chart came at placekicker, where freshman Parker Lewis supplanted established starter Chase McGrath.

Part of that decision came down to McGrath’s health, as he continues to deal with knee and hip tendinitis. But Helton said that Lewis “was producing better in the moment heading into this game.”

“Parker has been extremely productive in camp,” Helton said. “Chase is, in my opinion, one of the better kickers in the country, and he competed with one of the better kickers in the country.”

Without Lewis, USC might not have won its debut. It was the freshman’s perfect onside kick that ultimately kept the Trojans alive Saturday.


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