Talanoa Hufanga a relentless defensive machine in USC’s win over Washington State

USC safeties Talanoa Hufanga and Max Williams tackle Washington State wide receiver Calvin Jackson Jr.
USC safeties Talanoa Hufanga (15) and Max Williams (4) tackle Washington State wide receiver Calvin Jackson Jr. during the first half of the Trojans’ 38-13 win Sunday.
(Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)

Amon-ra St. Brown is not the only Trojans player with quick hands.

While the receiver’s four touchdown catches dominated No. 20 USC’s 38-13 win over Washington State on Sunday, safety Talanoa Hufanga provided a defensive highlight with an interception he tipped to himself in the first quarter.

The junior from Corvallis, Ore., had a team-high nine tackles, a five-yard sack and a 37-yard interception return as the Trojans (4-0) stayed atop the Pac-12 South with one regular-season game remaining.


Hufanga’s takeaway was his third interception in four games. With the Trojans already up 14-0, Hufanga tipped a pass from Cougars starter Jayden de Laura to himself, hurdled a would-be tackler and rumbled down the sideline to the four-yard line.

As Clay Helton spoke after the game about the play, the coach’s eyes got wide above the USC neck gaiter that covered his nose and mouth.

“When he hurdled the guy, I was like, ‘Oh my goodness,’” Helton said. “‘We’re taking it to another level now.’”

Behind four touchdown catches by wide receiver Amon-ra St. Brown, USC starts fast and never looks back in a 38-13 victory over Washington State.

Dec. 6, 2020

After the play, which led to a four-yard touchdown pass from Kedon Slovis to St. Brown, Hufanga approached Helton on the sideline. That’s why I’m here, the junior assured his coach.

“I want to be able to help win a championship,” Helton said of Hufanga’s message. “He made some special plays tonight. He’s playing really good football.”

Since being named the inaugural Polynesian Football Hall of Fame high school player of the year in 2017, Hufanga has emerged as a reliable piece for the Trojans. He started in each of his 10 appearances last season and finished second on the team with 90 tackles despite missing one game with a concussion and two more because of a shoulder injury. He leads the Trojans with 33 tackles this year.


Helton called the 6-foot-1, 215-pound safety “one of the smartest players I’ve ever had the opportunity to coach.”

Hufanga showed his football intellect Sunday as he made a cameo appearance at inside linebacker. To face Washington State’s run-and-shoot offense, defensive coordinator Todd Orlando wanted to maximize the number of athletes USC had on the field to limit the Cougars’ opportunities on the perimeter.

Washington State offensive linemen Abraham Lucas, right, and Josh Watson try to block USC's Talanoa Hufanga.
Washington State offensive linemen Abraham Lucas, right, and Josh Watson try to block USC’s Talanoa Hufanga during the second half of the Trojans’ win Sunday.
(Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)

The Trojans, who were also without injured linebackers Palaie Gaoteote IV (concussion) and Ralen Goforth (foot), often had five or six defensive backs on the field at a time.

Washington State, which averaged 164.5 rushing yards in its first two games, had just 73 yards rushing Sunday.

“We talked about really trying to make Washington State one-dimensional,” Helton said, emphasizing the need to stop running back Deon McIntosh, who was averaging 119.5 yards rushing per game. “That allowed us to really have some third-down situations where we could get after the quarterback and produce four sacks and three turnovers.”


Hufanga’s interception was the first of the three takeaways for the USC defense as Washington State looked every bit like a team that hadn’t played in three weeks because of COVID-19 cancellations.

De Laura threw another interception to Olaijah Griffin on the drive immediately after Hufanga’s pick, and the Cougars lost a fumble recovered by Chase Williams on their first drive in the second half.