Travis Dye sustains season-ending injury in USC’s blowout win over Colorado

USC running back Travis Dye is carted off the field after a second-quarter leg injury against Colorado on Nov. 11, 2022.
USC running back Travis Dye is carted off the field after suffering a leg injury against Colorado in the second quarter of the Trojans’ 55-17 win Friday.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The final dress rehearsal was dragging, the last kinks still being ironed out ahead of next week’s consequential crosstown showdown, when Tuli Tuipulotu burst around the edge and closed the curtains on Colorado himself.

Little about the past month, outside of the No. 8 affixed next to its name, had suggested USC was ready for the bright lights and big stage that awaited next week at the Rose Bowl. In consecutive games, California and Arizona had pushed the Trojans to the brink. Now Colorado, a Pac-12 doormat and one of the worst teams in college football, was pushing them around, too.

It wasn’t until its star defender took center stage, forcing his way into a collapsing pocket and flinging a fumble loose in Friday’s second quarter that USC found the nerve to push back. It kept pushing and pushing and pushing from there, until its backups applied one final shove for good measure in a resounding 55-17 victory.

USC defensive lineman Tuli Tuipulotu knocks down a pass by Colorado quarterback J.T. Shrout.
USC defensive lineman Tuli Tuipulotu knocks down a pass by Colorado quarterback J.T. Shrout in the first quarter Friday.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

After a frustrating first quarter, USC’s oft-maligned defense turned in one of its most impressive performances in months, albeit against a team that has scored fewer points than 128 other teams this season. It held Colorado to 158 yards over the final three quarters, notched three sacks and forced two turnovers.

“This is how we should play every week,” Tuipulotu said of the defense.

But a night that might’ve otherwise provided necessary catharsis was instead marred by a major setback as star running back Travis Dye left the field on an injury cart, his final collegiate season over before its home stretch.

All season, Dye had been one of the strongest leaders in USC’s locker room, a critical voice in the ongoing cultural transformation under coach Lincoln Riley. Each week, Dye would deliver a new pregame speech to inspire the team.

But as USC’s senior leader lay on the grass during the second quarter, cradling his left leg, the Coliseum lay silent. The Trojans’ sideline emptied as he was loaded onto an injury cart, players surrounding their fallen teammate in solidarity.

“That shook us all a little bit,” Riley said of the injury.

The coach didn’t offer specifics about the diagnosis. But he did confirm the worst: Dye won’t be returning this season.

“It just sucks. There’s no other way to put it,” Riley said. “He was one of the key cogs in this team.”

And now, with its most critical stretch ahead, USC will have to forge on without the engine of its offense and the soul of its locker room. Its first test? Matching the top rushing offense in the Pac-12.

Trojans wide receiver Tahj Washington scores on a 61-yard touchdown catch against Colorado on Nov. 11, 2022.
USC wide receiver Tahj Washington scores on a 61-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

“Now we get a chance to reset,” Riley said, “and play those guys across town.”

It won’t be easy from here, even if USC made it look as such on Friday. Dye’s injury still loomed over the rest of Friday, even as USC continued to roll along without its running back. Whether it will be able to move the ball as well next week without him would be another question.

If it has any hope of outlasting UCLA — and Notre Dame, after that — Caleb Williams will almost certainly have to put the full weight of USC’s offense on his shoulders. He was inconsistent in carrying it Friday, barely completing 50% of his passes (14 of 26) for 268 yards and three touchdowns.

USC's Korey Foreman (0) is fired up after making a tackle for a loss against Colorado on Nov. 11, 2022.
The Trojans’ Korey Foreman (0) is fired up after making a tackle for a loss against Colorado.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

It’ll be up to Austin Jones, too, to fill the void in USC’s backfield. He finished with 113 all-purpose yards and a touchdown after stepping in for Dye. Both will have to be at their best against a stingy UCLA defense.

In spite of how it finished Friday, USC’s offense was entirely out of sorts at the start. Two of the Trojans’ first three drives ended in three-and-outs. The other ended with a Colorado interception, wrestled from the hands of receiver Brenden Rice.

The pick was just Williams’ second of the season — and only the second turnover for the Trojans this season. Still, it ended up yielding more points than any other USC drive in the opening quarter. On the next play, with pressure bearing down, Colorado quarterback J.T. Shrout threw away a pass from the end zone while still in the pocket. Intentional grounding was called, and two points were put up, courtesy of USC’s defense.

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Nov. 11, 2022

After a frustrating start, the Trojans trailed Colorado 3-2. Their offense had just eight yards, and their quarterback had completed just one of six passes for two yards. But their fortunes would flip in a flash, as Williams hit Kyle Ford once to convert on third and long, then again. The spark was enough to kick-start USC’s offense, which mounted a 12-play drive, capped by a Williams keeper for a two-yard touchdown.

The sack and forced fumble from Tuipulotu gave the ball back to USC’s offense. Barely two minutes after his first score, Williams was left unattended again, strolling untouched into the end zone for a second, extending a lead over Colorado that would quickly grow from there.

But the sequence of scores was merely subtext in light of Dye’s injury. As he left the field on the cart, his left leg in a cast in the wake of USC’s victory, he waved to fans gathered around the tunnel. They roared in appreciation, knowing deep down how much they had lost in Friday’s victory.