Few teams are deep enough to sustain as many injuries as USC has this season, and even fewer are talented enough to blow out a team with its second-stringers. The Trojans found a way to be a part of that exclusive group as they dominated Arizona 41-14 Saturday night — despite suffering six injuries to an already hampered team.
“I feel terrible for those kids,” head coach Clay Helton said. “It’s bittersweet because the kids are playing extremely hard.”
Sophomore linebacker Kana’i Mauga and true freshman running back Kenan Christon stepped up to fill in the holes left in their respective positions.
If you look at the final score, you wouldn’t think the USC offense struggled at any point in the game, but USC’s first-quarter offense left much to be desired.
“Whenever you score 40-plus points, you’re going to be happy,” freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis said. “But I think we left a lot of points out there and could have done a lot better in the first half scoring.”
The Trojans closed the first quarter with 10 points on 58 total offensive yards, completing just one of five third-down attempts. Despite the poor performance, USC got off to an early lead by the grace of two Wildcat turnovers, both of which were converted for scores.
The first: a botched punt return after the Wildcat defense forced a three-and-out started a USC drive on the 21-yard line. The Trojans failed to convert a first down and settled for a field goal.
The second: a fumble knocked loose by Mauga, which the Trojans would convert into a touchdown via senior wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr.
The offense did pick up in the second quarter, lighting the spark to a 448-yard and five-touchdown performance.
“We were just trying to figure out what they were going to do,” redshirt junior wide receiver Tyler Vaughns said. “A lot of teams come to the ballpark playing specific coverages or schemes and everything like that, so we were trying to feel out for that on the first drive, and after that, we was [sic] good.”
Two of the most significant injuries were to USC’s running backs. Already hampered by the loss of redshirt junior Vavae Malepeai, the Trojans lost running backs junior Stephen Carr and redshirt freshman Markese Stepp. Christon stepped up to the plate, posting 103 yards and two touchdowns on eight carries.
Christon, a former high school sprinting champion, showed his speed when he broke through the line and beat everyone on the field for a 55-yard touchdown.
“I was just being patient and following my blockers, and the O-line opened up a huge [hole] for me, and I just finished,” Christon said.
On the defensive side, USC had its best performance of the season, limiting dual-threat senior quarterback Khalil Tate to 47 yards and no touchdowns before he was benched in the third quarter. The Trojans kept Arizona scoreless until three minutes into the fourth quarter.
“You gotta bring the juice to the game,” freshman safety Dorian Hewett said. “When we brought the juice, there wasn’t nothing the offense could really do to stop us.”
USC’s defense enjoyed Mauga’s debut performance as he notched 13 tackles, a sack and an interception.
“It was like unleashing somebody that was just waiting for his chance, and I can’t tell you how happy I am for him and our team that we have a guy like [Mauga],” Helton said.
USC also won the turnover battle (3-1) for the first time since the Trojans’ 2018 season opener against UNLV.
“I thought we came out with great energy and tempo,” redshirt freshman cornerback Isaac Taylor-Stuart said. “We made sure we wanted to punish these guys and I feel like we did.”
The Trojans’ win tonight, in conjunction with Utah’s win over Arizona State, puts them in sole possession of first place in the Pac-12 South.
USC has a shortened week of practice as the Trojans head to Colorado for a Friday matchup against the Buffaloes. The game will be broadcasted on ESPN2 at 6 p.m. P.T.
Watch the full live-streamed scrums here.