By Johnny Curren
With USC’s highly anticipated matchup at No. 4 Washington now just three days away, the Trojans were back on Brian Kennedy-Howard Jones Field on Wednesday, taking part in a shorts, shoulder pads and helmets practice.
USC head coach Clay Helton said that a special emphasis was placed on two specific areas during the two-hour session – 1) pass protection, and 2) third-down situations on both sides of the ball.
The Huskies currently rank No. 2 in the conference on offense with a third-down conversion percentage of 46.9, and a big reason why is the balance of the unit. The Huskies not only have the nation’s leader in pass efficiency (202.8) in Jake Browning, but also Myles Gaskin, the No. 2 rusher (105.8 avg./g) in the Pac-12.
It’s safe to say that Clancy Pendergast’s defensive group has a significant challenge on their hands.
“We’ve been playing really good run football teams like Arizona and Oregon, and good pass teams like Cal, so you knew what the strength was,” Helton said. “This one really leans on both. It’s the most balanced team that we’ve played. You look up and they have 231 yards rushing [per game], and 268 passing [per game]. And they’re able to lean on the run game maybe when the quarterback is off. You saw Jake just a hair off in the Utah game, and what did they do in the second half? They pounded the ball. They took the pressure off the quarterback and were able to run it against a really stingy Utah defense.”
After suffering a PCL strain in his knee against Oregon, Stevie Tu’ikolovatu did not participate in practice for the second consecutive day.
According to Helton, however, the big defensive tackle responded well to a recent PRP injection that he received, and he believes there is a real possibility that he will be available to play against Washington.
“I thought that PRP injection really helped him,” Helton said. “He’s progressing nicely, looked like he’s showing signs of life, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he plays in this game.”
In Tu’ikolovatu’s absence, Josh Fatu continued to line up with the No. 1 defense in his place, and Helton said that he has complete confidence in the Long Beach (Calif.) City College transfer should he be called upon to assume that role in the game.
Fatu has served as a starter in one game already this season – the Trojans’ 48-14 victory over Arizona on Oct. 15.
“I think he’s ready for that,” Helton said. “You’ve seen what we’ve done with these no huddle offenses. Him and Stevie have been rolling and splitting time. They’re really valuable reps and valuable experience for him, and he’s playing really, really well. So, if something was to happen to Stevie where he couldn’t play, we really feel Josh could move in there.”
Helton also added that Jacob Daniel is likely to see an increase in playing time this weekend. When the defense has been lining up in its base set this week, the big sophomore has actually been running with the No. 1 unit at nose tackle, flanked by Fatu and Rasheem Green.
When the No. 1 group has been in a nickel alignment, Fatu and Green have been the two interior tackles.
News and notes
– For the second consecutive day loud crowd noise, sirens, recorded band music and barking sound effects were piped onto the field throughout much of practice.
– Tailbacks Justin Davis (ankle) and Aca’Cedric Ware (ankle) got more work in today than they did one day prior, with both players even taking reps during some of the service team 11-on-11 periods.
“Their ankles both held up, and they experienced no pain, so that’s good news,” Helton said. “We’ll continue to progress. We’ll see where we are by game time. But for them to be out here and looking like they did is good news for us.”
– Damien Mama missed practice for the second consecutive day. Helton said that he had a cyst on the back of his knee drained, and that he is expected to be back in action on Thursday. In his absence, Chris Brown spent the day with No. 1 offense at left guard again.
– Cornerback Iman Marshall (hamstring) was limited for the most part, but he got more work in than he did on Tuesday, and Helton said that he is hoping that he will be available to play on Saturday. Jack Jones again lined up with the No. 1 defense in his place throughout the vast majority of practice, although Marshall did get some brief work there too.
– Deontay Burnett (knee) did not practice. Jalen Greene ran at the slot position in his place.
– Cornerback Jonathan Lockett (hip) did not participate in practice and is likely out for Saturday.
– When the No. 1 defense was in a nickel alignment, Ajene Harris lined up at nickelback for the second consecutive day, with Marvell Tell and Leon McQuay III at the two safety spots. Chris Hawkins also rotated in at safety with the first group.
– Jordan Simmons rotated in at both guard spots at times with the No. 1 offense.
– Chuma Edoga rotated in at both tackle spots with the No. 1 offense.
– During an early 7-on-7 service team period Uchenna Nwosu came up with a pick-six off a short pass outside by Matt Fink.
– JuJu Smith-Schuster had a great leaping touchdown grab along the sideline on a deep pass from Max Browne during a service team period.
– Michael Pittman Jr. came up with a highlight-reel grab of his own on a deep toss from Sam Darnold near the sideline during a 7-on-7 period.
– Former Trojans players Norm Katnik and Eric Torres were among those in attendance.
(There was only one brief team 11-on-11 period on Wednesday)
– Oluwole Betiku came up with pressure and Darnold’s pass went incomplete.
– Darnold hit Smith-Schuster outside for a gain of 10 yards.
– J. Davis ran inside for a gain of around 5 yards.
– James Toland IV was stuffed for no gain by Fatu and others.
– Browne hit Cary Angeline over the middle for a gain of close to 10 yards.
– Browne hit Tyler Vaughns deep along the sideline for a 35-yard TD. Adoree’ Jackson, who was in coverage, mis-timed his leap as he attempted to break up the pass.
– Browne tried to go deep to Angeline for a deep TD, but McQuay was in tight coverage and the ball fell incomplete.