Sophomore running backs are stealing the spotlight

Katie Chin | Daily Trojan In good hands · Senior running back Justin Davis will depart USC after this season, but the Trojans’ run game looks intact with sophomores Ronald Jones II (above) and Aca’Cedric Ware waiting in the wings.

Katie Chin | Daily Trojan
In good hands · Senior running back Justin Davis will depart USC after this season, but the Trojans’ run game looks intact with sophomores Ronald Jones II (above) and Aca’Cedric Ware waiting in the wings.

Despite USC going into last week’s game against Cal as 20-point favorites, there was concern in the Trojan camp leading up to the contest. Most of the pre-game discussion focused on the threat of Cal quarterback Davis Webb, who was coming off a five-touchdown day versus Oregon. But head coach Clay Helton and his squad were also missing tailback Justin Davis, a four-year stalwart in the USC backfield. With the senior sidelined for the second straight game nursing a high-ankle sprain, the Trojans needed someone to fill in as a key cog in their offense.

Enter Ronald Jones II and Aca’Cedric Ware. In Davis’ absence, the sophomores have established themselves as two more workhorses out of the storied Trojan stable. “RoJo” needs no introduction, having already burst onto the scene with over 1,000 total yards in his freshman campaign. Ware, on the other hand, had compiled 177 yards in his entire collegiate career before leading the team with 103 two weeks ago at Arizona.

But if either Jones or Ware was anonymous before, certainly neither is now after their performances on Thursday. Both running backs enjoyed career nights; Ware followed up his day in Tucson with 130 rushing yards against Cal, and Jones gashed the Golden Bears to the tune of 223 and a touchdown.

“It’s great,” Jones said. “We waited for this opportunity. With Justin being down, we knew we were going to have to pick up the slack.”

Shrugging off superlatives, the McKinney, Texas native made sure to credit his teammates for his big day.

“We had a great offensive line all night,” he said. “The receivers, everybody, just came together.”

Ware echoed Jones’ praise and said the duo has been pushing each other to improve all season long.

“Me and Ronald continue to compete. We’re both from Texas; that’s why we were born with a competitive edge,” Ware said. “To come out here and do what [Jones] did tonight — I’m proud of that man.”

It’s no secret that Helton loves to dictate the game’s tempo by running the football, so having a wealth of weapons behind redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold is a great fit for the head coach’s system. The Trojans have gained the majority of their yardage via the run in their two games without Davis, and in a season during which much of the buzz has centered on the passing attack, it may be the ground game that powers USC through the stretch run. It certainly did so against Cal.

“He’s a special dude,” Helton said of Jones. “The talent that he has and the person that he is and the competitiveness that he has — you knew he was getting ready to explode.”

Jones will hope to build off his strong performance after what some deemed a slow start to his second year at USC. In 2015, he became one of only two Trojans to lead the team in season rushing as a true freshman (LenDale White first achieved the feat in 2003), but he was on pace to fall well short of rookie numbers before his second breakout against Cal. With 508 rushing yards and four regular-season games left to play, Jones has a shot to eclipse the millennium mark on the ground for the first time as a Trojan.

Davis could very well return this week, but Jones and Ware have also likely played their way into more touches. No matter how the timeshare shakes out, Helton will frequently exploit his offensive line’s strength in the trenches.

“To be able to establish the run game at the point of attack, I think, is huge,” Helton said after Thursday’s game. “[We] rushed for 398 yards tonight. As we say, big men win games.”

The Trojans’ three-headed monster will look to feast on another enticing matchup on Saturday. Oregon visits the Coliseum giving up the 11th most rushing yards out of 128 FBS teams — Cal gives up the most — but the Ducks did manage to snap a five-game losing streak last weekend with a win over Arizona State.

Davis and Jones combined for 197 yards and one touchdown on the ground when USC lost in Eugene last year. They will undoubtedly demand a better performance of themselves on Saturday, while Ware gets his first shot at the Oregon defense.