Tyler Vaughns represents the future for the USC offense

Freshman wide receiver Tyler Vaughns dives into the end zone in a game against Arizona State. Photo by Daniel Zhu | Daily Trojan

After a full week of dealing with the fallout from Notre Dame, head coach Clay Helton was happy to hand out plenty of praise following USC’s bounce-back victory at Arizona State last week.

“Maybe our best team effort all away across the board,” Helton said after the Trojans’ 48-17 blowout over the Sun Devils, in which they torched ASU for 607 yards on offense.

As usual, USC relied heavily on the run, but the team opened up a big lead early thanks to a handful of big passing plays. The Trojans saw on film how aggressively the Sun Devil cornerbacks were pressing, and they employed a simple game plan through the air: Go deep.

“The plan was to try to throw it over their heads and back them off,” Helton said. “Whether we hit them or not, we thought it was going to be important.”

Redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold executed the strategy to perfection, and redshirt freshman wide receiver Tyler Vaughns hauled in close to half of Darnold’s 266 passing yards and caught two of his three touchdown passes. It was a career night in every way for the wideout: Vaughns’ six catches tied a career high for the third straight week, and his 126 yards, two scores and 42-yard touchdown reception were all personal bests.

The big night was a long time coming. After beginning the season sharing a spot on the depth chart with redshirt freshman Josh Imatorbhebhe and freshman Randall Grimes, Vaughns shot up the ranks as he quickly developed a rapport with Darnold. Vaughns has emerged as one of his quarterback’s favorite targets.

“Tyler has been a big part to the passing game for a while now,” Darnold said. “I think the way he works and the fact that every single play [he assumes] the ball is coming to him is huge. That’s a really great mentality to have as a receiver.”

Vaughns frankly had no reason to assume a throw was coming his way on his second touchdown reception. Reminiscent of Darnold’s snipe through triple coverage in last season’s Rose Bowl, Vaughns caught a laser beam late in the second half while sandwiched between three defenders and taking an illegal hit to the head to stretch USC’s lead to 25 points.

Offensive coordinator Tee Martin described his disbelief in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.

“It’s a pick, it’s a pick, it’s a pick,” he remembered muttering aloud during the play. “No, it’s a touchdown!”

Vaughns had only found the end zone once in his college career before his two-score effort in Tempe, when he hauled in a 37-yard pass against Oregon State. But last Saturday also marked the fifth straight game he had recorded at least five receptions and 65 yards, and his career night quietly pushed him ahead of redshirt senior wideout Steven Mitchell Jr. as USC’s second-leading receiver with 478 yards on the season.

Now, as the Trojans pursue their first Pac-12 championship in nearly a decade, Vaughns will be one of Darnold’s central weapons alongside Burnett and the running back duo of junior Ronald Jones II and freshman Stephen Carr. Vaughns’ breakout — if he can sustain it — might just lift a receiving corps that never seemed to recover from the departure of wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster.

When reporters questioned his options on opening day, Darnold insisted he just needed time to develop trust with his young wideouts. He steadfastly maintained his stance as the season went on, through every miscommunication and every interception. Perhaps Vaughns’ second-quarter score last weekend was the tipping point Darnold had long been waiting for.

“That was the moment that I felt [Darnold] trusted [Vaughns] to that next level,” Martin said, “like the Deontay throw in the Rose Bowl.”