Trojans’ practice focuses on handling Texas QB Sam Ehlinger

Redshirt sophomore Tyler Vaughns recorded 84 yards against Stanford. (Sarah Kim | Daily Trojan)

With the road trip to Austin only days away, head coach Clay Helton and the Trojans emphasized third down zone reads and defensive consistency during practice on Wednesday night.

The Texas game is a peculiar rivalry for USC. It’s not an annual rival like Notre Dame, or a conference opponent like Stanford. Instead, it’s a hatred born out of past championships lost and won. The USC vs. Texas game has often answered the question of what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object.

But as his team prepares to touch down in Texas — a state that has been unforgiving to Helton over his two years as head coach — the head coach is attempting to turn his team’s focus away from the hype and towards the X’s and O’s. On Wednesday, he continued this mantra, focusing on molding a young, injury-ridden team to its new opponent.

“We just need to remain who we are,” senior captain linebacker Cam Smith said. “We’re just there for a business trip.”

Defense prepares for change of pace

Compared to the grind of Stanford’s pace of attack, the Longhorns will provide a quick tempo offense for the Trojan defense to master on Saturday. The biggest worry for the defense will be quarterback Sam Ehlinger, who threw for 298 yards and two touchdowns, including a last-second 17-yarder to force overtime, last year against USC.

Last year, Ehlinger was one costly mistake away from an upset — in double overtime, he dove for a first down within the USC five-yard line, only to have the ball stripped out of his arms. This year, Ehlinger brings experience and home field advantage to the table, with 500 yards and four throwing touchdowns already under his belt. The Trojan defense, meanwhile, is struggling at the secondary position, with injuries racking the lineup at cornerback and safety.

Senior captain Marvell Tell III has risen to the occasion, standing as the sole constant in secondary that has suffered a revolving door of injuries in the opening weeks of the season. In the wake of these injuries, Tell has been called on to marshal the young position group, a skill that Helton says is a sign of his growth since his freshman year.

“His first two years here, he was a guy who just focused on his job,” Helton said. “But in [defensive coordinator] Clancy [Pendergast]’s defense, there’s just so much communication that you have to have … And it’s made Marvel a better player. He’s become a true student of the game.”

One of the young players to step up into that role was freshman Talanoa Hufanga, who notched three tackles in the Stanford game. With the depth chart limited, the game threw Hufanga into a high stakes environment against the Cardinal, where he exceeded coaches’ expectations.

In practice, Hufanga continued to dominate the spotlight, grabbing an impressive interception in a drill off of Daniels. As the stakes are raised this week against Ehlinger and the Longhorns, the freshman is following Helton’s advice and trying to avoid the hype.

“For me, my confidence has to stay up no matter what,” Hufanga said. “It’s like a practice. For me, I’m just trying to take each practice the way I would. On the road at Texas, there’s gonna be a lot of stadium noise, but for us I think we’re just gonna play our game.”

Despite blunders, freshman quarterback JT Daniels remains a sure thing

After failing to score a touchdown against Stanford, Daniels remains the unquestionable starter for Helton heading into Saturday’s game. Helton said that time and experience will be important to help mature the freshman mature into his role. Daniels continues to look more comfortable after suffering a severe bruise to his hand in the first quarter of the Stanford game.

Looking ahead to Saturday’s game, the team is studying the Longhorn defense, which specializes in using zone coverage on third down to disrupt offenses. The addition of Josh Falo’s return at the tight end position will also add a much-needed boost to Daniels’ targets against this Texas defense.

Injury report

Safety Bubba Bolden remains missing from practice due to undisclosed reasons. Cornerback Isaiah Langley continues to be limited due to a hip injury.

Chuma Edoga did not practice today due to a stomach bug, but Helton expects him to return to practice tomorrow. Edoga was previously struggling with a sore hip.