Injuries to key players leave USC with shoes to fill

Sophomore safety Talanoa Hufanga is questionable for Saturday’s game after entering concussion protocol and dealing with an AC sprain. Hufanga leads the Trojan defense with 42 tackles in the first four games. ( Sarah Ko / Daily Trojan)

Following its upset win against former No. 10 Utah last Friday, No. 21 USC is preparing to take on No. 17 Washington on the road at one of the loudest venues in college football.

The Trojan defense is coming off what was arguably its best collective performance of the season, despite losing two key players — sophomore cornerback Olaijah Griffin and sophomore safety Talanoa Hufanga — due to injury. The young squad has shown confidence in practice this week as they look to continue building momentum at Husky Stadium.

“I think they just feel more comfortable playing together,” defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said at Wednesday’s practice. “Moving into the fifth game of the year, you hope to develop some continuity where the guys are feeling more comfortable playing together. We got a lot of new pieces out there, so I hope it continues to get better.”

Pendergast is now tasked with orchestrating strategies for a defense that may not include Griffin and Hufanga. Griffin left the Utah game early with back spasms and has been limited during practice, while Hufanga entered concussion protocol earlier this week and is dealing with an AC sprain.

USC’s active defensive players — namely true freshman cornerback Chris Steele and redshirt freshman cornerback Isaac Taylor-Stuart — are getting set to fill in any gaps if needed.

“The cornerbacks are ready because it starts from practice, and they were prepared for the games,” Taylor-Stuart said. “We go against great receivers every day, one-on-ones [are] a war. We fight for everything, and [practice] is what prepared them for the game.”

Steele said Pendergast emphasized focus on the task at hand.

“Coach Clancy tells us all the time to just block out the noise, so we’re out there, and we don’t even worry about it,” Steele said, referring to the raucous environment in Seattle. “We’re just focused on our assignment, making sure we’re in the right place at the right time.”

Freshman defensive lineman Drake Jackson and redshirt sophomore safety Isaiah Pola-Mao, two players that shone for the Trojans defensively against the Utes, are expected to continue their impressive play this Saturday.

Pola-Mao came up big when it mattered most on Friday, especially with his crucial third down sack on USC’s one yard line that forced a Utah field goal in the second half. Jackson recorded a safety that gave the Trojans a comfortable two-point cushion.

The Huskies will also come into Saturday’s contest with a 3-1 record, their sole loss coming from Cal in a close 20-19 game during Week 2. Washington’s last contest, a 45-19 road victory against Brigham Young, is sure to raise some eyebrows for USC fans, as the Trojans lost to BYU in overtime during Week 3.

But despite the past, head coach Clay Helton has continued to preach to his players the importance of having a short memory, especially with the mantra, “So what, now what?” which he has uttered at every postgame press conference this season.

With injuries to USC quarterbacks sophomore JT Daniels and freshman Kedon Slovis, the Trojans will place their trust in redshirt junior quarterback Matt Fink to lead them past the Huskies. Fink came in for an injured Slovis after just two plays, and his performance was heralded by USC fans, the media and Trojan legends Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart, who were in attendance.

“I’m always ready,” Fink said after the Utah game, sitting in between Bush and Leinart on the FOX Sports postgame show. “I’ve always wanted a moment like this, where I can come in and perform to the best of my ability.”

Fink and USC will face off against Washington and junior quarterback Jacob Eason Saturday at 12:30 p.m. on FOX.