USC searching for the right backfield mix

Following his third-quarter fumble against Arizona State on Saturday, with USC trailing 28-22, senior tailback Marc Tyler acknowledged the significance of the play.

Carrying the load · Despite being suspended for the first game of the season, senior running back Marc Tyler leads all USC tailbacks with 303 rushing yards. The Trojans, however, are still trying to find another back to compliment Tyler in the backfield. - Brandon Hui | Daily Trojan

The Trojans started the drive at the Sun Devils’ 49-yard line. It cost them a potential scoring opportunity. It gave the ball back to Arizona State, which would eventually go on to score two more touchdowns in a 21-point rout.

“They didn’t have the energy they had in the first half,” Tyler said. “We had all the momentum, and then [my] fumble turned it around … You can’t win on the road like that.

Through three games, Tyler, who missed the team’s season opener Sept. 3 against Minnesota because of a suspension, has rushed for 303 yards and two touchdowns on 61 carries. But his performance, at least as of late, has been overshadowed by his fumble in last week’s loss to Arizona State.

“[It] was a momentum killer,” USC offensive coordinator and running backs coach Kenny Polamalu said. “He got careless and got hit from behind.”

The fumble, however, doesn’t paint the whole story for Tyler — at least according to Polamalu.

“He’s a solid running back,” he said. “He does everything for us. He runs, catches, blocks. He’s very trustworthy.”

Despite the turnover, Tyler has nestled into his role as the team’s starting tailback, although he missed most of training camp. Averaging five yards a carry, he is on pace to become just the program’s second 1,000-yard rusher since 2005.

But in large part, instability has seemingly defined the Trojans’ backfield this season, as five different tailbacks have carried the ball, but only Tyler has done so more than 30 times.

Redshirt freshman D.J. Morgan, who started the team’s opener, has logged just nine carries since Tyler returned to the lineup Sept. 10 against Utah. And since fumbling against the Utes, Morgan has carried the ball just once — a fumbled carry that went for minus-two yards the following week against Syracuse.

“It’s maturity,” Polamalu said, when asked about Morgan’s drop in playing time. “He was the star in high school and we told him here you can’t be casual. Here, you do your job and do it right and you’ll get an opportunity.”

With Morgan seemingly relegated to the bench, Polamalu and USC coach Lane Kiffin, remain in search of a No. 2 tailback to pair with Tyler.

Against Arizona State, freshman Amir Carlisle, who starred for much of training camp, was the first off the bench to spell Tyler, but in the second quarter, the Sunnyville, Calif., native re-injured a high-ankle sprain sustained last month, leaving USC with even fewer options in its backfield.

“I thought he looked good and gave us a spark there with a little bit of speed,” Kiffin said of Carlisle, who rushed for 14 yards on two carries. “He had a great week of practice. I actually thought Amir was going to have a real big game.”

As of right now, Carlisle’s status remains unknown for Saturday.

Junior tailback Curtis McNeal is currently listed as the team’s backup, along with Morgan and sophomore Dillon Baxter, and could slide into the team’s No. 2 role after logging the second-most carries against Arizona State.

“[McNeal’s] right next to Marc,” Polamalu said. “He’s very trustworthy. Curtis is a complete player in terms of knowing our system and structure. Marc and Curtis do things really well for us.”

But because of his similarities to Tyler, McNeal, despite his smaller 5-foot-7 frame, is more of a blocking back and often prefers to run between the tackles, so it could be harder for him to crack that role.

“As long as Marc is healthy, it’ll be hard for Curtis to see more time,” Polamalu said. “The other guys [Morgan and Baxter] are more role guys.”

But despite being categorized as a role player, Baxter hasn’t had much of a role this season. Through four games, the once five-star recruit has touched the ball just 11 times for 31 yards on the ground and one yard through the air.

“We’ve gotten to a point where the ball is spread to Robert Woods and the tight ends so that running back role has a diminished role where it’s protecting and running the ball,” Polamalu said of Baxter, who has been used as dual-threat tailback in the past.

Though the Trojans have relied more on the passing game with 150 pass attempts compared to just 128 on the ground, Polamalu feels pleased with the young group’s efforts moving forward.

“We’re still working to get better,” he said. “We’re not there yet but I like their attitudes about putting the work in and doing things right.”