The Trojans relied on strong performances from wide receivers sophomore Amon-Ra St. Brown, senior Michael Pittman Jr. and redshirt junior Tyler Vaughns in their comeback win over Colorado Friday night.
That group — and more — will need to come out hot again Saturday to take down No. 7 Oregon.
Vaughns is confident in his unit ahead of the matchup against a dominant Ducks defense, which has grabbed a staggering 14 interceptions this season.
“They got to guard us,” Vaughns said after Tuesday’s practice. “I feel as if we do our jobs, we’re going to win.”
However, those three weren’t the only ones who figure into USC’s gameplan. Freshmen quarterback Kedon Slovis, running back Kenan Christon and wide receiver Drake London have all responded well after seeing their roles increase.
Having a true freshman significantly contribute is rare. Having three of them is an anomaly.
“They’re a special group of guys,” offensive coordinator Graham Harrell said. “Most of the places I’ve been, true freshmen haven’t really played, but here, you get a little more developed and talented kid most of the time … You’re going to have to play with young guys, especially if they give you the best chance to win.”
London set career highs in Boulder with seven receptions for 85 yards. He also made one of the biggest plays of the game in the fourth quarter, hauling in a seam route with his defender draped over him to turn a second-and-20 into a manageable third-and-1.
“[I was] ecstatic,” London said. “Me and my roommate [Christon] doing what we’ve been saying we wanted to do in the summer, and it’s finally coming true.”
Slovis had high praise for his teammate.
“He’s a special player,” Slovis said. “Everyone talks about the other three [receivers], but I think that he’s just as good as anyone out here. He’s been great since fall camp … It’s just a matter of him getting more touches in games.”
Christon, who started the game at tailback for the Trojans, finished with 14 carries for 76 yards. He also saved the game on the last drive, falling on the ball after a strip sack of Slovis. The speedy running back has capitalized on his opportunity after injuries to running backs junior Stephen Carr, redshirt junior Vavae Malepeai and redshirt freshman Markese Stepp.
“I just want to help the team as much as I can,” Christon said. “If that means pass blocking all game, then I’ll do that. I just want us to go as far as we can.”
Of course, there was also Slovis, who continued his outstanding season with a 406-yard and four-touchdown performance, leading the 10-point comeback that included two fourth-quarter touchdown passes and earning Pac-12 Freshman of the Week honors.
“You see the defense for three quarters, so by that time you should be pretty familiar with what they do,” said Slovis of his clutch gene.
Redshirt senior defensive lineman Christian Rector and freshman cornerback Chris Steele returned to practice Tuesday, but their status for the weekend is unknown. With so many players banged up, it’ll be important to watch the injury list before Saturday’s contest.
USC, traditionally a recruiting powerhouse, has recently struggled with losing top talent from Southern California to the Ducks. A win could immediately strengthen the Trojans’ Pac-12 title hopes, which Helton said could carry plenty of future implications.
“When you win Rose Bowls and Pac-12 titles, those are when you sign great players,” Helton said. “If you look at all these great freshmen and sophomores that are playing right now, it’s not a coincidence that they got signed right after that Rose Bowl year and that Pac-12 title.”
At first place in the Pac-12 South by virtue of a tiebreaker over No. 9 Utah, USC needs a win to maintain a hold on the top spot. That win could also set the Trojans and Ducks up for a meeting in the Pac-12 Championship in December.