Injuries and departures have necessitated new faces to step up for the USC defense
LOS ANGELES —The *POP* as USC freshman linebacker Palaie Gaoteote and Colorado wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. collided rang loudly enough throughout Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum that it was heard in the press box.
A scary play for an observer, to be sure, but Gaoteote said, "It's football. Things happen like that."
Gaoteote could smile and talk casually about the play following USC's 31-20 — a win that put the Trojans in position to control their fate in the Pac-12 Conference's South division. He said he did not sustain an injury on the play and would be ready to go for a showdown Oct. 20 at Utah that may well be a de facto divisional championship game.
That's some much-needed good news for a USC defense that's endured repeated bad news in 2018. In the offseason, former blue-chip prospect and cornerback Jack Jones was dismissed for disciplinary reasons. Safety Ykili Ross exited before the season to pursue a graduate transfer. Safety Bubba Bolden was removed from the roster last week, the result of a university suspension.
Isaiah Pola-Mao played an impressive Week 1, stepping up in the depleted safety spot, but he sustained a shoulder injury requiring season-ending surgery.
USC's secondary is certainly the most profoundly impacted, but misfortune did not spare the linebackers corps. Senior captain and the Trojans best run-pursuing defender, Cameron Smith, missed the Colorado game due to a hamstring injury. Elite pass-rushing presence Porter Gustin has dealt with on-and-off injuries. Gustin sustained an ankle fracture late against Colorado ending his season and adding more uncertainty to the Trojans defense.
With the absences in the lineup come opportunities — and some new Trojans are making an impact on USC's Pac-12 title aspirations.
Before the collision with Shenault, Gaoteote already had team highs of nine tackles and two tackles for a loss, the latter category contributing to USC's staggering 18 as a team. The Trojans had just 16 the entire season before the Colorado win, and the output marked the program's best since 2009.
"I think I showed a lot of instinct, a lot of tenacity, a lot of aggression," Gaoteote said of his first career start, which he learned he was making Friday afternoon. "I feel like I did very well."
Gaoteote's one of two Trojan freshmen to shine in recent weeks, stepping up to fill the voids left in the lineup. Safety Talanoa Hufanga has come on strong since seeing more plays as part of the nickel and dime packages against Washington State's pass-happy offense on Sept. 21.
With nine tackles against the Cougars, Hufanga set the tone for a torrid, three-game stretch, that's resulted in him going from role player to USC's second-leading tackler. His 28 trail only the ball-hawking Smith.
"They're playing big-time ball right now," said senior safety Marvell Tell III of the freshmen. "Talanoa had his first start, and he had 16 tackles [since working more prominently into the lineup], I think," — over USC's past three games, the actual total's 21 — "That's good stuff right there."
Good stuff, and also vital to the Trojans' pursuit of back-to-back conference championships. An offense replacing its starting quarterback, leading rusher and leading pass catcher from a season ago has had its share of growing pains. Defense continues to buoy USC through the process, evident in the trajectory of the Colorado win.
A game-opening interception throw by quarterback JT Daniels and a sluggish first few possessions hamstrung USC's offense, but the defense pushing the Buffaloes back despite favorable field position helped eventually open the flood gates.
“We knew coming in that our defense would have to help us if we wanted to win a Pac-12 title," said head coach Clay Helton. "[Against Colorado] we were playing in their backfield the entire night, whether it was run game, pass game. Their quarterback had a night where he was having to get off his spot consistently and just interrupt his timing."
Fittingly, a defensive touchdown sealed the win when cornerback Ajene Harris picked off Colorado quarterback Steven Montez deep in Buffs territory.
The maturation of young players like Hufanga and Gaoteote, and a new contributor emerging in linebacker Reuben Peters, is mixing well with the veterans like Harris, Tell, and even a sidelined Smith or Gustin.
Helton cited Hunter Echols as a player whom Gustin has mentored throughout the season, in a vein similar to Smith preparing Gaoteote for his breakout.
"I did a lot of extra meetings with [defensive coordinator] Clancy [Pendergast] and Cam. They got me straightened out as far as assignments," Gaoteote said. "Coming into the game, I was really confident."
(Top photo courtesy of USCTrojans.com)