Defense delivers for No. 5 USC even as injuries pile up

Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger, top, is sacked by Southern California defensive lineman Christian Rector during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

LOS ANGELES (AP) While the dramatic ending of Southern California’s 27-24 double-overtime win over Texas naturally invited comparisons to the 2006 Rose Bowl, the Trojans’ defense spent most of the night reliving the injury-riddled 2005 season that led up to that classic national championship game.

Despite finishing the game without several defensive starters, USC came up with a takeaway in the second overtime. Reserve defensive lineman Christian Rector stripped Longhorns quarterback Sam Ehlinger on a keeper, ripping the ball loose and sending it flying into the air. Cornerback Ajene Harris recovered the fumble, setting the stage for a 43-yard field goal by freshman walk-on Chase McGrath to win it.

”This is why we play football, for moments like this, double overtime,” Rector said. ”For guys to step up.”

USC needed unlikely contributions to overcome a barrage of injuries. Starting inside linebacker John Houston Jr. didn’t play because of a stinger. Defensive end Rasheem Green was knocked out of the game with a left ankle injury. Linebacker Cam Smith was in and out of the lineup after dislocating a finger.

And then there was outside linebacker Porter Gustin, who had two screws placed in his big toe on Wednesday and then recorded two sacks on back-to-back plays in the first half. The junior, who also was dealing with a shoulder injury, missed the second half after aggravating the toe injury. Coach Clay Helton said Gustin would also undergo an MRI for a possible torn bicep.

Rector said Gustin’s toughness provided inspiration to the whole team, to say nothing of his impressive play.

”Porter is an unstoppable force. The only thing that can stop him is that toe,” Rector said. ”We knew he was going to be questionable for the game. We knew other guys had to step up, and we did so.”

Rector certainly did, finishing with six tackles, 2+ tackles for loss with 1+ sacks, and a fumble recovery. The redshirt sophomore has become an important contributor this season, usually as a pass rusher on third down, but had to be an every-down option when Green limped off.

Rector’s forced fumble capped off a superb performance.

”Christian is a great player,” outside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu said. ”He’s been up in the film room studying, studying. When the offense does certain formations he knows the play that’s coming, so he was able to make the play.”

Nwosu said the defense’s film-room habits have improved in its second season under coordinator Clancy Pendergast. That preparation actually backfired on one play in the fourth quarter, as USC was so ready for Texas wide receiver Reggie Hemphill-Mapps to throw a double pass that he ran for 14 yards when the secondary converged on his intended target.

Still, those habits will be needed when No. 5 USC travels to unbeaten California on Saturday for its first road game. In Beau Baldwin, the Golden Bears have an offensive coordinator with a proven track record of attacking Pac-12 teams, from his time at FCS powerhouse Eastern Washington. And without a bye week in the regular season, there is no telling when the next defender will have to step in like Rector did.

”That’s what we preach all year,” Nwosu said. ”Preparation is the key to our success.”

While the win gave USC a measure of redemption for the Rose Bowl, Nwosu said it wasn’t a factor in how the team played during the critical moments.

”The hype wasn’t really all that,” Nwosu said. ”We were like 3 years old, 6 years old when this happened, so it really didn’t mean that much. It was more for our season. We’re on the road and trying to get a championship, and this was just another roadblock.”

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