The rough weekend for USC continued Sunday; its impact will reverberate throughout the rest of the season.
First, Saturday’s 24-21 loss in Salt Lake City all but eliminated the Trojans from the Pac-12 South race; two of the three teams in front of USC in the standings own the tiebreakers — Arizona State and Utah.
Sunday’s news was season-altering, as well, as coach Steve Sarkisian announced left tackle Chad Wheeler suffered a torn ACL in Saturday’s loss and will be out for the season.
Wheeler was carted away from the bench in the first quarter after suffering the injury early in the game. When giving his team the news of Wheeler’s injury Sunday, Sarkisian said there was a lot the team can learn from Wheeler.
"What I showed the team today about Chad which, hopefully, carries over is this: Chad Wheeler tore his ACL, I believe, it was the third play of the game." Sarkisian said. "Then [Wheeler] played another, I believe, [it] was another seven or eight plays before he finally took himself out. So, I think that is what we lose when Chad Wheeler comes out — is just that sheer mental and physical toughness. That mentality that he possesses, the way he plays the game.
"I wanted the team to see that so that they can learn and understand how this guy played the game. We were not aware that he was injured. He fought through it until he just couldn’t anymore."
Wheeler, surprisingly, had been a mainstay at left tackle over the past two seasons, starting 22 consecutive games. The early enrollee from Santa Monica High School entered USC during the spring of 2012 weighing just 230 pounds. During his redshirt year he added 60 pounds, making himself a formidable option on the Trojans offensive line.
After the Trojans struggled to find a consistent left tackle in 2012, Wheeler grabbed the reigns last season and never looked back.
The onus now falls on senior Aundrey Walker, whose career at USC appears to be coming full circle.
Following the departure of Matt Kalil after the 2011 season, it was Walker who was anointed the next left tackle in spring ball. At the time former head coach Lane Kiffin said Walker was making some plays "that look like first-rounders do."
But Walker had his struggles and eventually lost his starting spot after seven games. Last season he made 10 starts at right guard.
In 2014 he has played both guard and tackle and will now have the responsibility of replacing Wheeler in a spot Walker was supposed to occupy all along.
"I thought Aundrey did an admirable job stepping in against a very good (Utah) defensive line (and) against a very good pass rusher in Nate Orchard," Sarkisian said. "I think he’ll continue to improve."