The cool autumn evening became unnaturally still, the crisp air and happy anticipation of another USC victory suddenly sucked out of the Coliseum in the second quarter Friday when Trojans running back Travis Dye was tackled to the green grass and stayed there, clutching his left leg in obvious pain.
His teammates gave him space, taking a knee and watching from a respectful distance while medical personnel tended to the 23-year-old senior from Norco, whose determination and leadership skills made him a great fit since he transferred from Oregon. He was fitted with an air cast, and a cart was summoned to take him off the field for treatment. Before he left, all of his teammates crowded around him, patting his shoulder or offering a hopeful word and optimistic thought.
Even visiting Colorado recognized his valor. Several Buffaloes joined the group surrounding the medical cart, an unusual and touching display of sportsmanship and empathy.
“That definitely took a toll on a lot of people, for who he is as a person and what he means to this team on and off the field,” USC wide receiver Tahj Washington said. “That’s just a testament to who he is and how much respect he has, even from both sides. Both teams rallied around him to support him in that moment.”
Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams spoke to Dye before the cart ferried him to the locker room. Dye’s expression was sad — even his trademark mustache seemed to droop — but he managed to give a thumbs-up signal and offer a two-fingered Trojan salute as the crowd applauded.
“I just told him I love him. Looked him in the eye, told him I love him and we’re going to go get this,” Williams said.
And they did, overcoming a slow start offensively to run off with a 55-17 victory in their final warmup before next Saturday’s showdown with UCLA at the Rose Bowl.
Their defense held up well after allowing 115 points in the previous three games, and Williams sustained his excellence by throwing three touchdown passes and running for two more. Their 41-10 lead after three quarters was comfortable enough that coach Lincoln Riley could rest Williams and give Miller Moss some playing time.
It was a game the Trojans (9-1, 7-1 in Pacific-12 play) should have won easily, and once they got past their early offensive hiccups, they simply overpowered Colorado (1-9, 1-5).
Yet the precise details were less important than the impact of losing Dye to an injury that Riley wouldn’t identify, saying he wanted to await confirmation of the preliminary diagnosis. Riley also said Dye’s season likely is done but his long-term NFL prospects wouldn’t be affected.
“It sucks. There’s really no other way to put it,” Riley said. “It’s one of the tough parts of this game. This game, it’s given Trav a lot, he’s put a lot into it. He’s had an awesome career, he’s had an awesome run here for us this year, there’s no way we would be sitting here where we’re at as a football team without him.”
Dye spoke to the team in the locker room at halftime, impressing his teammates with his presence as much as with his words. “We knew what we had to do going forward,” Washington said. “He came in there and gave us some words of encouragement. Some well-needed words of encouragement, just to finish this thing. Just do what we do.
“We all respect him. We all look up to him. And the words he had to say, everybody listened. Everybody took that to heart and went out there and played for him.”
Dye returned to the sidelines in the second half leaning on crutches and with his lower-left foot heavily wrapped. Riley appreciated that although Dye’s night was done — and likely his season as well — he wanted to stay involved.
“His role will probably be a little bit different going forward here for this team, but he’ll still be a huge leader and a huge part of it,” Riley said.
Still, it won’t be quite the same because more than being the Trojans’ leading rusher with 884 net yards, Dye had become their heartbeat.
He left Oregon, where he had run for 3,111 yards in 521 carries in four seasons and led the Pac-12 Conference last season with 1,672 all-purpose yards, to come home to California and start a new life with his wife, Erin. He wanted to be near his family.
He found another family at USC by helping turn around a program that for too long could not rise above mediocre.
These Trojans aren’t settling for second best. They’re pushing one another in a healthy way, sharing success and taking accountability for mistakes. There’s a spirit and feistiness among them. Dye, in a short time, was a catalyst in making that happen.
“Tremendously important and I say, important to the culture, but really important to the competitive nature and the way we practice and the energy and the competitiveness and the physicality and the toughness,” Riley said of Dye’s influence.
“He was one of the key cogs in this team making some real progress there, and I think we all know that was something that had to happen here, and he was a central figure in that. His presence on the field, his presence on the practice field, all of that, it got everybody going. He’s just an infectious leader and an infectious personality.”
Brenden Rice, who caught a 32-yard touchdown pass on the second play after Dye was taken off the field, paid Dye the ultimate compliment. “He’s a dog. He’s a pure dog,” Rice said. “And I hope, bless his heart, hopefully God goes ahead and blesses him in a speedy recovery. And just seeing him go down, you could just see the energy in the team and how we just wanted to go out there and finish that game for him and we did just that.”
The Trojans’ depth will be tested next week and against Notre Dame the week after that, and again in whatever might follow after that. Their resolve will be challenged too. The best way they can honor Dye is to sustain the energy he brought and continue that culture change he did so much to bring about.