As Travis Dye was loaded onto an injury cart Friday night, his left leg wrapped in a cast, Austin Jones stood close by, devastated. The running backs had transferred from other Pac-12 Conference schools in search of opportunity, both winding up in the same USC backfield, having committed just days apart.
They had grown close since then, encouraging each other even as Dye’s role grew at the expense of Jones.
Now one of their runs with the Trojans was over without warning, Dye suffering a season-ending injury. “To see him go out like that, it hurts me,” Jones said Friday.
When Jones later barreled his way into the end zone on a receiving touchdown in USC’s 55-17 win over Colorado at the Coliseum, he held up two fingers, then six as tribute to his fallen friend, who wore No. 26.
The reins of the USC rushing attack are now in Jones’ hands, though it’s unclear how much he will share them this week with rival UCLA on tap Saturday night at the Rose Bowl. Trojans coach Lincoln Riley said on his radio show Monday night that Jones is “obviously Option 1,” but a breakout performance from freshman Raleek Brown has seemed imminent all season. Darwin Barlow, who rushed for 41 yards and a touchdown against the Buffaloes in his first extended action, also could play a part.
Riley had no intention of sharing plans for that pecking order Tuesday. He prefers to keep it a mystery for the Bruins.
“There will probably be some things that change,” Riley said of the rushing attack. “Probably will be. I’m not gonna get into it.”
Jones is the obvious candidate to step in as USC’s early-down back. His 52 carries are second among Trojans running backs. His average of 6.44 yards per carry leads the group. Yet, after a relatively strong September, Jones’ role was reduced amid a difficult stretch that included problems in pass protection. He carried the ball just 17 times over the previous six games ahead of Friday, as Dye took the lead and Brown stepped in as a change-of-pace back.
Jones wasted no time in asserting himself in his friend’s absence Friday. He finished with 113 all-purpose yards and a touchdown in 15 touches. Brown wasn’t far behind, with 90 total yards in nine touches to go with his own receiving score.
Both will have to be at their best Saturday to keep pace with UCLA’s Zach Charbonnet, the Pac-12’s leading rusher.
“We gotta step up for him,” Jones said of Dye. “We gotta take on what he’s been doing so well with and just continue to progress. We just got to continue to work.”
Jordan Addison’s return
While he lay on the sideline at Utah on Oct. 15, surrounded by USC trainers, Trojans wide receiver Jordan Addison worried his leg injury might hold him out for longer than just a few games. Worse, it felt to him as if he had let down his teammates during USC’s only loss this season.
“The hardest for me was not being able to finish that game for my team,” Addison said. “I felt like I let them down a little bit, just not being able to finish it through. I felt like if I was playing, I could’ve contributed and made it a little different.”
The Trojans’ top receiver has a clean bill of health heading into Saturday. He will be a matchup problem for UCLA, which ranks near the bottom of the Pac-12 in pass defense.
USC’s staff limited Addison to 30 snaps Friday against Colorado, according to Pro Football Focus. There should be no such limit this week.
“I feel like I’m back,” Addison said. “I’m gonna show you all this week, though.”
Injured wide receiver Mario Williams and linebacker Eric Gentry have been practicing to start the week, and Riley said USC is “hopeful” they will be healthy enough to get reps during Saturday’s game. Whether either would be considered full-go, if they are cleared to return, remains to be seen.
Defensive back Max Williams left Friday’s game because of an undisclosed injury, and Riley said he has been “participating some” during practice. His status for Saturday is unclear.