A rash of injuries has decimated USC’s depth at quarterback to the point that standout receiver Tyler Vaughns is an emergency option for Saturday’s game at No. 17 Washington.
The 21st-ranked Trojans (3-1, 2-0 Pac-12) are forced to rely on third-stringer Matt Fink because J.T. Daniels went down with a season-ending knee injury in the opener and backup Kedon Slovis suffered an apparent head injury that knocked him out of last week’s game. Slovis, who entered the concussion protocol and hasn’t been medically cleared to practice this week, isn’t likely to be available for the 12:30 p.m. kickoff at Husky Stadium.
The Huskies (3-1, 2-0) are prepping for Fink to make his first career start. The 6-foot-3, 200-pound junior, who entered the transfer portal in the spring before changing his mind and returning to USC, would be the third quarterback to start for the Trojans this season. Junior safety Brandon Perdue, a walk-on who played quarterback sparingly in high school and junior college, is listed as Fink’s backup on the depth chart.
And then there’s Vaughns.
“Tyler is a great athlete, and he can throw a football,” first-year USC offensive coordinator Graham Harrell told reporters in Los Angeles this week. “So we’re giving him snaps. You’ve got to be creative in this situation.”
Meanwhile, Washington coach Chris Petersen isn’t taking USC lightly. Not after Fink came off the bench last week and connected on 21 of 30 passes for 351 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Trojans to a 30-23 win over then-No. 10 Utah.
“We’ve got to defend a good quarterback that just threw for over 300 yards,” Petersen said. “That’s what we got to do.”
Considering the inexperience among the backups, USC can’t afford to lose Fink, who is the only healthy scholarship quarterback on the roster. However, Petersen disputed any notion that the Trojans might dilute or otherwise revamp their prolific air raid offense that ranks second in the Pac-12 while averaging 325 yards per game.
“I think everybody is in this to win it,” the UW coach said. “I don’t think anyone comes up here to play conservative. Everybody plays to win. They’re going to play to his strengths. They’re going to do what they do.”
USC, which is third in the league with 35.3 pass attempts, has struggled running the ball. The Trojans rank near the bottom of the conference in rushing yards per game (118.5) and rushing yards per carry (3.6).
Conversely, Trojans senior Michael Pittman Jr. leads the Pac-12 in receptions (31) and receiving yards (437) while Vaughns is second with 27 catches and third with 370 receiving yards.
Slowing down USC’s potent passing game is priority No. 1 for a Washington secondary that’s been surprisingly resilient despite returning just one full-time starter in safety Myles Bryant.
Still, Petersen acknowledged that the Trojans receiving corps will be the biggest challenge to date for a UW secondary that’s surrendered just three passing TDs and ranks second in the Pac-12 allowing just 213.3 passing yards per game.
“Test day is on Saturday, and this is a big test,” he said. “This is a big exam, for sure. A hard one. A lot of calculus out there that we’re trying to solve. Fast and tight situations, so we’ll see how we do.”
Considering their geographical roots, the UW-USC rivalry means a little more to the 38 Huskies who were born in California.
“Any time it’s your hometown whether it’s the guys from Utah when we were playing BYU or the guys from Southern California, I think it means something to those guys,” Petersen said. “They’re going to have more familiarity with guys on the other side, and everyone wants to put their best foot forward.”
Oddly enough, USC doesn’t have a single player on its roster from the state of Washington.
It looks like a typo, but Washington has outscored opponents 63-3 in the first quarter this season. Petersen can’t explain why the Huskies have been so good starting out.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I wish we could play like that for four quarters. If we knew the answer to that we’d do it all four quarters.”
UW’s streak of not allowing a first-quarter touchdown will be immediately challenged by a USC team that’s scored a TD on three of its four opening drives.
The Trojans are outscoring opponents 38-27 in the first quarter.
POSSIBLE SELLOUT THIS WEEK?
With the start of the fall quarter and students back on campus this week, Petersen is hoping for an uptick in crowd size and possibly the season’s first sellout Saturday at Husky Stadium.
“I played in a handful of games where when you walk into that stadium and you’re like, ‘Whoa. This is good. This is different,’ ” he said. “And I’m really hoping this is one of those games. It should be. It’s the kickoff time we want. The weather seems to be cooperating. We got a really good opponent, evenly matched teams. This is what college football is all about.”
UW is averaging 66,544 fans at Husky Stadium, which has a capacity of 70,083. Ticket sales for Saturday are nearing a sellout, according to a school spokesperson.