Last week, Washington head coach Chris Petersen had a collection of BYU narratives to dismiss: The grass field, the crowd, the altitude. He didn’t want to talk about any of them. If the Huskies lost, he said, none of those factors would be the reason why.
This week is a little different, but Petersen still had a storyline to reject. This one is about USC quarterbacks — mainly, which one is going to play? Ask Petersen, and he’ll tell you that it quite simply doesn’t matter.
“Not even the slightest,” he said Thursday. “That’s not our issue. That’s their issue. We just got to line up and play hard. What’s going on on their side has nothing to do with us.”
Right now, the most likely candidate is junior Matt Fink, who led the Trojans to a victory in USC’s win over Utah on Friday night. Fink took over for Kedon Slovis. Slovis started the Trojans’ last three games before taking a big hit on the second play from scrimmage against the Utes. He never returned and reportedly entered the concussion protocol. He still wasn’t cleared to practice this week.
But even before Slovis, there was JT Daniels. Daniels suffered a season-ending knee injury in USC’s first game against Fresno State. That means the Trojans are now down to their third-string quarterback. And if Fink has to leave the game for any reason, USC would be forced to rely on Brandon Perdue, a walk-on who arrived as a quarterback, converted to safety and returned to his original position last month.
Just don’t try telling Petersen that matters.
“We got to defend a good quarterback that just threw for 300 yards,” Petersen said, referring to Fink. “That’s what we got to do.”
Against Utah, Fink completed 21-of-30 passes for 351 yards and three touchdowns and an interception. Before his injury, Slovis completed 60-of-77 passes for 732 yards and five touchdowns. Daniels was 24-for-34 for 215 yards and one touchdown. All three have completed more than 70 percent of their passes this season, a stat Petersen was quick to point out.
“Hats off to them,” Petersen said. “They haven’t missed a beat.”
The quarterback transitions have appeared almost seamless. Through three games, the Trojans are averaging 33.3 points and 443 yards per game, and UW defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake said that’s a compliment to USC’s version of the Air Raid offense.
“It’s plug and play,” Lake said. “They have their scheme. They’re going to run their scheme. All of their quarterbacks have big arms. They’re athletic. They’re smart. They found some big-time quarterbacks over the past few years, and I think that’s why you haven’t seen any of their production drop off whether it’s Daniels and now down to Fink. It’s like the same thing. They’re throwing for 400 yards, and the offense is rolling.”
It helps that no matter who is playing quarterback, he has reliable targets. Three Trojan receivers — Michael Pittman Jr., Tyler Vaughns and Amon-Ra St. Brown — have more than 200 receiving yards this season.
Pittman Jr. is leading the way with 31 receptions for 437 yards and three touchdowns. Vaughns has 27 catches for 370 yards and two touchdowns while St. Brown has 19 catches for 207 yard and three touchdowns. All three are averaging more than 10 yards per catch.
“They got three — more than that — on their roster, big-time receivers,” Petersen said. “And that’s an issue. They got guys across the board that can go and make plays and do a great job.”
What makes USC’s offense even more challenging, Lake said, is its running back. Vavae Malepeai has rushed for 311 yards and four touchdowns on 69 carries this season, an average of 4.5 yards per carry.
“They are definitely more balanced than you would think of a typical Air Raid offense,” Lake said. “Some of the passing routes and concepts are similar to what you’d think of the Air Raid, but then they got a big-time running game with three running backs that they have to deal with and an athletic quarterback.”