LOS ANGELES (AP) — The loss of wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers was evident in No. 14 Southern California's first loss in more than a year. But in the 30-27 defeat at No. 11 Washington State, the Trojans believe they have identified quarterback Sam Darnold's next top target outside the numbers in redshirt freshman Tyler Vaughns.
LOS ANGELES (AP) — The loss of wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers was evident in No. 14 Southern California's first loss in more than a year.
But in the 30-27 defeat at No. 11 Washington State, the Trojans believe they have identified quarterback Sam Darnold's next top target outside the numbers in redshirt freshman Tyler Vaughns.
Vaughns had six receptions for 89 yards against the Cougars, giving Darnold a bigger body capable of coming up with those contested catches that Smith-Schuster and Rogers made on a regular basis last season. Vaughns used every bit of his 6-foot-2 frame to come down with a jump ball for a first down on fourth-and-13 to set up a game-tying touchdown with 5:01 remaining in the fourth quarter.
"It helped his confidence," quarterbacks coach Tyson Helton said of Vaughns' catch. "It helped Sam to know, 'Hey, when it's crunch time I can go find that guy,' so it's something we can build off of."
"It was awesome to see Tyler step up and play such a big role like he did," Darnold said. "It was good to see one of those young guys step up and fill that role as kind of that starter."
Vaughns has made the most of an opportunity created by the absence of Steven Mitchell Jr., who has missed the last two games with a groin injury. Mitchell had emerged as Darnold's best option outside the numbers, complementing what slot receiver Deontay Burnett and tight end Tyler Petite were doing in the middle of the field.
Mitchell participated on a limited basis Tuesday and has a chance to return this week against Oregon State. The presence of Mitchell and Vaughns, who has nine receptions for 121 yards in the two games Mitchell has missed, could make them the new Smith-Schuster and Rogers. And that should make USC's suddenly erratic offense considerably more dangerous.
Darnold said Washington State was effective in taking away throws between the hash marks and instead making him look deep, the exact role Vaughns and Mitchell can fill. With only one such option in Vaughns available and working behind a makeshift offensive line without both starting tackles, however, Darnold was held to 164 yards passing. It was his lowest total as a starter, and Darnold recognizes the need to bring diversity back to the passing offense.
"I think teams are starting to force us to throw it outside a little bit, but we're taking that as a challenge. I'm expecting Oregon State to do the same thing, and I would if I was them as well," Darnold said.
Darnold was more critical of his performance against Washington State than the coaching staff's evaluation. Helton pointed to one play at the goal line where Darnold was supposed to throw a fade route but changed it to a hitch that was nearly intercepted because of miscommunication. A play like this shows how difficult it can be to develop chemistry between Darnold and his receivers, but offensive coordinator Tee Martin expects they will eventually match last season's success.
"These guys are going to be good, we're going to get there, but we're still a work in question. No question about that," said Martin, who also coaches the wide receivers. "We're working towards that, but we're still working to get that rhythm and that timing and that trust that we had a year ago in a very veteran group of wide receivers that aren't here anymore."