LOS ANGELES, CA (News4usonline) – USC running back Markese Stepp didn’t have a particularly good game running the football against the Washington State Cougars. Stepp carried the ball five times for five yards in the Trojans’ 38-13 win against the Cougars at United Airlines Field at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Sunday.
As a unit, the USC running back committee could not get anything going on the ground against Washington State, gaining 34 yards on 20 carries. It’s a good thing that USC quarterback Kedon Slovis tossed five touchdowns for the undefeated Trojans in what appeared to be a tune-up game leading up to their Pac-12 Conference contest against UCLA at the Rose Bowl.
Football teams, players and coaches are always looking to improve their game in any way possible. Teams take extra reps during practice to ensure their grasp of the playbook. Players take time before or after practice work on a specific aspect of their game. Coaches can look at extra film to pinpoint an area that needs improvement.
USC head coach Clay Helton made a comparison between other elite offenses like LSU and Alabama last season and saw a significant difference in the run game between the Trojans and the other programs. The Tigers were averaging 151 yards on the ground while the Crimson Tide averaged 168.5 rushing yards per game.
Last season USC averaged 119.6 rushing yards per game, their lowest since 2001. Helton recognized that if he wanted his offense to make a jump from last season, there had to be improvement and it had to happen through the running game.
“Last season we needed to run the ball better and that was a primary focus that I put on us,” Helton said in a press conference last month. “LSU won a national championship averaging 168 rushing yards per game. That type of production helps a quarterback.”
A strong rushing attack will force defenses to respect the ground game, which in turn will open up the passing game and allow the quarterback to spread the ball around through play-action passes. Helton expected big things from his running backs this season and redshirt sophomore Markese Stepp has been one of the players who has helped the Trojans rushing attack significantly.
Stepp, a 6-foot, 235-pound bruiser, rumbled for 307 yards and three touchdowns in 2019 before missing the final six games of the season due to an ankle sprain.
This season the Trojans backfield is a constant rotation between Stepp, Stephen Carr and Vavae Malepeai. The three-headed monster has been tasked with relieving some of the pressure off quarterback Kedon Slovis.
“We get the job done by committee and I think we’re all capable of playing at a high level, it’s just a matter of who’s number is called,” Stepp said. “I think any guy in that room can get it done on any given day.”
Stepp has performed well for the Trojans in the two games he played, gaining 65 or more scrimmage yards while scoring a rushing touchdown in each of those games. Stepp is also one of two Trojans running backs that is averaging over five yards per carry. He believes he plays with more confidence this season and said the preparation the team did prior to the start of the season allowed his confidence to grow.
“Going out there, running around, catching balls, everything has helped a lot,” Stepp said. “Coming out everyday to try and get better has definitely helped me build my confidence and has allowed me to play fast and play the way I know how to play.”
In the season opener against the Arizona State Sun Devils, Stepp was the second-leading rusher for the Trojans behind Malepeai, rushing for 53 yards on 14 carries and scoring a touchdown while adding two receptions for 12 yards. Stepp led the team in the following game against the Arizona Wildcats, rushing for 82 rushing yards and a touchdown on 12 carries.
USC has improved its run game drastically in just one season, averaging 147 yards per game leading up to this past weekend’s game against Washington State. Although the Trojans rushing attack has been impressive through the team’s first three games, it struggled mightily on Sunday night against the Cougars, only gaining five yards on the ground through four quarters of play.
Stepp led the team with five carries. His biggest contribution was a 16-yard reception in the fourth quarter that bailed quarterback Kedon Slovis out of a collapsing pocket.
“I wish we could have run the ball better in the second half, but a seven-man front didn’t allow us to do so,” Helton said in the post-game press conference. “Coach Graham [Harrell] loves to take what the defense gives him. The offense is starting to click and the running game will come along with it.”
Despite the poor performance on the ground, the Trojans still managed to whip upon beat the Cougars and are now looking ahead to the next game, a showdown with their crosstown rival, UCLA Bruins. The ground game’s performance against Washington State could be an outlier to the Trojans’ season. USC’s three-headed monster in the backfield could return in a big way against UCLA, who is allowing opponents to rush for an average of 143.6 rushing yards per game.
Editor’s note: The featured image appears courtesy of USC Athletics
Jeremy is an intern at News4usonline currently working on his BA in communications at CSUDH. He grew up in the southeast LA neighborhood of Huntington Park and enjoys watching soccer, football, basketball and baseball.