Malepeai Out, Stepp Flexes Big-Time

Ryan Kartje (LA Times)  —  The soreness in his balky knee had long lingered. But for seven weeks this season, Vavae Malepeai played through the pain, anyway, leading USC’s split backfield in carries.

Following a depleting defeat at Notre Dame on Saturday, however, that pain became too much for even the junior ballcarrier to bare. Malepeai, USC’s leading rusher, will have surgery to “clean out” his knee, USC coach Clay Helton announced on Sunday.

With six games left in the season, there is currently no timetable for his return.

“Vavae is a warrior,” Helton said. “[He was] dealing with a sore knee and really fighting through it for his team. It’s just gotten to the point where it’s gotten too sore, so we’re going to go ahead and take care of it now. What’s fortunate is we still have a lot of talented backs on this team.

Malepeai had fought through the injury since the preseason, as he sat out most of USC’s fall camp to recover. Still, through Saturday, Malepeai had carried the ball 87 times since then — more than twice as much as USC’s two other lead backs, Stephen Carr and Markese Stepp. Without him, both are expected to see their roles expanded considerably.

Against Notre Dame, even before Malepeai’s season was in question, Stepp made an especially strong case for a larger role. The redshirt freshman was far and away USC’s most effective running back, rushing for 82 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries. On one particularly memorable attempt, Stepp carried several Irish defenders on his back as he rushed for a 19-yard first down.

After the game, both Helton and USC offensive coordinator Graham Harrell were asked why Stepp didn’t receive more than just 10 carries. Helton rejected the notion that Stepp didn’t have an increased role, while Harrell noted that Stepp received as many carries “as he could handle.”

“He was sucking wind from what I understand,” Harrell said.

Asked about Harrell’s assertion, Stepp agreed that he was tired at times.

“When you’re carrying six people, you tend to get winded,” Stepp said with a smirk.

Without Malepeai, Stepp will likely carry the load between the tackles going forward, as Carr remains more of an all-purpose threat in space. Over his past two games, Carr has 159 total yards on just 19 touches, but his carries have been even less consistent than Stepp‘s.

Markese Stepp flexes his bicep after scoring a TD against Notre Dame on Saturday.

Only Malepeai had averaged more than 10 carries per game this season, and as such, his absence will assuredly shift the focus in the backfield.

It may also open up another opportunity for an unused back. Helton said on Sunday that freshman Kenan Christon may get more chances to prove himself over the next four weeks, with the intention of still using this season as a redshirt year.

Depleted defense

A few minutes after he lay on the turf, nursing a painful ankle sprain, USC linebacker Palaie Gaoteote taped up his ankle and gutted through the rest of the game against Notre Dame.

He wasn’t the only one on USC’s defense playing through pain, as the Irish offense got rolling in the second half.

“There were a bunch of kids that I just thought were warriors that suffered injuries in the game and went back out there and battled,” Helton said.

Injuries hit USC’s secondary especially hard. Cornerback Olaijah Griffin re-aggravated a back injury that kept him out the previous two weeks, while fellow starting corner Isaac Taylor-Stuart sprained his ankle, but was able to return. Nickel corner Greg Johnson also suffered an injury to his shoulder.

Helton didn’t have a status update on either of the three defensive backs or Gaoteote; though, none of the injuries are believed to be serious.

latimes.com

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Jamaica
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We talk about depth issues as well as player development when talking about Helton’s management responsibilities as a HC. Oregon lost their 2nd tight end for the season and have 2-more TE’s “with game experience” to ready to play the rest of the season. Would we ever-ever see that happening under Helton?

Scipio
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GH’s explanation of why Stepp only carried the ball 10 times is a microcosm of USC coach’s lack of credibility. We were told all summer and all fall how vast was the improvement of player’s S&C under Azmus (sp?) At ND the coach’s said Stepp was winded at the end of the game. But after 10 carries? Lendale White ate a whole turkey before the Rose Bowl and had more stamina than that. What football player, supposedly in mid season form, would get winded after 10 carries? Either the S&C improved the player’s conditioning or it didn’t. If what coach… Read more »

ATL D.D.S.
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Nice. Going back to the groove yard of the mid-60s.

Steveg
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I had high hopes for the air raid offense and for Harrell. What I am seeing is USC taking what the defense gives them on each play, and it seems sometimes we pass when we could run. Hopefully the OC will take note of the continuing defenses that put 8 off the line, except on third downs, when they feature the blitz. Perhaps a new play calling philosophy is in order, like getting us with 3rd and 1 or 2 and lets play a little smash mouth at times and take it to these defenses. Still waiting to see a… Read more »

Steveg
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The injuries to the db’s could be a serious setback. They seem to be doing a good job overall, at least better than last year. Hope Gaoteote will be able to play this week, even if he is in the wrong position. Like I said, if Stepp could get 20 carries we had a good chance to win over ND, and the same goes for this week. Cut him loose.

RialtoTrojan
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Looking at our current running back situation is frustrating. The article mentions the fact that Malepeai had knee problems before the actual season began, but nothing was done about it. I am not a doctor I don’t even know one, but it makes sense to take care of this type of thing sooner rather than later. This is a stunt Sarkkiffin would have pulled. I guess everyone is afraid of the Doctors at USC medical center. Anyway moving forward it would be smart to send the running backs out in tandem. We used to have this on a regular basis,… Read more »

Jamaica
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You know, we can do a little reviewing of game-tape also. And what I saw was ND stationing their safeties some 15-20 yards deep behind the LOS most if not all game. Their DBs-Linebackers were playing man & zone. So duh….. getting some yards running the ball was there for the taking. But GH kept calling passing play after passing play and then giving the ball to “your choice” one of our RBs sparingly and they get 4,5 & more yards minimum most carries. Not once did GH try to just run the ball down the field. He was determined… Read more »

TrojanRJJ
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Jamaica, GH is not a genius. He is working for Clay and did not demand practices that actually improve players. My guess is he wishes he had stayed at North Texas. He is, I think, the best of our co-ordinators. The other two are Clancy and Baxter. Not much competition. We can complain, but, as LJ has oft stated, we have to accept this is what we are going to get, sooo embrace the suck. I like Arledge’s line: Carthage must be destroyed! (Code for “Clay Helton must be replaced”)

Scipio
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And Scipio Africanus destroyed Carthage! Let me play! Let me Play!

Rock2112
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They say teams take on the personality of their head coach. Well, add Graham Harrell to the list of people that channel more Clay than I would like. Harrell’s post-game interview had way too many statements that ND “made one more play than we did.” Ugh. How about re-evaluating an offense that only requires one negative play to kill a drive. 2nd and 11 seems to be all it takes. That leads to 3rd and six, and then everybody knows we’re passing (for some reason) and nothing is there. Harrell seems frustrated that our drives kept dying in the first… Read more »

Trojan96
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Rock, I’m over Graham Harrell. We might win 2 more games this season due to him, but that’s it. His playcalling is pedestrian at best. I hope we get a real AD soon and hire a qualified top tier head coach that will implement a RPO or prostyle offense that can compete on the national stage. This Air RAID is a gimmick offensive scheme used when you don’t have many skilled players. This system is beneath the quality players SC has in its roster.

Jamaica
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I don’t expect GH to copy Sooner HC Lincoln Riley who knows how to keep using something that works in a game, like a running back getting good yardage on his runs. GH just doesn’t “get it” yet and wants to pass the ball no matter what works and what doesn’t. You watch the game and see the OL is somehow opening holes as well as ND’s tackling isn’t that great allowing some good runs by our RBs, you expect the playcaller to keep using this play until the opponent can stop it????? This excuse about Stepp being too tired… Read more »

illinoisusc
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Stepp………You’re making me sick. I sat in Soldier field and watched Walter Payton carry the ball 30 plus times for over 100 yards every game for 14 games each year with a shit line and get beat up for five years before Ditka got there…..and after every game he was ready for more. Ditka called him Sir. Ran hills all over cook county for hour after hour. He wanted to be the best and was. My men went without food in a pouring rain for days in Vietnam and did whatever I asked. Tired…..you’re tired……after carrying the ball ten times… Read more »

UtahTrojan
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When a team is full of “Warriors” and “Special” players you don’t to worry about depth, it will take care of itself. First lesson from the Clay Helton coaching handbook.

Rock2112
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I don’t blame Stepp, because I don’t believe Graham Harrell when he says Stepp was “sucking wind.” That is unfair to Stepp. No college football player would be “sucking wind” and unable to take more carries after less than 3 carries per quarter. That was BS from Harrell who wasn’t even on the sidelines to witness it first-hand. If I were Stepp, I’d be pissed that he said that.

Jamaica
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You’re right, saying Stepp was gassed is throwing him under the bus as an excuse to call more passing plays just as ND was expecting. Great game-plan….

Trojan96
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Just to clarify, Stepp when interviewed said he could handle bigger load in a politely indirect manner. This is CH and GH trying to make excuses for their incompetence. Big Boy Stepp wants to carry and pound the rock as much as possible.

ATL D.D.S.
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I think we need to re-institute the technique during practice that we used when we were Tailback U. Every time our running back gets a carry in practice, he runs 40 yards to the goal line. I know John McKay did this as did John Robinson. It got the tailbacks ready for a load of 20-30 carries per game. I think Ricky Bell carried 51 times against UW or WSU one time….

Jamaica
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Its about preparing a team to play a game. This ND game was winnable and if this so-called conditioning of the team was addressed correctly would this be an excuse used right now. It is bad enough there is little or no tackling practiced during the week of a game under Helton (probably due to depth concerns), but now we are being told our players are gassed by the 4th quarter where most games are decided? Just another Helton fallacy on a long list of failures. Dr. Folt, are you are watching this going on in your new backyard?

rleeholder1
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I’m very perplexed as to how a player can be sucking wind after 10 carries. Weren’t we supposed to have this wonderful new strength and conditioning coach? Stepp is a force to be reckoned with and should see more playing time now that VM is out for the season. My thought going into the ND game was to give Stepp at least 20 carries as he had extra incentive because his family and friends were in attendance. For Harrell to say “he was sucking wind as I understand” makes no sense to me. Either you understand your player or you… Read more »