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Mix-and-match Trojans offensive line found right time for standout performance

It was anticipated that USC's offensive line was going to see a step up in performance this season.

The Trojans started three true freshmen on the line in 2014, so as those young players learned to play together and matured as a group, it was easy to picture a time when they would physically control the line of scrimmage and set the tone running the football. We just didn’t know it would happen against one of the best run defenses in the country, and when USC was playing without its three top linemen.

Yet that’s exactly what happened last Saturday against Utah. The Trojans were already without Max Tuerk (knee) and Chad Wheeler (concussion) and they lost Toa Lobendahn to a knee injury only 12 plays into the game. Not to worry: USC simply inserted Khaliel Rodgers into the center spot, moved Zach Banner from right tackle to left, and put true freshman Chuma Edoga in his place on the right side.

The results, as you know by now, were surprisingly good as the Trojans ran the ball 45 times and controlled the clock at key moments of the game to help bring home a convincing 42-24 victory. Such mixing and matching along the line is always a tricky proposition, but it worked in this game for USC offensive-line coach Bob Connelly.

“If you would have told me we would beat the No. 3 team in the country, and we would be down three starters, with those three being Max Tuerk, Chad Wheeler and Toa Lobendahn, I would have said you were crazy,” Connelly said. “But it’s developing a real sense of character in our room, and that’s encouraging to see. I preach to my guys all the time for the need to be ready in case your name is called, the need to be prepared physically and mentally because you just never know.”

Nobody illustrates that more than Rodgers, who had started three games last season at guard but who was moved to center this year to provide depth behind Tuerk. But Lobendahn had been getting reserve reps lately as well, meaning precious little practice time for Rodgers -- which makes his performance off the bench all the more impressive.

The good news is that Wheeler is back at practice this week, with Banner returning to right tackle and Edoga a little wiser for a game's worth of experience.

“Sure it’s been difficult, because our depth is dwindling simply by numbers,” Connelly said. “And Tuerk and Lobendahn are as good as any two players we have on the team, especially in my room. But this is a contact sport, a collision sport, and injuries happen. We are down to our third center, a guy who hadn’t gotten as many reps as Max or Toa, so there is a sense of urgency right now, they are coming to work with a purpose.

“It’s frustrating sometimes on the O-line because it’s one spot where you don’t rotate a lot. You have the same five guys operating as a unit, so if you lose one guy out of that unit it impacts a lot. Our guys just need to be ready.”