Texas stood 3 yards from the goal line, poised to score its second touchdown of overtime, when USC’s defense made a stop.
A quarterback draw sent Sam Ehlinger, the Longhorns’ freshman passer, running up the middle. Ehlinger attempted to sneak into the end zone behind his offensive line, looking for a final push. Instead, a defensive lineman, Christian Rector, reached with his right arm to rip the ball loose.
The ball sputtered out and rolled back a few yards on the Coliseum grass until safety Ajene Harris dove on the fumble.
It was a critical sequence in USC’s 27-24 dramatic double-overtime victory over Texas on Saturday — Chase McGrath, a freshman walk-on, made a winning 43-yard field on the next possession. It also began with one of the Trojans’ defensive reserves.
Rector had been inserted into the game in the third quarter, rotating with Malik Dorton at defensive end, after Rasheem Green, the starter, left with a high ankle sprain.
“The guys that came in played extremely well,” USC coach Clay Helton said Sunday during his weekly teleconference with reporters.
Helton praised Rector, a third-year sophomore, in particular.
“He was ready for that moment and made the most of it,” Helton said.
They were forced to. USC’s defense has been beleaguered with injuries.
Five of the 11 players who started in a win over Stanford a week earlier were out during the second half against Texas.
Along with Green, outside linebacker Porter Gustin did not return after halftime because of a broken toe and a strained shoulder, and inside linebacker Cameron Smith missed part of one drive after he dislocated a finger. Sophomores Connor Murphy and Oluwole Betiku replaced for Gustin, while freshman Levi Jones filled in for Smith.
Others were never in uniform.
Freshman defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu, who has a knee sprain, did not play, neither did linebacker John Houston, who has a stinger in his neck.
The Trojans never entirely replaced Tuipulotu. Instead, defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast mostly used an extra defensive back as part of a nickel package. Sophomore Jordan Iosefa started in place of Houston as an inside linebacker.
USC is several seasons removed from scholarship reductions. Roster depth has improved, with 84 players currently on scholarship. It began the 2014 season with 67 scholarship players. The NCAA maximum is 85.
Helton was unsure if his team could have withstood the rash of injuries had a similar situation unfolded in past…