Justin Davis on the Rose Bowl

Senior Trojan tailback Justin Davis talks about playing his final collegiate game against Penn State in the Rose Bowl.

All of the quotes from Justin Davis:

So is it real now? Do you feel like you're playing in the Rose Bowl?

Well, it's getting pretty close to it. It was kind of nice to go home at Christmas, spend time with the family, and I knew the next week was going to be total ball. This is going to be a week like I've never experienced before, given at how big the game is, and I just can't wait to get to work.

Do you guys feel like you're playing a home game?

Well, that's the luxury of having a Bowl game in L.A., of course. We get to practice in our facilities. Get to have meetings just as usual, just like a usual game week that we play at home. It kind of feels like it. That's a luxury that we're so happy to have at this time and it makes us feel more comfortable and it's going to be good.

You haven't lost at home with Helton as head coach in over a year and a half. Is there something to that, where being able to practice at home and like you mentioned, the facilities everything, that you think helps you guys in a way that going on the road can't?

Well, definitely. Traveling on the road, you get things such as players not adjusting to the plane ride. There's a whole bunch of things that the Combine.

I definitely feel that we're more comfortable just playing at home, or L.A. to be more general, because we don't have to experience some of the things that you have to deal with when you're traveling. So it's very nice to have the opportunity to play in L.A. So we just can't wait. We feel like this is our home, too. Rose Bowl is our home. So we just can't wait to play Penn State in there.

As a running back when you get three weeks off like you've had in past Bowl games, is it good for you, when you get to the game, you're like a hundred credit percent?

Oh, yeah, it might be different for a different position, say D-Linemen or linebacker because they are so used to hitting. But every hit that we don't get to take, it does wonders for our bodies. We end up getting hit the most in a game and we get banged up and these few weeks have been great on my body.

I've been able to heal a bunch of bruises. My ankle is getting a whole lot better. These weeks have done wonders and I just can't wait to go out there ask start playing, because I feel great right now.


How healthy would you say you were in the final three games when you came back?

Oh, man, to be honest, I was out there, just trying to get by. I just wanted to help my team as much as possible, but I knew I wasn't where I wanted to play at. But now, I feel like it's the Rose Bowl. I'm feeling great. I'm feeling the best I've felt in months, actually. So I just can't wait for this opportunity, and I'm excited for it.

How you were able to watch Ronald [Jones II], he finished the season kind of on a tear. What did you see from him in terms of his growth from September to the way he finished the year?

Just the mental part of the game, because I remember after Utah, I kind of sat him aside and he was kind of down on himself because he had been struggling past few games. I was just like, 'Dude, the talent's there. You're good. You're at USC for a reason. You did all that stuff last year. There's nothing wrong. Just stay the same and everything is going to work out.' Because he was just kind of doubting himself, and that's where young dudes go wrong, because they should know that they have the talent to be at USC. This is a special place and special players play here.

To see how he has developed over the year, it's something amazing to watch, and it just brought a smile to my face, because I saw a young man that went through the storm and he just popped out and now he's just rolling, and I just love to see that. I just can't wait to see what he can do in a Rose Bowl game and next year.

Why do you think he was in a funk early on?

I don't know. Just sometimes starts thinking too much, like what am I doing; am I doing this? I'm going to have to change this up. Even with Ronald, of course, he's going to say, like: I didn't wear these socks for this game, my helmet was too tight, the pants, whatever. You can go the whole nine yards with Ronald.

But the end of the day, I just told him, just play football. Don't think about nothing. Just run because you're good enough. Just trust your instincts. That's what got you to college, so that's what I told him.

Are you excited to play one more game with him? Early in the season, you were playing well before the injury and he wasn't playing well and now you guys can finally – you guys are both hot at the same time.

Any time I get to share the backfield with such a special player that Ronald is, it's always a joy to play. I just can't wait to play with him again. Kind of have that same synergy that we had last year.

So yeah, it's great because they have to worry about him and then they have to worry about me. So it's going to be fun just to have that dynamic thing going on one last game. So I can't wait.

And he'll blame the hair, too.

He'll blame every little thing, yeah.

Where have you got the perspective to support a teammate like that? As a running back, you want to get every carry you can get, but I've seen throughout your time at USC, you haven't been overly concerned with performance from another player impacting how much you get to play.

Right. Because at the end of the day, there's things you can't control. If you know you can't control something, why worry about it.

So I'm just going with the mind-set that I'm just going to try to help my team as much as possible, and if the coaches ask me to carry the ball five times, I'm okay with it. As long as it puts our team in the best situation to win.

I know I have to adjust a little bit from going to high school -getting 30-30, whatever, carries a game -to splitting carries. But it wasn't that hard to adjust because I just knew that as long as the coaches feel that that's going to put us in the best situation to win, I'm 100 percent behind it, and I have no worries about me getting more carries or whatnot, because I know it's for the better.


One of the things, looking at Penn State, they get a lot of sacks. How does their front seven and their ability to get after a quarterback compare to like Alabama and Utah?

Well, the thing with Penn State, they have a lot of kind of exotic blitz packages. We've been working on those for the past two weeks, because we know that they are going to bring some stuff that we haven't seen all season. They do a great job, or the defensive coordinator does a great job of coming up with schemes to get it to the quarterback.

It's going to be a challenge to learn what they are doing and just trying to identify fronts and whatnot that dictate the blitz that they are bringing. It's going to be a challenge and I just can't wait, because they are a great group of guys. They are really, really hard­working, and they get after the quarterback, so I can't wait.

Seems like a good test, because you guys have done a pretty good job of, like, keeping Sam free. Like he hasn't been sacked.

Yeah, our O-line has been amazing with pass protection this year, and I think that it's going to be the ultimate test for them this week and I think they can handle it completely.

It's going to be just great to watch the battle between the defense. The battle between the defensive blitz and O-Line is going to be great to watch.

Does that change for what you guys as running backs do?

Yeah, we definitely have to be more dialed in, because it's just not nobody coming and we just have to get out and worry about a route. Now we have to worry about watching the safeties, seeing what's going on, see the rotation and it's going to be fun.

I personally enjoy it because it's just – I just like a challenge, you know, and definitely with Penn State and what they are doing, it's definitely going to be a good challenge. I just can't wait for the opportunity.

I know you've played for a few head coaches before now. Helton is on a winning streak that you guys haven't been on in a long time. I'm wondering, what do you feel like he's implemented in general as a head coach that maybe is taking you from where you were to where you're at?

I think the thing about him that really struck with players is the all-about-ball mentality. Of course we're in L.A. Of course Hollywood is right down the street, L.A. Live, whatever, whatnot.

The thing about USC now, he has implemented that hundred percent ball all the time. It even started with no music at practice. Most players kind of didn't like it at first, but as time went on, we knew that once we step on that field and practice, there's 100 percent focus on your technique and preparing for the game.

So just things like that. Just focusing on ball. Not worrying about those distractions. Especially what happened in the beginning of the season, everybody talking bad against us. We kind of just stuck to the plan, focused and just kept going and just focused on our play on the field, and eventually it led to greater things.

Your thoughts when you hear the words, "Rose Bowl" for this team?

Oh, man, there's greatness and it's kind of the place where USC was born to be in. I think USC, they have 24 Rose Bowl victories. So it's like the Rose Bowl and USC, it's just like they go together. They get married together, basically.

It's just great to be on a team where we have the opportunity to get back there one more time. It's just a great game that everybody grew up watching. It's the moments in the Rose Bowl; it's history. It's great to be a part of history and I just can't wait to play the game.

What do you see from the Penn State run defense when you see them on film?

Well, they do a great job of stopping the run. I know they held a whole lot of rushing offenses under a hundred yards this year. I just can't wait, because we all enjoy a challenge every once in awhile. So definitely with what they are doing up front with their guys and how they are moving guys around with their schemes and whatnot it, it's going to be great and I just can't wait for the challenge.

How much did you benefit from the time off, getting that explosiveness back?

I was saying earlier that maybe with like D-Linemen, linebackers, it's not the same. Maybe they need to keep hitting just to get that mentality.

But the running backs, every hit I'm not taking is so great on my body because we are getting banged up all the time. Yeah, every day it's felt better on my body not hitting. It allows us to get back to where we were at the beginning of the season, get nicks and bruises healed up. For me, my ankle is finally healed up and I can't wait. It feels good.

Where did you see Ronald grow the most while you were out?

Definitely on the mental side of things. I've been telling him, you have the talent. You've always had the talent and you're a special player and that's why you're at USC.

He was getting down on himself a little in the beginning of the season, but I just had to keep letting him know that when you go out there, just run, because your instincts are special, and that's what allowed you to be so successful last year. I'm just so proud of him that he just weathered through the storm and kept going and now he's starting to reap the benefits and it brings a smile to my face.

What's it like being the mentor of the running backs and the veteran guy?

Well, it's kind of funny, because I actually had a mentor in my last three years, whether it be in Silas Redd, Buck Allen, Tre Madden. So it's kind of funny for me to be in that role for once.

I think that what they taught me, it kind of gave me enough to kind of pass down to the younger backs, and it's been real fun because sometimes I'm not like getting on them so much. I'm just being a friend, just another one of the guys.

It's been fun. It makes me – just can't wait to see what they can do next year, because you guys said, you got Dominic [Davis], you got Ronald, and you've got Vavae [Malepeai]. It's going to be fun to watch them all year this year because I've grown so close to them. I feel like I'm a part of them now forever. It's great, yeah.


How have you seen your role evolve since you had an injury this season and you've had to come back? How has your role evolved this season?

Well, definitely it's been that pep talk, because sometimes I feel like Ronald, I don't know where his head's at (laughs). That's the thing about Ronald. I've just got to make sure that they are staying focused before the game. When they come off the field, they ask me what I see and I let them know. Just little things that they can be doing better. Just put a lot of reminders in their head. Just things to help them out no matter what because those are my guys, and if I can help them be successful, I'll do it any day of the week.

Was it hard to miss that time and then to come back, especially when RoJo found his stride?

Yeah, anybody would be crazy if they said that wasn't hard to sit through. I knew that we had the talent; that we were not going to miss a beat. I had total 100 percent faith in Ronald and Seth to get the job done and they did.

They did a great job while I was out. And it gave them valuable experience to help our team out more in the future. I had no problems – well, it was hard, but in the end, I had no problems with it because they did a great job filling in and it's going to help them out a whole lot in the future.

Have you figured out post-game Bowl stuff?

Yeah, I actually sent the invite to the Shrine Game. Wish I could have got to the Senior Bowl but the injury kind of bogged me down with that. I'm excited for the opportunity to play in that bowl game. There's a whole bunch of great players in it and it's going to be fun to play.

What will be your training process once this game ends to get ready for that?

I haven't actually picked an agent yet but I'm narrowing it down right now. I want to try to stay in southern California just because I fell in love with this place so much. So yeah, it's getting exciting, but first, we've got to take care of this Rose Bowl and I'm going to deal with all that stuff.

How was Sam [Darnold] different on the field from off the field?

Oh, man, it's crazy, because you barely can get a word out of him off the field. But on the field, he turns into a general. It's crazy how laser-focused he is.

I remember after the Washington game, he had thrown a pick – yeah, he threw the pick and it's like, that didn't even happen. You could just see on his face that nobody has to go up and talk to him and say, oh, you're all right, you'll get it next time. You don't have to do that with him because his short-term memory is something so special and that's what separates players, just to forget about the mistakes.

It's kind of like some quarterbacks, they will make a throw, it gets intercepted and they are going to stay away from making any throw, any time of risky throw again. But with him, it's going to be the same Sam, day-in, down-out, every down; it doesn't matter what he's done. That's the one special thing about him.

Would you say that's kind of a characteristic of the team; that you guys started off not the way you guys wanted to but you were able to forget about it and kind of turn it around?

Right. That's just been the story of the season, because we took some hard punches in the beginning and we just kept battling. It was kind of we just had to have a short-term memory.

After the Utah loss, it was like, we had three losses and like, oh, man, it's bad. But we knew we had a whole lot in front of us and we just had a whole lot more to accomplish and our goal was still in front of us. We kind of just had to just throw all the baggage away, just throw all the trash away that happened in the past three games and just get the work because we still had the opportunity to play in a game like this, and what do you know, we are in it now.

It's just a testament of how our players just responded and kind of just forgot about what was in the past and focused on the future.


When you think back to that time, would you have ever expected to be playing in the Rose Bowl come this time of year?

Yeah, it was a dark time and it was really bleak. There wasn't a whole lot of good things going for us. But we all knew that our team is special, and we just can't let it go to waste. We have all these special players. We have JuJu [Smith-Schuster], Adoree' [Jackson], Sam, Darreus [Rogers], I just could go down the list. I don't want these players to leave without finally accomplishing something. It just feels good that this story, I'm going to have it; I'm going to remember it for the rest of my life; that at first, we thought we weren't even going to make it to a Bowl game. We just sat down like, 'we suck, y'all. Like this isn't cool.'

This is going to stay with me for the rest of my life, because this team is going to be so special to me because we weathered the storm and we came out all right. And what better way to finish than with a Rose Bowl victory. Yeah, it's great to be here.

You're the only team who has played both Washington and Alabama; putting on your analyst hat, what does Washington need to do to win and what does Alabama need to do to win?

Oh, man, that's a very interesting matchup, because Coach [Chris] Petersen, he's just a matchup genius, and he prepares so well. The thing about Alabama, they are just going to be hard and they are going to be ready.

It's going to be a good chess match between [Nick]Saban and Petersen and it's going to be a good defensive game because both sides, they have a good defense, great front seven and it's going to be really hard-nosed. It's going to be kind of like an SEC game in a sense.

Of course, Washington, they have their explosive players and so does Alabama. Yeah, it's going to be a great game. It's going to be a lot closer than people really think it is. It will be cool.

In talking to some of the guys, you seem to really embrace the fact that you started 1-3, as opposed to wanting to forget about it. Why do you think that is?

Well, it just let's everybody know how – our ability to bounce back. Even now, if we went down 14-0 in a game, that's just our MoJo. There's nothing wrong with that because we know we're going to come back, or have the ability to come back, because we did the ultimate test of that and that's coming back from three losses, appearing in the Rose Bowl.

That's kind of cool to have that stat, kind of chip on your shoulder. Like when we're down, we're really not down. You might think that we're down but our group of guys are just so resilient and have so much just passion about coming back. That's kind of what our deal is right now. So it's just cool to be on a team that no matter what the situation is, we're always going to have the opportunity to come out of it.

What are some of the lessons you learned?

Just to block out all the outside noise, because at one point, everybody in the world was against us. Even off the bat after the Alabama game, because they were saying, oh, USC, they are five years away from greatness; they are not USC any more, let's move on to the next team.

And now, it's just that – it's funny how everybody kind of jumped back on the bandwagon. And just to see that we can bounce back like that, it's great.

It's kind of like, I told you so.

Exactly (laughs).

So a life lesson that you learned throughout this whole process?

Yeah, just to stick at the plan ahead, because we came here to play football and get a degree and that's all we focused on for the past two months. You don't worry about the outside noise. You don't worry about some dude talking trash on Twitter. It's just irrelevant. It has nothing to do with what your plan is and what your goal is, and that's just kind of how – the approach the whole team ended up taking. It's all about ball and the only thing we can control, we're going to control it. But the things we can't, don't even worry about it. Don't even give a single thought about it, because it's not going to help you at all.

We just focus on the things that we can control and that was just going out to practice every day, working on our craft, working on our technique, preparing for the next team. That's what helped us out eventually in the end; that we just kept going and just focused on the things that mattered.

And it's almost like you can hardly wait until game day.

Right, especially because once we had this win streak going, it's when can we play again and when can I get on the field with my boys again. We kind of had this energy that we had on our team that was just so fun, and football was fun again. It kind of wasn't fun those first couple weeks but football was fun. That's the best that a team could have. When a team is having fun, generally, with everybody with the teammates, that's the best thing that a team can have going for them.

If you don't focus on the dude talking trash on Twitter, do you also not – since you've been going so well, listen to the people that tell you how great you are?

Oh, well, I don't think there's too many of those the first couple of weeks.

But now you hear it.

Of course. That's just how it works sometimes.


You're not listening to them either?

Well, you're going to get it. It feels good to hear somebody talking good about you, of course. But we know that the only compliments we need is from our teammates, like, hey, dude, you're doing good out there.

Those are the only compliments that really matter, like you're doing good out there, keep going, because that gives you confidence to keep going and just once a dude is recognizing how much work you're putting into your craft, it just builds a whole camaraderie that this is so special and it makes you work that much harder.

T said you made a cut last week that told him you were completely back. Did you remember one that you told yourself, I'm back now?

Yeah, I know exactly what he's talking about. It was last week, and the weeks before that, I just felt like I just – it was frustrating, because I know what I can do, what my abilities are. It's just frustrating that I couldn't actually put them into action those final few games.

But yeah, I feel great. This is the best I've felt in months. For me to be able to kind of get my full skill set back, I'm just excited. I'm so excited. What better game to do that than the Rose Bowl, the finale. I can't wait to finally be healthy in a game to be honest.

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Keely Eure is a broadcast journalism student at the Annenberg School at USC. You can follow her on Twitter at @keelyismyname.

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