On the first play after Adoree' Jackson hurdled the kicker on his way to a kickoff return touchdown, Notre Dame tried to respond with a big gain off a trick play. Receiver Chris Finke went in motion, looping behind quarterback DeShone Kizer. He continued toward the sideline when the ball was snapped. Kizer hit him in stride.
Instead of turning upfield to gain yardage, Finke turned and looked back for Kizer. Pressure by Uchenna Nwosu forced him to immediately unload it. His lofted pass hit Kizer just inside the numbers. USC outside linebacker Porter Gustin made a great play, splitting two blockers and diving to hit Kizer’s legs, holding him to a minuscule gain.
Gustin didn’t celebrate. He got to his knees and looked down. Gustin’s tackle happened right in from of USC head coach Clay Helton. Over the coaches’ headsets, Helton heard someone say Gustin appeared to be looking for his mouthpiece. He looked down.
“No. He’s looking for his teeth!,” Helton recalled saying. He could see Gustin’s mouth was bloodied.
When Gustin had dove, Kizer’s heel had caught him square in the mouth, hitting a tooth in the right forefront.
“It just popped out. Still gone,” Gustin said tilting his head back to show the space the tooth once occupied.
But Gustin never missed a snap. He stayed on the field for the final play of the third quarter and then continued after the break between quarters with a little prodding from one of USC's assistant coaches.
“I looked at coach and he said, 'My whole front teeth are fake, so get out there and keep playing.' So I went out there again,” Gustin said. “I didn't really know what to do at first. I was waiting for the pain to set in. Then it really didn't because I had so much adrenaline going.”
As a part of its caravan of sports medicine physicians, USC has an emergency dental specialist. Dr. Ramon Roges, an endodontist who also customizes each player’s mouth guard based on molds of the player’s teeth, is on the sideline each game, but isn’t often needed.
This year was different. Gustin’s incident wasn’t the first time the Trojans did some in-game dental work. During the first half of USC’s upset at No. 4 Washington, the visiting sideline was showing a lot of emotion and excitement with the Trojans grabbing the lead on the previously unbeaten Huskies.
“It was very exciting. I think we had just had a pretty good drive and we were about to score,” freshman quarterback Matt Fink said. “Had a big play. I'm on the sideline celebrating, cheering on my guys and everybody else is doing the same thing. We're all jumping up and everything is crazy.”
The only problem was Fink didn’t have his helmet on. Standing in front of him, 6-foot-7 outside linebacker Connor Murphy did. Someone else bumped Murphy while he was jumping. His head went backwards smacking Fink in the mouth.
“His head went back straight into my mouth and I cracked like three teeth.”
Fink was initially stunned. He didn’t know what to make of his predicament. He stood in a daze before spitting teeth fragments into his hand. He flung them to the ground.
“What the heck just happened?” Fink remembered thinking. “I'm not trying to make a big deal out of it, so I just kind of pull [the trainer] aside and say, 'I just got hit in the teeth.’”
The athletic trainer looked at him and laughed. He told Fink not to worry and that they would get it fixed when the team returned back to Los Angeles.
“Doctor Roges comes to all the games," Fink said. "He loves the football team, so that's just a blessing that he can be there and help us out in need.” (USC did not make Roges available for an interview.)
With his own grill repaired, Fink said he felt a little better about his mishap after seeing Gustin lose a tooth.
“It did. It sucks, but it's pretty funny.”
“I'm sure it made him feel a little bit better,” Gustin said. “But his was on the sideline, so maybe not.” He cracked a smile that gave a glimpse of his own missing tooth.
Gustin played just fine without his tooth. He finished the Notre Dame game second on the team with eight tackles in the game, including 1.5 sacks for a loss of 11 yards. It was arguably his best game as a Trojan, in contention with his 13-tackle effort against Utah and his five-tackle, two-sack outing in USC’s upset of No. 4 Washington.
His season saw ebbs and flows. He had nine tackles and a sack against Alabama, but missed two other potential stops of Crimson Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts in the backfield. Though he had sacks in each of the first two games, some fans weren’t impressed with his pass rush.
Gustin and Nwosu were asked to do a lot as the stand up defensive ends/outside linebackers in Clancy Pendergast's 5-2 scheme that routinely was a 4-2-5 with USC playing nickel almost exclusively after the Stanford game. The tackles weren’t always there and the praise wasn’t often missing, but Gustin’s effort was always there and the pass rush production came on at the end of the year with 3.5 sacks in the final three games and a handful of batted down pass attempts in the second half of the season when he couldn’t quite get to the quarterback.
“I think I didn't start off quite how I wanted to and I think I gradually got into more of what I was wanting at the beginning of the season,” Gustin said. “I haven't quite done everything that I wanted to, but I think I'm heading towards the right direction.”
Only a sophomore, Gustin finished the regular season tied for second in tackles while leading the Trojans with 5.5 sacks for the second season in a row. His 12 tackles for loss also are a team best and he added four pass breakups and four passes defensed. Under the tutelage of Johnny Nansen and Kenechi Udeze, Gustin’s pass rush continues to improve, but he feels like he’s got more work to do.
“I just want to improve everything in the game, just be a technician. Get my pass rush down. Just understand the game better and just all the little things -- getting off blocks, holding edges, not making the little mistakes I've been making.”
Gustin has been showing his improvement in games this season while Fink’s strides have been noticed on the practice field. Hitting the weight room while spending this season redshirting, Fink’s arm strength has taken a jump and he feels his ability to read coverages has improved as well. But a Rose Bowl injury or two could force those changes to be on display in front of a national stage.
When Max Browne left USC after the regular season to prepare for his transfer to Pittsburgh, Fink was pushed up to second on the depth chart. He is sharing that spot with receiver/former quarterback Jalen Greene with Greene likely to go in for a play or two of spot duty. The Trojans don’t want to burn Fink’s redshirt for a play or two, but if starter Sam Darnold were to get injured early in next week’s bowl game, Fink could be the guy to take over. With that possibility, he is preparing as if he will play.
“I’m just trying to be more prepared if the time comes and that certain thing happens,” Fink said. “I’m ready for whatever the coaches need me to do. It'd be a huge experience for me -- me and my family actually. It would be very exciting. Lot of adrenaline. Lot of nerves.”
Fink is getting more experience splitting the second team reps with Greene, but with no collegiate game experience to rely on, Fink said if he has to go in the game, he will just try to imitate Darnold.
“I think Sam does a really good job at keeping calm and having his nerves on the floor. I think I'll just try to imitate what he does -- in pregame or in the game itself coming off the sideline, getting talked to by the coaches.”
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