USC football: What if Porter Gustin hadn’t broken his ankle in 2018?

Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy
Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy /

What if Porter Gustin hadn’t broken his ankle in 2018? Would USC football have won more games? Would the Trojans be better or worse off in the long run?

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USC football Spring Camp is over. The NFL Draft is over. May has arrived and with it the quietest period of the college football offseason.

So what better time to consider pointless (but still revealing) hypotheticals?

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Like this: What if Porter Gustin hadn’t broken his ankle in 2018?

Gustin himself opened the door for this kind of musing. He posted a message on Instagram on Saturday after going undrafted, reflecting on his penchant for playing through pain in an effort to help his team.

“I’ve learned over the last couple years that sometimes what you believe to be your greatest strengths turn out to be your greatest weaknesses,” Gustin wrote. “My pride blinded me and I have paid a heavy price for it. I wish I would have realized this a long time ago, for anyone reading this, don’t make the same mistakes that I did.”

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Presumably, the heavy price paid was missing out on an NFL draft place because of red flags on his injury.

Would not breaking his ankle against Colorado in October of last year have made the difference?

It certainly would have helped Gustin on a personal level.

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After all, he was having an All-American-type season before the injury. He had 10 tackles for loss and seven sacks in six games (which was really five games because he missed two halves because of a targeting suspension).

To keep things simple, assume Gustin could have maintained that level of production in the final six games of the year. He would have finished with 20 tackles for loss and 14 sacks, good for fifth and ninth nationally. (That would have been the most by a Trojan in both measures since Kenechi Udeze in 2003.)

Production like that could have outweighed major injury concerns, though it’s tough to say how much Gustin’s positive PED test for Adderall at the Combine, despite his exemption from the NFL, might have impacted his draftability either way.

The personal impact of Gustin’s injury is clear, but the more interesting discussion actually revolves around the way it impacted the team.

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Before Gustin’s injury, the Trojans were 4-2. After his injury, they went 1-5 with four losses by seven points or less.

The first loss was likely unavoidable. Utah handled USC 41-28 and it’s tough to imagine Gustin would have proved the difference there.

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The same could be said of the final loss, when Notre Dame survived the Coliseum, 24-17. By then, it wasn’t just Gustin’s injury holding USC back, but plethora of injuries across the lineup.

Other losses are far more debatable if No. 45 had been on the field.

The Trojans fell to ASU by three points the week after the Utah game. They had zero sacks and zero QB hurries on quarterback Manny Wilkins, who was able to get out of the pocket and run nine times for 89 yards. Gustin’s ability to close on quarterbacks might have been invaluable towards changing that result.

The Cal loss was a 15-14 defensive slugfest, and yet Gustin very well could have had an impact by putting the Trojan defense over the top. Quarterback Chase Garbers was sacked just once while the Bears were able to put together two touchdown drives in the third quarter to secure a one-point victory. One more playmaker available on defense could have outweighed USC’s offensive woes.

You could even make the case for a change to the UCLA result, though there were many issues that contributed to that 34-27 loss.

UCLA’s Wilton Speight was sacked once while the Trojans had no answer for running back Joshua Kelley, who had 295 yards on the day. USC defensive front could have benefited from the flexibility Gustin might have afforded them, with the ability to bulk up the line by deploying Christian Rector elsewhere. It’s more of a stretch though.

Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images
Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images /

In the end, Gustin’s presence likely would have been enough to ensure bowl eligibility for USC. And that’s where it gets really interesting, because that might have been worse for the Trojans in the long run.

If Gustin were available and USC managed to win close games against ASU and Cal, they would have been 7-3 going into the final two rivalry games of the season. The impetus to fire Neil Callaway midseason would not have been there. And when the regular season came to an end, Clay Helton and company could have easily rationalized their difficulties as a mere dip rather than a crisis. Massive staff changes likely wouldn’t have been made while prepping for a bowl game. A review of the program wouldn’t have been required. Helton could have gone into Spring Camp in 2019 still insistent that his approach to practice was fine.

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While fans would have vocalized their displeasure with the head coach and the athletic director, internally USC wouldn’t have had the same urgency to fix the culture problems in the program. They might have even been able to convince themselves that no culture problem existed in the first place.

Of course, this is all a hypothetical. For all we know, the Trojans might have lost the same number of games as Gustin failed to keep up his top-level production and the wheels fell off the team.

Still, sometimes it’s an interesting exercise to ponder the what if.