Trojans wide receiver Michael Jackson III is generally pretty quiet. Which is why fellow wide receiver Tahj Washington took notice when Jackson spoke up to address his teammates Saturday night after No. 9 USC rode out another uneven defensive effort and hung on for a 41-35 victory over Cal at the Coliseum.
“He’s a guy that’s always working. He might not say much but his actions talk for him,” Washington said. “He said, ‘I love you guys,’ he has respect for all of us, his teammates. It was just motivating.”
Jackson, a sophomore from Las Vegas, and Washington, a redshirt junior from Texas who’s in his second season at USC after transferring from Memphis, spoke eloquently through their deeds on a night the Trojans’ receiving corps was thinned by injuries and needed every yard the surging duo could provide.
Jackson made five catches for a season-best 115 yards and two touchdowns, fulfilling the promise that hamstring injuries had threatened to take from him. He teamed with quarterback Caleb Williams on a seven-yard passing play to give the Trojans a 20-7 lead early in the second quarter, and he completed a 59-yard passing play with 11 minutes left in the third to help extend the Trojans’ lead to 27-7. Seventy-one of his yards came after the catch.
Jackson also had 16 yards on punt returns for 150 all-purpose yards. He has nine receptions this season, three of them for touchdowns.
“It’s amazing, man. That guy’s been on a journey,” Washington said of Jackson. “Just seeing him perform, it’s a dream come true. I feel it for him. It makes me excited.”
Washington was no slouch on Saturday, either. He made seven catches for 112 yards and one touchdown, an excellent followup to his seven-catch, 118-yard, two-touchdown performance last week at Arizona.
His confidence is growing as he plays more, Washington said, and that can only be a good thing for a team whose porous defense puts pressure on the offense to produce in bunches. USC has given up 115 points the last three weeks, starting with 43 in their loss at Utah, 37 in a victory at Arizona, and 35 to low-scoring Cal. The Bears scored 28 points in the second half on Saturday, 21 in the loosely played fourth quarter.
Quarterback Caleb Williams enabled USC to outdistance Cal with his 26-for-41 performance for 360 yards and four TD passes, plus a 38-yard rushing effort that included one TD. His connection to his receivers was solid, with Washington catching seven times on 11 targets, Terrell Bynum seven of eight for 68 yards, and Jackson five of the eight times he was targeted.
Washington said he and Jackson don’t feel pressure in their bigger roles. “It’s routine. This is what we do. It’s just now being showcased on the field now. Everybody else is getting to see it now,” he said.
Confidence plays a big part in that for Washington. “Just making plays and the respect I’m starting to get from my teammates and coaches. Their faith in me to keep going,” he said. “I just dig deeper now. I watch more film now. I take care of my body more now because it’s like people are respecting and allowing me to make those plays and I’ve just got to keep making them routine, so just keep going, keep finding new ways to get better.”
The Trojans (8-1, 6-1 in Pacific-12 play) were without injured wide receivers Mario Williams and Jordan Addison for the second straight week, though coach Lincoln Riley said Addison is close to returning. That could bring about some tough choices before they face Colorado at the Coliseum on Friday, given how well Washington and Jackson played against Cal.
That’s a nice problem to have. More pleasant than the problem of fixing a defense that continues to miss tackles, take needless penalties, and allow opponents to stay in games that the Trojans should win in romps.
At least Riley doesn’t have to worry about Washington and Jackson stepping up.
“They’re two really competitive players, two guys who have made an impact not only on offense but on special teams,” Riley said. “They’re two guys that right at the beginning, when we started, they weren’t necessarily at the top of the depth chart or guys that were getting a lot of opportunities. They’ve hung in there. They’ve continued to work, continued to improve.
“Those guys kind of have been what we need to be as a team. They keep improving and those opportunities show up and they’re ready. I’m proud of this guy, proud of Tahj,” he added, as Washington sat beside him during a postgame news conference. With guys down, we needed them to step up, and they did it in a big way.”
Riley likes Jackson’s versatility and self-assurance.
“He attacks the ball. He’s got confident hands,” Riley said. “Sometimes you see wideouts whose hands aren’t as confident. Maybe they hesitate a little bit to make sure they catch it, but he runs through the ball. After the catch, he runs hard. He runs aggressive. Some guys you see they’re just kind of running to get what they can get. Some guys run as the aggressor, like ‘I’m going to get mine’ and stuff like that. That’s what makes him a good receiver and punt returner.”
Jackson said it wasn’t difficult for him to stay patient while his hamstring injuries healed. “I knew what I was dealing with. It was a long road,” he said. “I had to prove I was healthy. But Lincoln trusted me that I’m going to make a big play.”
He and Washington made a lot of big plays on Saturday. Barring a miraculous turnaround defensively, they’ll have to make a lot more to keep USC afloat.