‘Neilon Nudge’ puts USC offensive line in spotlight

LOS ANGELES — Brett Neilon didn’t fully understand why his phone was blowing up after USC played Oregon State, or why people were congratulating him on a big fourth-down play.

He thought quarterback Caleb Williams had rushed for the first down himself. But when he watched the video, Neilon saw that it was his hit and push of Williams that got USC the first down to keep the game-winning drive alive.

“I channeled my inner sumo, and I just kind of belly-bumped him,” said Neilon, who spent part of his childhood in Japan. “I assumed the refs thought he might be pretty close, jockeying for position. So I just went and I hit him pretty hard. Maybe the hardest hit of my life.”

The play was dubbed by the center himself as the “Neilon Nudge,” but it gave the entire USC offensive line a moment in the spotlight.

In the video, it’s not just Neilon who hits Williams. Right tackle Jonah Monheim does so simultaneously, leaving no room for right guard Justin Dedich, who had the same idea. Left guard Andrew Vorhees clears out one of the Oregon State defenders trying to push the opposite direction. Left tackle Bobby Haskins was further up field, but he comes in late in case USC was in need of reinforcement.

“One of my favorite plays I’ve ever had anywhere,” head coach Lincoln Riley said. “That right there is everything that we’ve been preaching. That gives you a chance even when you’re not at your best offensively, but the elite effort and fight gave us a shot.”

When Riley arrived at USC, he made a lot of additions through the transfer portal across the roster. But offensive line did not see many new faces. Haskins is a graduate transfer, and Cooper Lovelace added some depth out of junior college, but overall Riley seemed comfortable rolling with the guys on the roster.

And for the most part, the USC offensive line has rewarded him. Neilon and Vorhees have picked up where they’ve left off as multi-year starters. Monheim has taken a massive step forward as a redshirt sophomore and Dedich has settled into his first full-time starting job and role as team captain.

The one position still left to be settled is left tackle, with Haskins and returner Courtland Ford still battling it out there.

For the second consecutive game, Ford did not play after injuring his ankle in Week 2. Riley said Ford likely could have played, but USC opted to sit him and make sure he was 100% healthy for this week’s game against Arizona State.

The Oregon State contest was not the best performance by anyone on the USC offense, the line included. While the unit put together a strong run-blocking performance, Williams was under constant stress as the Beaver pass rush got to him time and again.

But when it mattered, the USC offensive line found a way to give a little extra, something that wasn’t lost on position coach Josh Henson.

“He was proud that we scrapped it together,” Monheim said. “Obviously, it wasn’t pretty, but we got it done so he was happy.”

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Domani Jackson debuts

USC’s highly touted freshman corner Domani Jackson made his debut against Oregon State. He finished with a pair of tackles and a positive review from his head coach.

“They tried to sneak the tight end out on a play and he had really disciplined eyes, which is good for a young guy,” Riley said. “I was excited about how he started but just the beginning.”