USC's Hunter Echols Apologizes for Possible Late Hit on Steven Montez

Adam Maya

USC linebacker Hunter Echols briefly knocked quarterback Steven Montez out of Friday's game at Colorado. Montez and the Buffaloes were never the same afterward.

BOULDER, Colo. -- There was a host of what-ifs that broke USC’s way on offense in Friday’s 35-31 win at Colorado. The single-most affecting play of the game was likely made on defense, by linebacker Hunter Echols.

Late in the third quarter, the Trojans' outside linebacker pressured and knocked down quarterback Steven Montez as he threw incomplete, forcing a Colorado punt. Montez’s head smacked the surface hard after what appeared to be a late hit, which Echols acknowledged afterward when asked if he got away with one in an off-camera interview.

“I probably did, I probably did,” Echols said.

The USC sophomore guessed that the official might have missed the call because Colorado was called for an illegal block downfield a second prior to his takedown of Montez. He then asked sincerely whether he should have been called for roughing the passer or targeting.

“I’m not a dirty player,” he said. “I don’t intend to do anything dirty so if that was a dirty hit, I apologize. But I’m just out here playing for my team and for my coaches.”

Montez went to the locker room to be evaluated for a concussion but was cleared to return at the beginning of the fourth quarter after missing just one play. The dual-threat that had cut up the USC defense all night didn’t resurface, however. 

Here’s a look at Montez’s numbers before and after the hit:

  • First three quarters: 23 of 32, 284 yards, 3 TDs, 49 rushing yards, 1 TD, no sacks
  • Fourth quarter: 4-11, 40 yards, minus-4 rushing yards, 1 sack

The Buffaloes’ senior QB has been prone to bouts of inconsistency throughout his career, but perhaps never more so in the course of a half. He led consecutive touchdown drives prior to the punishing blow from Echols, with his 17-yard scamper on the previous drive giving Colorado a 10-point lead. Montez had also linked up with wide receiver Laviska Shenault nine times for 172 yards and a score before he went down, but not once after.

The Buffaloes as a whole were shut out in the fourth quarter. After collecting 490 yards through three quarters, they registered just two first downs and punted three times. Colorado turned the ball over on downs on its final possession when Montez hit running back Alex Fontenot short of the sticks on fourth-and-5.

Clay Helton said his defense did a better job of keeping Montez in the pocket and stopping third downs, while D-line coach Chad Kauha’aha’a pointed to a couple adjustments to USC's run defense. The Buffaloes earned 6.8 yards per carry heading into the fourth quarter but gained only five yards on six carries thereafter, losing 12 on their lone sack allowed.

Of course, USC’s defensive turnaround might have been a byproduct of a shaken-up Montez, who’d been the best player on the field on either team until his brief exit. From his movements to his decision-making, he looked like a dramatically different player in the final frame. Given his postgame comments, maybe he shouldn’t have returned to the game following the fateful hit.

“I don’t really remember the play too much,” Montez said, per Colorado’s official quote sheet. “I went and kind of rolled, and then I remember kind of just being tackled, going down. And then I just kind of remember people standing around me, but I went to go get checked out in the training room. And I passed the concussion protocol test. And so they’re just like, alright, you’re good, if it gets any worse, let us know and we’ll check you again. But I was just like, I have to get back out there. 

"This is crunch time right here. I can’t be sitting in the training room, so I tried to go finish the game.”

-- Adam Maya is a USC graduate and has been covering the Trojans since 2003. Follow him on Twitter @AdamJMaya.