As the band boomed the Fight Song for the final time of the night, senior wide receiver De’Quan Hampton clambered up the director’s ladder and shoved the sword in his left fist into the air.
Hampton bobbed up and down, shimmying and bouncing to the beat. On the field, his teammates cheered for him — “Yeah, ‘Quan! Get it, man!”
It lasted for a minute, this moment in the spotlight. But for a transfer senior who’s seen little of the field and even less of the endzone, it was a moment to soak in. And after a 36-14 victory of UCLA — which he could take 12 points worth of credit for — Hampton was loving every second of it.
“It was amazing,” Hampton said. “It felt like a dream.”
Hampton’s role this season had been fairly secure — playing back-up behind the talented wide receiver unit of junior JuJu Smith-Schuster and senior Darreus Rogers, scrapping for minutes where he could get them. In the first 10 games of this season, he snagged four catches for a total of 22 yards, ranking 12th in team receiving yards behind redshirt sophomore Jalen Greene.
But the UCLA game — like all rivalry games, tempestuous and unpredictable — called for a hero. And for three plays and a handful of minutes, Hampton became that player for the Trojans.
It takes a perfect combination of variables to create a breakout game. For Hampton, that was a hip flexor and his quarterback’s trust.
Smith-Schuster was hurting from the first drive of the game. He roped in a 28-yard catch to bring the Trojans to the 1-yard line, and sophomore running back Ronald Jones punched it in to tie the game with a typical USC offensive play.
But in the second quarter, redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold threw an interception and Smith-Schuster, favoring his hip, limped into the locker room. The Bruins scored off a 7-yard touchdown pass, and suddenly the Trojans were trailing 14-7 in their rival’s home stadium.
They needed someone to step up, and Hampton did it in style.
He touched the ball three times in total, despite coming second behind Smith-Schuster in receiving yards for the game. But those three touches changed the momentum of the final game of conference play.
The first time, Hampton ran his route down the left side of the field, stutter stepped, then lept into the air and snatched the ball from over the outstretched arms of his defender. Hampton had 6 inches on his defender, but the lofted toss required trust from Darnold that his receiver could make the play.
For Darnold, it wasn’t hard to trust Hampton.
“[Our coaches] really preach giving our guys a chance when they have one-on-one coverage,” Darnold said. “I think you’re never wrong throwing it to a guy one-on-one, especially when he’s in the position [Hampton] was. I always feel great throwing it up to them.”
His second touch was a simple 6-yard pass that happened to be in the end zone, and happened to put the Trojans up 30-14 in a momentum-swinging third quarter. And the third was a 14-yard catch for a first down at the 50-yard line. Together, the three plays doubled Hampton’s season yardage.
For head coach Clay Helton, this type of break-out play is necessary for the team to continue the success of their seven-game winning streak.
“You have kids who have just been dying for their opportunity and they made the most of it,” Helton said. “That’s what a team is. You hope that when one guy goes down, another one has prepared himself to make those types of plays.”
Saturday’s success was a welcome change for Hampton. Last year, he expressed frustration with the one-track focus of former quarterback Cody Kessler, who completed three times as many passes to Smith-Schuster than to any other receiver.
It was a long season for Hampton. He had transferred from Long Beach Community College as a junior and caught the ball only 15 times in his first year as a Trojan, and this year was going even more slowly until the game against UCLA. But Hampton said that after this year, he trusted that he would have his moment.
“I didn’t doubt it, because I’ve seen chances come for other players,” Hampton said. “So I just say that means just keep grinding, because my chance might come this game or the next or the next. I just have to be ready.”
When that moment came, he was an easy guy to cheer for, Darnold said. He describes the senior as a “goofy guy,” the type to lead dance parties on and off the field, cheering on his teammates from the sideline no matter how many minutes he played.
The party in the Rose Bowl ended eventually, with Trojan fans booming out chants and singing along to “Tusk” as UCLA fans trickled out of the stands. After the final notes of the Fight Song rang out, Hampton climbed down from the ladder, joining his teammates in the locker room and basking in a flock of reporters’ cameras and recorders pressed into his face.
That might be it for his moment. As a senior, he’ll have one, at most three, games left with the team. But if that’s the note he ends on — two touchdowns and a rivalry win — well, that’s just alright with him.
“It was worth the wait,” Hampton said. “As much frustration as I had being in the position I was, waiting for the opportunity, when it came it’s all worth it.”