It's probably a stretch to describe one practice as a make-or-break situation for a player, but USC running back Joe McKnight apparently views today's workout that way.
McKnight, who did not play in two of the last three games because of a toe injury, said Wednesday that his main goal for the week was getting through today's workout.
If he can do so without aggravating his toe, he will play Saturday against California at the Coliseum.
"I'm going to avoid people's feet and just try to run around them," McKnight joked after practicing at full speed without incident.
McKnight has been slowed by turf toe since rushing for a career-best 143 yards in 11 carries against Arizona State. He did not play against Washington State and played sparingly against Arizona.
McKnight appeared to be back at full strength and on track to play against Washington when he aggravated the injury while carrying the ball in practice last Thursday. McKnight did not suit up for the Trojans' 56-0 victory.
Despite his frustration, McKnight allowed that there has been an upside to the inactivity.
"It gave me some time to heal some nicks and get back to 100%" he said.
Now, McKnight is eager to rejoin a tailback rotation that has lately consisted of junior Stafon Johnson, who had his best all-around game against Arizona, and sophomore C.J. Gable, who rushed for 108 yards and two touchdowns against Washington.
Johnson also has performed well as a punt-return specialist, a job McKnight lost because of fumbling problems before he was injured. McKnight has worked at length catching punts in practice and is hoping for another opportunity.
"Stafon did good," McKnight said, adding he might have a chance at reclaiming the role, "If I get in there and catch the ball and score."
Coach Pete Carroll said he was hoping to give McKnight an opportunity last week against Washington, but the plans were scrapped by the sophomore's setback in practice.
"I believe in him as a punt-return guy," Carroll said. "But we love what Stafon has done. He's given us great ball security, which is what we're looking for, and he's shown he can be a threat bringing the ball back."
A USC defense ranked fifth nationally against the run might have its hands full against Cal.
Sophomore running back Jahvid Best averages 105 rushing yards, second in the Pacific 10 Conference behind Oregon State's Jacquizz Rodgers. Best averages nearly seven yards a carry and has scored six touchdowns. He also has caught 21 passes and averages a conference-best 31.6 yards per kickoff return.
Redshirt freshman Shane Vereen averages 5.5 yards a carry and nearly 70 yards a game.
USC is giving up 84 rushing yards a game.
Carroll compared Best to McKnight.
"They have kind of a manner about the way they run that's similar," Carroll said. "[Best] can certainly score from anywhere on the field. Shane Vereen is really good too. A 1-2 punch that's really fast."
Nose tackle Averell Spicer (ankle) did not practice but did a few running drills on the sideline. It is doubtful that he will play against Cal. . . . Tight end Blake Ayles (knee) did not practice and also is doubtful for Saturday's game. . . . USC has not lost to Cal at the Coliseum since 2000, when the Golden Bears won 28-16.