The great Southern California teams were known for their confidence. On the road against Utah, these Trojans took another step toward restoring the program’s past glory.
“We played with a swagger tonight, especially on defense,” coach Clay Helton said.
Kedon Slovis threw for two touchdowns and No. 20 USC smothered Utah in a 33-17 victory Saturday.
Slovis completed 24 of 35 passes for 264 yards for USC (3-0, 3-0 Pac-12), but the Trojans’ defense took centerstage, forcing five turnovers to stay undefeated and move into pole position for the Pac-12 South title.
“All week, our guys talked about playing like this was a bar fight. We played with a lot of viciousness and everyone was zeroed in,” linebacker Kana’I Mauga said.
USC’s game plan from the outset was to stop Utah’s ground game.
“At all costs, stop the run,” Helton said. “Once we did that, our pass rush forced throws that were interceptions, got sacks and fumbles. We were in the backfield all night.”
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Utah (0-1, 0-1) was the final major conference team to make its 2020 debut after coronavirus cases scuttled its first two scheduled games of an already-delayed season.
The long layoff didn’t do the Utes any favors as they made critical errors and couldn’t get any rhythm going on offense. Consistent quarterback pressure by the Trojans and a rugged rush defense had a lot to do with that.
“I thought we’d be much more productive offensively with the veterans we have there. Our O-line didn’t take control or push people around like we expected,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said.
Cameron Rising, a Texas transfer, made his first start for Utah but threw an interception in the first quarter and then was strip-sacked by Marlon Tuipulotu for his second turnover and got injured on the play. Vavae Malepeai scored on a short run one play later to give USC a 10-3 lead.
Jake Bentley, a graduate transfer from South Carolina, replaced Rising but was often off target. After two negative-yard drives and misfires on his first four passes, Bentley used a 33-yard run to spark the Utes’ offense and capped the first half with a 7-yard touchdown strike to Samson Nacua. USC led 24-17 at halftime.
The USC defense, led by Ralen Goforth’s 12 tackles and Mauga’s 11 stops, harassed Bentley and kept Utah scoreless in the second half. After two comeback wins, USC’s first victory in Salt Lake City since 2012 ended without much drama.
“The confidence was just radiating, so I even said, ‘Go get the ball and bring it to me.’ Two plays later, they got the turnover and handed me the football,” Helton said.
In the second half, USC engineered three drives that concluded in Parker Lewis field goals. The defense did the rest.
The Trojans didn’t look particularly polished themselves and didn’t have a bevy of offensive fireworks. Maxs Tupai sacked Slovis, and Nephi Sewell scooped up the fumble and took it 23 yards for Utah’s first touchdown.
“I need to execute better. We left a lot of points on the board,” Slovis said.
Slovis hit Tyler Vaughns for an 8-yard score after a 42-yard completion to Vaughns that finally got the Trojans’ offense rolling.
On a run-pass option, Slovis threw a 10-yard touchdown to Erik Krommenhoek for a 24-10 lead.
The Utes have annually featured one of the Pac-12’s top defenses, but they had to replace nine defensive starters from last season. Surprisingly, it was the lack of offense that scuttled any upset bid.
USC snapped Utah’s 11-game home winning streak.
“Nothing feels regular this year,” Whittingham said.
After winning their first two games by a combined five points, USC’s 16-point victory will look good to voters and the Trojans should rise in the rankings.
UPDATE: The Trojans rose one spot in the most recent AP rankings to No. 19.
USC: The defense looked stout. The offense still hasn’t reached its potential and the unit struggled to run the ball, but the passing of Slovis was plenty good enough. USC has two home games and a visit to crosstown rival UCLA remaining, setting up the Trojans for a big finish to this shortened season. “We will hit on all cylinders someday soon and I look forward to it,” Helton said.
Utah: The Utes were worried about a really young defense, but the offense’s inability to move the ball and the five turnovers doomed Utah. “We knew it was going to take some time with this young group but we hope it will come soon,” Whittingham said.
Southern California: Hosts Colorado next weekend.
Utah: Plays at Arizona State next weekend.