Motivated USC Beats No. 3 Utah By Going Back to the Basics

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All week long, the talk surrounding the USC-Utah game was how absurd the betting line was in Las Vegas. The Trojans opened as 3.5 point favorites last Sunday, and were six-point favorites by kickoff.

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It was absurd, because coming off of a blown fourth quarter lead to Notre Dame, and playing without starting left tackle Chad Wheeler, it appeared that USC had a steep uphill battle against No. 3 and undefeated Utah.

The Utes entered the game with the ninth-ranked defensive line in terms of causing havoc, and the Pac-12’s best defense against the run.

They were big, physical and primed to eat the Trojans’ wounded offensive line alive.

They were also one of the nation’s best at forcing other teams to make mistakes, with the country’s second-best turnover margin per game.

But on a night when USC lost yet another starting center –Toa Lobendahn left the game with a knee injury– the team rallied behind the fundamentals and beat Utah at their own game, 42-24.

They did so by pounding the football on the ground. That kept quarterback Cody Kessler’s game within his skill set and the pressure off of the line.

Credit to the whole team, the offense went well, and the defensive line played the best they’ve ever played.-Cam Smith

Defensively, they were aggressive, which allowed them to take it to Utah by forcing them into mistakes and capitalizing.

It all started when Utah quarterback Travis Wilson threw a pair of second quarter interceptions to true freshman linebacker Cam Smith. It led to 14 points off of turnovers to give the Trojans a bevy of confidence, following a 21-0 second quarter run.

“Any time a big play happens, the whole team feels it,” Smith said. “Credit to the whole team, the offense went well, and the defensive line played the best they’ve ever played.”

Throughout the night, USC’s front seven found a way to cut off Utah’s strong run game, holding the vaunted Devontae Booker to just 62 yards.

That forced Wilson into throwing on passing downs, with the Trojans able to penetrate the Utes’ offensive line and establish pressure.

Oct 24, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California inside linebacker Joel Foy (51) celebrates after a touchdown during the second quarter against the Utah Utes at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

“A lot of the credit goes to [defensive coordinator] Justin Wilcox,” Clay Helton said. “He said we’ve got to take Booker out of the game and force the passing game. We have a lot of respect for that kid. To be able to shut it down down and get into the passing game, we thought that was to our advantage.”

It was. USC had just three sacks, but the Utes were continuously held to low-percentage plays in the passing game, as Wilson was forced out of the pocket, with hurried decisions.

“The defensive line did great,” Kessler said. “But the momentum changed and what Cam [Smith] did tonight won us the game.”

Smith would add insult to injury with a third interception of Wilson in the fourth quarter, becoming the first Trojan with three picks since Jason Oliver did it against Penn State in 1991.

With the interceptions in tow, USC was able to play an offensive game that they should have relied on a long time ago. And really, it was one that Kyle Whittingham’s Utah team has mastered.

They established a timely running game and never let a dire situation dictate their plan of attack, all while playing their most physical game of the year.

In a lot of ways, USC did the opposite of what cost them against Notre Dame last week.

“What really got us mad and focused on the run game was that the media was saying that it’s all about the front line,” JuJu Smith-Schuster said. “We decided to run the ball down their throat and that’s what we did tonight. It opened up the passing game.”

Open up the passing game it did, all thanks to the backfield talent.

Ronald Jones II had perhaps the most vital game of his young career, running for 73 yards on a career-high 15 carries. One of those was a go-ahead touchdown midway through the second quarter.

But while the running game was impressive despite a meager 2.58 yards per carry average, it was how the Trojans used it to their advantage that was key.

Kessler found targets in the flats to spread out the Utah defense, handed off to Jones and Justin Davis when he needed to, and managed a mistake-free game despite a pass rush was every bit as good as advertised.

Put it all together and USC was able to win on Saturday night by exercising their offensive demons. They finally finished.

Oct 24, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California tailback Ronald Jones II (25) scores a touchdown as Utah Utes defensive back Marcus Williams (20) attempts to tackle during the second quarter at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

That featured a pair of long, hard-fought scoring drives in the second half to kill off the game. One of those was of the 17-play, 83 yard variety, capped off by converting on 4th and goal at the half yard line.

While the Trojans may have had the game already done and dusted entering the fourth quarter, it was their final scoring drive that took the weight of the world off of Kessler’s shoulders, following last week’s late game meltdown.

USC dialed up the play-action pass twice to Smith-Schuster after establishing the run, with one last dagger being a 25-yard strike to stretch the lead to a game-high 25 points.

The Trojans never doubted themselves though. They knew the circumstances.

Though they’d win by a margin of 18 after a late Utah touchdown, the team that everyone doubted to cover an unwarranted six-point spread beat what was considered to be an undefeated juggernaut emphatically.

The Trojans never doubted themselves though. They knew the circumstances. They knew that a loss would have essentially sealed up the Pac-12 South division for Utah.

“We knew we could not lose this game,” defensive back Chris Hawkins said after the game. “Coach Helton had been saying that all week, ‘losing is not an option tonight.'”

The Trojans came through as they have against both Pac-12 South foes this year, and now are a Utah loss away from controlling their own destiny.

For a team left for dead multiple times this year, that’s a fortunate place to be in. And a well-earned one at that.