29 min Read

IMHO Sunday: Trojans give Utah a 33-17 cold shoulder

In my humble opinion, cardinal and gold thoughts on what I see, what I hear, and what I think from Los Angeles.

IMHO: On a late Salt Lake City Saturday night in frigid Rice-Eccles Stadium, USC Trojans fans were probably greatly disappointed that their beloved No.19 Trojans (3-0 overall, 3-0 Pac-12 South) managed a 33-17 Pac-12 South Division victory over Utah (0-1 overall, 0-1 Pac-12 South) only because it wasn’t yet another Indiana Jones cliffhanger, neurotic nail biter, coronary heartstopper, or a 2020 Clay Helton team special.

IMHO – Part 2: Nevertheless, the Trojans triumph in Salt Lake City sets up next Saturday’s Pac-12 South Division Coliseum showdown with undefeated Colorado (2-0 overall, 2-0 Pac-12 South Division) – yes, believe it or not, that Colorado and its first-year head coach Karl Dorrell. For historical purposes, the last time Dorrell coached against the Trojans was 2007, and Pete Carroll’s No. 8 Trojans smothered the Bruins, 24-7, and a week later Dorrell was fired. My how time flies when you’re having fun.

IMHO – Part 3: Getting back to Saturday night’s gridiron popsicle on a Rice-Eccles Stadium stick, you have to give the Trojans credit for getting the win at Utah under any circumstances. The Trojans victory snapped an 11-game opening home game winning streak under Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham, whose team showed its youth, inexperience, and lack of having played a game. Of course, committing five turnovers didn’t help either. Of course, one of the game’s highlights or lowlights was when in the third quarter ESPN lost its camera coverage. Those cameras didn’t come back until there was under a minute left in the third quarter. No scoring took place, but the ESPN announcers were doing the audio from their homes somewhere within the country and had to read the play-by-play through their earpieces. Such is the COVID-19 effect on game telecasts.   

In super cold Rice-Eccles Stadium, Trojans outside linebacker Drake Jackson (photo above) applies the heat to the Utah Utes offense. (Photo by John McGillen via USC Athletics)

IMHO – Part 4: So, the Men of Troy are now exactly where they were predicted to be at this time (3-0) – somewhat of an accomplishment considering Clay Helton’s past miracle wins over ASU and Arizona. However, what wasn’t taken into preseason account is that upcoming Pac-12 South opponents Colorado, Washington State, and UCLA would be as competitive as they are, thus foreshadowing that there’s still a long way to go before the Trojans win the South Division.

IMHO offensively: On Saturday night, the Trojans offense, under the direction of OC Graham Harrell, saw an inexperienced and rebuilt Utah defense get rolled up for 357 yards in total offense. Not that it was an earthshattering amount, but Utah prides itself on its defense and it only gave up three first half touchdowns. In the second half, the Trojans’ offense was held to just three Parker Lewis field goals. Harrell, who has been under intense scrutiny for the first couple of comeback wins, seemed to make an attempt to run the ball, although the Trojans ended up with just 93 yards rushing when the goal is a publicly announced 170 rushing per game. Senior back Vavae Malepeai ran with authority and smartly (62 yards/1 TD), but the Trojans were missing Markese Stepp (pectoral injury and didn’t dress) and Stephen Carr, who was knocked out of the game with a knee to the back. Sophomore speedster Kenan Christon showed some juice on one running play of 47 yards, but the Utes seemed to pay attention when Kenan was in the game.  

Trojans senior running back Vavae Malepeai (photo above – No. 29) kept the Utah defense honest. (John McGillen via USC Athletics)

As for the Trojans wide receivers, Tyler Vaughns had a nice game, and really schooled the Utah secondary for an 8-yard touchdown when for some reason the Utes decided to play man-to-man near the goal line. Vaughns was supported by fellow receivers Bru McCoy (66 yards) and Amon-Ra St. Brown (53 yards). As for the scrutinized Trojans’ offensive line, it saw the return of starting center Brett Neilon and held its own against the physical Utes, although Utah did sack Trojans quarterback Kedon Slovis (24 of 35 for 264 yds., 2 TD passes, and one interception) three times. Slovis looked better than he had in the previous two games, but he seems to still be finding his groove, which will be much needed in the final three regular season games. One last observation about Graham Harrell’s play-calling, he did have a statistically somewhat balanced offense in that the Trojans ran the ball 31 times and passed it 35 times. Additionally, Harrell deserves credit for getting the ball to a tight end, as senior Erik Krommenhoek hauled in three receptions (24 yds.)       

IMHO defensively: As for DC Todd Orlando’s defense, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham’s manly, big boy offense accounted for just 335 yards in total offense. Clay Helton was pleased afterward almost to the point of being overly giddy. He had a right to since Orlando’s defense shut out the Utes on the scoreboard in the second half. Like in previous weeks, the Trojans did not face a potent passing attack. Against Utah, the Trojans secondary was far superior than the Utah receivers. As it were, Utah ran the ball for just 119 yards and passed the ball for a not-so-impressive 216 yards. Part of the problem for the Utes was at quarterback. There seemed to be no rhythm or flow, although backup Jake Bentley seemed to be more effective against the Trojans defense (16 of 28 for 171 yds, 1 TD, 2 interceptions) than original starter Cameron Rising (3 of 6 for 45 yds).

You can bet that Trojans defensive coordinator Todd Orlando had to be pleased with the play of inside linebacker Ralen Goforth (photo above – No. 10) against the Utah offense. (Photo by John McGillen via USC Athletics)

The loss of Utah’s 2019 backfield of QB Tyler Huntley and tailback Zack Moss really showed, and Saturday was the first game for the Utes in 2020. It would be fair to say that the Trojans haven’t really faced a potent, balanced attack, but they might in the next three weeks. Special mention should go out to Trojans inside linebackers Ralen Goforth and Kana’i Mauga, who led the Trojans in tackles, and interior linemen Marlon and Tuli Tuipulotu, who both had a sack each, were really active as was Drake Jackson (1 interception), although the stats as a whole didn’t show it. Both safety Talanoa Hufanga and corner Chris Steele also had one interception each. One thing for sure, the defense is getting better and it should since this was the third game in Todd Orlando’s scheme.   

IMHO special teams: On a night that brought elements not conducive to special teams play, Trojans true freshman placekicker Parker Lewis was magnificent, hitting on all four field goal attempts (35, 24, 43, 47) and all three PAT attempts, and sophomore punter Ben Griffiths was not affected by the cold as his 43.8 average per punt would indicate. Ben had one punt of 50 yards. As for Utah, their special teams, placekicker Jadon Redding managed one field goal (36 yds.) while punter Ben Lennon averaged just 36.0 yards per punt on four attempts. The Trojans didn’t show much in punt returns or kickoff returns for that matter.   

Trojans true freshman placekicker Parker Kewis (photo above – No. 48) converted four field goal attempts against Utah on Saturday night in Salt Lake City. (Photo by John McGillen via USC Athletics)

Bottom Line: So now the Trojans head into the second half of their abbreviated six-game mini conference season at 3-0, which is where most of the media thought they’d be at this point. Now we’ll see if they can complete the deal and head to the Pac-12 title game.

Infirmary: RB Markese Stepp (DNP), ILB Palaie Gaoteote (DNP), RB Stephen Carr (back)

Game highlights: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_NGxBCljm2c  

Next Saturday: The Trojans return home to the Coliseum to host undefeated Colorado Buffaloes (2-0 overall, 2-0 Pac-12 South). Kickoff time is 12:30 p.m. PST and will be televised on ABC.

USC/Utah quotebook…

USC head coach Clay Helton comments: “To come out of here with a win, which was a big win for us, and for our season, I’m really proud of our kids. I thought the storyline tonight, one was our defense. I thought they played amazing the entire game, really only giving up 10 points themselves. We gave up seven points offensively. We had a goal in the second half coming out of the locker room that we did not want to allow another point, and, unbelievable. I thought the defense in the second half rallied and rallied and rallied, turnover after turnover, fourth-down stops…just did an amazing job. (LB) Kana’i (Mauga) coming in making the most of his opportunity, the playmakers in the back end getting the interceptions that they got, multiple sacks by the defensive front. I thought we got the quarterback off his spot all night.

Trojans head coach Clay Helton (photo above) had every reason to be happy with his defense against Utah on Saturday night. The USC defense didn’t allow a point in the second half.

The kicking game: “The other thing, I thought, that needs to be said and noticed was the kicking game. I thought the two specialists did an amazing job tonight. Parker Lewis really set coverage for us, in kick coverage, also with the field goals that he made and then Ben (Griffiths) just not allowing them the opportunity to get a return started. Our defense and our special teams, I thought, were stellar. Not on all cylinders offensively tonight but did enough to get it done and put enough points on the board to get the win.”
On the difference that allowed the progress shown tonight:
“I thought execution defensively was phenomenal. I thought they played with a swagger tonight and played with tremendous emotion. I think that we’re growing as a football team. To come into Salt Lake, where I know Kyle (Whittingham) had not lost an opener in the last 11 years…to come in here with the mindset that this team had, that we were going to do whatever it took to come out of here with a win, to get to 1-0 on the week and 3-0 on the season, I thought their mindset was an improvement from the last two weeks.”

Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham comments: “It was a disappointing game. A lot of positives, however, especially on the defensive side. Our defense played scrappy. The run defense was solid. We need to clean some things up in the pass game. But, really, we had some pretty good performances from a lot of the guys who hadn’t played much football for us, if any.”

Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham (photo above) knew his Utes would have a tough time against the Trojans because of his team’s youth and inexperience.

On defending the USC passing attack: “We made some plays. We had a nice interception there and could have probably had one or two other ones. We didn’t really give up any deep balls over the top. We played a lot of tri package with three safeties and two corners. The reason is that big receiver of theirs, Drake London, is really more like a tight end. So, we thought the best matchup was to go with that three safety look, which made Nephi Sewell a safety in the scheme for the majority of the game. That secondary will get better. It was a big test. That’s probably the best corps of receivers in the Pac-12.”

The Utah offense: “The thing we didn’t count on was not being productive on offense. We thought we’d be much more productive offensively. We have a veteran group. It’s tough to win games when you turn the ball over five times—one of those turnovers was a Hail Mary at the end—and only score 10 points offensively. You aren’t going to win many games in this league doing that.”

USC linebacker Kana’i Mauga on being physical with Utah: “It felt amazing. There was a lot of talk by our whole defense saying that we were going to be in a fight, and that’s basically what we did the whole game. We took the fight to them, gave more blows than we took, and came out on top.”

Trojans junior inside linebacker Kana’i Mauga (photo above – No. 26) was a physical force against Utah on Saturday night. (Photo by John McGillen via USC Athletics)

More Mauga on what was the biggest area they’ve improved from the first two games: “It’s basically stopping the run. That was our main goal. Utah had two running backs who are very powerful, and we just wanted to focus on stopping the run and making them air out the ball so our DBs can work. The amount of viciousness, I guess you could say. We were really getting after the ball and making sure that everyone on our defense was zeroed in when the game starts.”

USC QB Kedon Slovis on how he felt tonight, and his performance in general: “I didn’t think I had any issues throwing the ball. I don’t think I played very well as a whole. We left a lot of points on the board and that’s mostly because of my play, not being disciplined. I think if you see my play increase we will put up a lot more points and have a lot more success offensively.”

Trojans sophomore quarterback Kedon Slovis (photo above – No. 9) connected on two touchdown passes against Utah. (Photo by John McGillen via USC Athletics)

 More Slovis
on what he saw on the interception, how he shook that off, and the talk about his arm: “On the interception, it’s just a ‘four verts’ play that we run all the time…I think I was just kind of on a different page than Erik (Krommenhoek), but where he was running I thought he was going to take a different angle, but still it’s my fault with the interception. When they gave us that look I’ve got to just check it down or be smart with the football. It was just a careless throw. With all the chatter, I think if anything it motivates me to be on my best game. I thought this week we had a great week of practice offensively. I just want to see it carry over to the game.”

Utah LB Devin Lloyd on defending the Trojans Air Raid offense: “Their speed wasn’t too complex. They are really talented and trust their playmakers. They trust throwing it to them wherever on the field. They trust their quarterback. Running and passing, they weren’t doing anything too complex.”

Utah had a tough time trying to contain USC receivers like junior Amon-Ra St. Brown (photo above – No. 8). (Photo by John McGillen via USC Athletics)

More Devin Lloyd: “I felt like we were in sync most of the game. Near the goal line we had some mental mistakes. Other than that, we were able to rally back and have a better second half. But in that first half for sure, there were just some mental mistakes, especially near the goal line, that allowed big plays. Just missing some tackles, just little things.”

From the press box…

Pac-12 Weekend Results

Saturday – Nov. 21
USC 33, At Utah 17
At Oregon St. 31, Cal 27
At Washington 44, Arizona 13
At Oregon 38, UCLA 35
Arizona State at Colorado (cancelled due to COVID-19)
Washington State at Stanford (cancelled due to COVID-19)

Pac-12 Standings

South Division
USC……. 3-0
UCLA…… 1-2
Arizona St.0-1
Utah……. 0-1
Arizona…. 0-2

North Division
Oregon……….. 3-0
Washington St..1-1
Oregon St……. 1-2
California……. 0-2
Stanford………  0-2

Temperature: Salt Lake City’s temperature at kickoff was clear and 34 degrees.

Temperature – Part 2: Heading into the third quarter, the temperature was clear and 33 degrees.

Looking at the sidelines of Rice-Eccles Stadium (photo above), there was little question that folks were dressed for the low 30s temperatures. (Photo by John McGillen via USC Athletics)

Sign of the times: The official attendance was listed as “0”.

The scale: With the Trojans victory in Rice-Eccles Stadium, the Cardinal and Gold are now 3-4 playing in Salt Lake City and have broken a Utes three-game winning streak.

The prognosticators: Prior to the USC/Utah game, Saturday morning’s ESPN GameDay personalities Kirk Herbstreit, David Pollack, and Lee Corso all picked Utah to upset the Trojans because of their respect for Utes’ coach Kyle Whittingham. Desmond Howard picked the Trojans because it was Utah’s first game.  

Center of attention: Junior Brett Neilon returned to start at center after recovering from an ankle injury.

Recovering from an ankle injury, Trojans junior center Brett Neilon (photo above – No. 62) returned to start against Utah. (Photo by John McGillen via USC Athletics)

Ghost town:
Having covered a number of games at Rice-Eccles Stadium, it was eerie not seeing the stadium full of crazy and intense Utes fans. 

The streak:
With the Trojans win, the Men of Troy snapped Utah’s streak of having won their previous 12-straight season openers, dating back to 2008.

Battle of the Bulldogs: For those that care, former Trojans quarterback JT Daniels started for the Georgia Bulldogs on Saturday night against the Mississippi State Bulldogs and was 13 of 17 for 204 yards and two touchdowns in the first half, finishing the game with 28 of 38 for 401 yards and four touchdowns in leading Georgia to a 31-24 victory against Mississippi State.

Former Trojans quarterback JT Daniels (photo above) started for Georgia on Saturday night and threw for 401 yards and four touchdowns in a victory over Mississippi State.

FWIW: Tuesday will be the release date for the first College Football Playoff rankings.

Gentleman Clay: Officials from the Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year Foundation and Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl released its midseason watch list for the 2020 Dodd Trophy and Trojans’ head coach Clay Helton made the cut. The list includes 19 of the nation’s top college football coaches representing six conferences and celebrates the head coach of a team who enjoys success on the gridiron, while also stressing the importance of scholarship, leadership and integrity – the three pillars of legendary coach Bobby Dodd’s philosophy.

Good guy award: The JuJu Foundation announced this past week that Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver and former Trojans JuJu Smith-Schuster will provide more than 350 meals for seniors and families in need this Thanksgiving.

Former Trojans receiver great JuJu Smith-Schuster (photo above) is using his foundation to give out Turkey meals to the less fortunate during Thanksgiving.

The diploma: The 2020 Graduation Success Rate of USC student-athletes hit an all-time high for the seventh consecutive year, this year reaching 91%, according to data released on Nov. 17 by the NCAA. 

The post-game show numbers…

Tackling the issues: Against Utah, inside linebackers Ralen Goforth and Kana’i Mauga led the Trojans with 12 and 11 tackles, respectively.

Upward trend: Against Utah, the Trojans scored 33 points. Prior to the Utah game, the Trojans were averaging 31.0 points per game.

The Trojans offense and wide receiver Drake London (photo above – No. 15) racked up 33 points against Utah on Saturday night. (Photo by John McGillen via USC Athletics)

Downward trend: Against Utah, the Trojans allowed 17 points. Prior to the Utah game, the Trojans were allowing 28.5 points per game. 

Downward trend: Against Utah, the Trojans had 357 yards in total offense. Prior to the Utah game, the Trojans were averaging 527.0 yards on offense. 

Downward trend: Against Utah, the Trojans defense allowed 335 total yards in total offense. Prior to the Utah game, the Trojans were allowing 418.0 yards in total offensive yards per game.

The Trojans defense shut out the Utah offense in the second half, and one of the bright spots was true freshman defensive lineman Tuli Tuipulotu (photo above – No. 49). (Photo by John McGillen via USC Athletics)

Downward trend: Against Utah, the Trojans had 93 net yards rushing. Prior to the Utah game, the Trojans were averaging 174.0 rushing yards per game. 

Downward trend: Against Utah, the Trojans allowed 119 net rushing yards. Prior to the Utah game, the Trojans’ defense was allowing 208.0 rushing yards per game.

Downward trend: Against Utah, the Trojans had 264 passing yards. Prior to the Utah game, the Trojans were averaging 353.0 passing yards per game.  

Trojans tight end Erik Krommenhoek (photo above – No. 84) had three receptions against Utah on Saturday night. (Photo by John McGillen via USC Athletics)

Upward trend: Against Utah, the Trojans allowed 216 passing yards. Prior to the Utah game, the Trojans’ were allowing 210.0 passing yards per game.

Time of possession: The Trojans had the ball for 30:41 minutes while Utah had the ball for 29:19 minutes.  

Downward flag waving: Against Utah, the Trojans had five penalties for 49 yards while Utah had six penalties for 52 yards. Prior to the Utah game, the Trojans were averaging 84.5 penalty yards per game while Trojans opponents are averaging 57.0 penalty yardage per game.

One of the bright spots for the Trojans against Utah was the clean play of the USC secondary and the team in general when it came to a reduction in penalty flags often seen in previous games. Corner Olaijah Griffin (photo above – No. 2) signals that he just made a clean play on an incomplete pass. (Photo by John McGillen via USC Athletics)

The post-game call-in show:

Caller No. 1: GK, what was the most surprising aspect from Saturday night’s game at Utah?  

Caller No. 1, not to sound flippant, but that the game was actually played. Since Utah had not played a game since this abbreviated season started two weeks ago because of the virus, there was a lot of doubt whether the Utah game would be played. That being said, the Trojans were probably fortunate that given the near freezing weather, it didn’t snow. On top of that, the fact the Trojans were playing their third game in a row and this was Utah’s first game, had to factor into the game in terms of conditioning, depth, and execution. I guess timing is everything. However, it was a huge win, but the rest of the way is not a sure thing.   

Caller No. 2: Katzer, how do you see the final three games of the regular season playing out?

Caller No. 2, As mentioned, I have to say that Colorado, Washington State, and UCLA are no sure things, given what we’ve seen of the Trojans in the first three games. All three future opponents, which I have watched on TV, have the capability and desire to give the Men of Troy a run for their money. Anybody who thinks otherwise is seeing things I don’t see.  

The Trojans will have their hands full next Saturday in the Coliseum when undefeated Colorado (photo above) comes to Los Angeles for a Pac-12 South Division battle. (Photo by Laura Domingue)

Caller No. 3: Grego, are you concerned that Philip Riley, the four-star corner who switched his commitment to USC back in September after originally committing to Notre Dame, has flipped backed to Notre Dame?

Caller No. 3, I don’t think the word concerned is the proper word. I think that it’s more than that. There is no question in my mind the way the Trojans performed against ASU and then Arizona and all the negative TV comments regarding the Trojans coaching staff were devastating. It’s not something that USC fans didn’t agree with, but the words of announcers Gus Johnson and Joel Klatt pretty much summed up the Arizona situation. It shows that even in victory that winning ugly is being taken seriously by recruits. Will Riley be the last flip? Don’t bet on it.  

Caller No. 4: Mr. Greg, if you’ve watched Oregon, what are your thoughts?

Caller No. 4, from what I’ve seen of the Duckies, they will only get better. I know they barely escaped UCLA, but every team has a pivotal game. Oregon had a lot to replace on offense, but I like what I’ve seen in new quarterback Tyler Shough. He really handles the read option play well, runs swiftly, and has a good arm with field awareness. If the Trojans play Oregon in the Pac-12 title game, the Cardinal and Gold will be the underdog. I think the Oregon defense can really put pressure on the SC air game because the Ducks can apply an intense pass rush with their down linemen. And let’s not forget the last time Oregon played the Trojans in the Coli last season, the Quackers ran it up by a score of 56-24.   

The Trojans will be looking forward to playing the ranked Oregon Ducks (photo above) in the Pac-12 title game if the Men of Troy can win the South Division and the Ducks win the North Division.

Caller No. 5: Coach, what do you miss most because of COVID restrictions?

Caller No. 5, I think what I miss most is the freedom to do things that make my life pleasant. For example, I miss my annual spring trip to Disney World. It looks like I will also be missing my annual spring trip to Dodgers spring training in Arizona, which is a lot of fun. Speaking of the Dodgers, last season I missed being able to use my field box half-season tickets plan at Dodgers Stadium and following the Dodgers on some road games in San Diego and San Francisco. As far as the Trojans, I miss going to practice and traveling to the away games. All that being said, I don’t miss the worry of being in harm’s way (COVID). I have no desire to try and survive an event rather than being able to enjoy it.

The last word: A very special, safe, sane, and healthy Thanksgiving to you all.   

Greg Katz

Now entering his 59th season of either writing, broadcasting, or just plain watching USC football, WeAreSC columnist Greg Katz began his affiliation with the website back in 2001, introducing his well-received O/NSO (The Obvious/The Not So Obvious) column and later adding his respected IMHO Sunday opinion and tidbits column. Greg, a former ESPN.com college football columnist covering USC, is also a member of the Football Writer's Association of America. He is also known in Southern California as a professional public address announcer, having called the the 1996 Rose Bowl Game between USC and Northwestern. Greg also holds a master's degree in athletic administration and was a former varsity high school coach of 27 years.

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