This time, there was no fourth-quarter drama.
After two weeks of late-game comebacks and last-second wins, USC took a 13-point lead into the fourth quarter and coasted to a 33-17 win over Utah on Saturday night.
There were questions coming into the game as to whether Utah having not played a game this season would benefit more the Utes or the Trojans. As it turned out, the Utes first-game sloppiness far outweighed any advantage they might have had in being able to study film of USC’s first two games.
USC forced five turnovers, including two fumbles and three interceptions, as the Trojans defense held the Utes to 335 total yards and zero points in the second half.
“I thought the execution defensively was phenomenal,” head coach Clay Helton said. “I thought they played with swagger and with tremendous emotion.”
USC’s offense wasn’t exactly clicking, but quarterback Kedon Slovis threw the ball much better than he did against Arizona, and the Trojans actually found a bit of a running game against the Utes. The 93 yards on the ground is a far cry from the 165-170 that Helton has as a target for the Trojans, but it’s a huge improvement over the 13 rushing yards USC posted against Utah last season. With Markese Stepp (pectoral) and Stephen Carr both injured, Vavae Malepeai led the way and finished with 62 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries.
Slovis completed 24-of-35 passes for 264 yards and two touchdowns, but it was USC’s defense that led the way.
The Trojans knocked Utah starting quarterback Cameron Rising out of the game when he took a hard hit from defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu, who caused a fumble on the sack. No Utah player caught more than four passes and no Utah rusher ran for more than 38 yards.
USC linebacker Ralen Goforth led the team with 12 tackles, while Kana’i Mauga–starting in place of the injured Palaie Gaoteote–had 11 tackles. Mauga and the Tuipulotu brothers–Marlon and Tuli–each had a sack, while Drake Jackson, Talanoa Hufanga and Chris Steele recorded interceptions.
Mauga said the talk between the defensive players was that this game was going to be a bar fight.
“Basically what we did the whole game, took the fight to them,” Mauga said. “We gave more blows than we took and came out on top.”
Helton said he could feel the confidence radiating off of the defense. He said at one point in the first half he told that group to go get the football and bring it to him and sure enough, a couple plays later the Trojans wound up forcing a turnover.
“The defense up front was stellar,” Helton said. “It felt like we were playing in the backfield all night.”
In the season opener again Arizona State, USC needed a touchdown on fourth down with 1:20 left in the game to grab a win. Against Arizona last week, the Trojans scored with 25 seconds remaining to come out on top. Against Utah, USC kicked a field goal to tie the game 3-3 with 5:17 left in the first quarter and that was the last time the Trojans trailed.
Utah tied the game at 10 when linebacker Nephi Sewell picked up a Slovis fumble and took it 23 yards for a score early in the second quarter. But the Trojans went ahead 17-10 shortly thereafter, when Slovis found Tyler Vaughns for an 8-yard touchdown.
USC looked to have taken a commanding 24-10 lead on a touchdown pass from Slovis to tight end Erik Krommenhoek with 5:45 remaining in the first half. But Utah converted a 3rd-and-13 and a 3rd-and-4 on their way to a 75-yard touchdown drive to cut the USC lead to 24-17 going into halftime.
True freshman kicker Parker Lewis connected on three second-half field goals — from 24, 43 and 47 yards — giving him four made kicks for the game, to stretch the USC lead to the final margin.
For the second week in a row, USC’s defense did not allow a third-down conversion in the second half, and Utah was just 3-of-11 on third downs in the game.
This is USC’s first win against Utah in Salt Lake City since 2012, as the home team had won the past seven games in this series.
USC moves to 3-0 on the season and now holds the tiebreakers against both Arizona State and Utah in the Pac-12 South. The Trojans face Colorado this coming week in the Coliseum. Colorado is 2-0, having beaten UCLA and Stanford, but did not play this weekend as its game against Arizona State was canceled.