USC’s defense leads the way against Utah as Trojans improve to 3-0

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USC linebacker Kana'i Mauga reacts after making a tackle during the first half Nov. 21, 2020, in Salt Lake City.
USC linebacker Kana’i Mauga reacts after making a tackle during the first half Saturday night in the Trojans’ 33-17 win at Utah. (Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

They started this strange season as unlikely conference contenders, elevated by virtue of a soft schedule, a star sophomore quarterback, and an ever-lingering sense of unrealized potential. They opened with two miracle comeback victories and the most unsettling unblemished record in college football.

But on Saturday night, the USC Trojans wouldn’t need an onside kick or a lucky tip or a star turn from Kedon Slovis to escape with a last-second, heart-stopping thriller. It was a far less fluky effort, built on stingy defense, that saw USC beat Utah 33-17 for its first win in Salt Lake City since 2012.

And for that unexpected reason, it was undoubtedly the Trojans’ most important victory of the season to date. USC (3-0) is halfway to an undefeated slate and doesn’t have to leave Los Angeles until a potential Pac-12 title game in late December. Even as skepticism remains, there’s no denying the fortunate road ahead.

That path to an unusual Pac-12 title was supposed to include one of its most challenging obstacles in Utah. Instead, it led to a team that looked the part of someone playing its first game of the season in late November, one that was forced to replace its quarterback, top running back, and nine starters on defense.

After weeks of USC paying for its own crushing mistakes, Utah (0-1) seemed keen on returning the favor. The Utes turned the ball over five times, handing USC opportunity after opportunity.

This time, USC obliged.

Linebacker Drake Jackson was the first to make a sloppy Utah offense pay, jumping in front of a screen pass in the first quarter for his first career interception. It was the start of a long day for new Utah quarterback Cameron Rising, who wasn’t publicly named the starter until the first snap on offense.

USC quarterback Kedon Slovis throws a pass during the first half against Utah on Nov. 21, 2020.
USC quarterback Kedon Slovis throws a pass during the first half against Utah on Saturday night. (Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

Rising was bailed out on that first turnover, as USC’s offense, again slow to start, went three and out. But on Utah’s next offensive snap, fate wouldn’t be so kind, as defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu burst through the line, hit the quarterback, and knocked the ball loose. Defensive end Connor Murphy recovered the ball at the four-yard line, putting USC in perfect position to extend a lead.

It was a strikingly similar scenario to where the Trojans found themselves last week, near the goal line against Arizona. USC reached the one-yard line, but was unable to convert and ultimately missed the field goal, completing one of the most inept sequences of its season so far.

This time, however, Vavae Malepeai burst through tacklers on second-and-goal and ended the suspense early.

There were other signs of growth. After watching its linebackers steamrolled in the run game over the first two weeks, USC held Utah, last year’s Pac-12 leader in rushing, to 119 yards on the ground. Ralen Goforth and Kana’i Mauga, two linebackers who had especially struggled early on, combined for 23 tackles, doing a lot of that work themselves.

USC had Utah’s quarterbacks on the run all night, as well, sacking Rising and his eventual replacement, Jake Bentley, three times and pressuring them far more, forcing errant throws throughout. Combined, the two quarterbacks were held to completing just 55% of their passes for only 216 yards.

Another Utah fumble on a botched handoff put USC in great position again. But this time, Slovis gave the ball right back on an errant pass, which was intercepted by Nephi Sewell at the Utes’ 13-yard-line.

Again, Slovis struggled to stay sharp throughout. He missed several open receivers and threw into compromising situations more than once. He still finished with 264 yards on 24-for-35 passing, but it was clear for the third straight week that the sophomore quarterback isn’t yet entirely on his game.

So, USC leaned on its ground game, in spite of the fact that its last two meetings with Utah yielded only 86 yards on 53 attempts.

Malepeai finished with a team-leading 62 rushing yards. But it was sophomore speedster Kenan Christon who keyed a huge drive with a 47-yard run.

By that point, USC had started putting the game away via field goals. The Trojans kicked three in the second half, finally putting their foot on the gas, leaving their next miraculous comeback for another week.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.