For the second consecutive game this season, the USC defense came up with a stop when it mattered most.
After an overturned call gave Utah a first down, and a pass interference call moved the Utes into field goal range, Utah brought out the kicking unit to force the game into overtime. Utah kicker Coleman Peterson’s 41-yard attempt was blocked, however, by redshirt junior offensive tackle Matt Kalil and returned for a touchdown by redshirt sophomore cornerback Torin Harris, giving USC a 23-14 win in its Pac-12 opener at the Coliseum.
“I’m excited that it finished this way,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “I’m actually glad the way it happened at the end and I’m proud of our players.”
USC’s defense — a concern coming into the season — held Utah to just 81 yards rushing. USC’s running game, which was almost non existent last weekend, appeared re-energized with the play and return of senior running back Marc Tyler.
“Having a big back like him that can carry the ball all game like he can really helps us,” junior quarterback Matt Barkley said. “He runs the ball really hard. He’s a good back for us and I’m glad he’s back.”
Reinstated last week, Tyler had 24 carries for 113 yards and one touchdown.
“This is something that I dreamed about doing,” Tyler said. “To come back and [make] an impact to the team. I feel like I owed the team, the fans and the coaches.”
Last weekend USC elected to call a pass play more than 45 times of its 73 offensive possessions. On Saturday, the Trojans ran the ball 39 times and attempted 32 passes. Kiffin often elected to rely on the senior Tyler against a strong, experienced Utah front seven.
“I kind of thought it would be that type of game,” Kiffin said. “I thought it would probably be a Marc Tyler type of game, and especially with [redshirt freshman] D.J. Morgan putting the ball on the ground, it made it an easy choice to increase Marc’s carries.”
Tyler’s six-yard run with two minutes remaining in the first quarter gave USC a 10-0 lead, but like last weekend, Utah did just enough to hang around. Or rather, USC allowed the Utes to keep it within striking distance.
A Barkley interception at the Utah 21-yard line did not hurt the Trojans but Morgan’s fumble inside the red zone with just under seven minutes proved costly.
Junior quarterback Jordan Wynn led the Utes on a 12-play, 84-yard scoring drive, connecting with junior wide receiver DeVonte Christopher on a 10-yard pass to cut the USC lead to 10-7 heading into halftime.
The USC defense limited Utah to just 152 yards of total offense in the first half, but 84 of those yards came on Utah’s four-minute scoring drive.
Despite finishing scoreless in the second half of last weekend’s season opener, USC responded right away on its first possession of the second half against the Utes. Barkley orchestrated a seven-play, 88-yard drive, finding freshman tight end Xavier Grimble for a 9-yard strike to extend the USC lead to 17-7.
As had been the case in the first half, however, USC would turn the ball over again on its next possession. This time, Grimble fumbled the ball, giving Utah field position at the USC 48-yard line with another chance to capitalize and cut into the lead.
Two plays later, the Utes cut into the Trojans’ lead on junior John White IV’s one-yard touchdown run.
As in last week’s season opener against Minnesota, the USC offense appeared to fall out of rhythm in the second half. After the Grimble touchdown, the Trojans failed to score in the last 24 minutes of the game, leaving the door open for Utah to take advantage.
“We had so many chances to put the game away, but our defense won the game for us,” Barkley said. “They were lights out.”
Two sacks — one by redshirt freshman linebacker Hayes Pullard and one by junior defensive end Nick Perry — halted Utah offensive drives on third-down plays in the fourth quarter. The USC defense limited the Utes to just 5-of-15 on third-down conversions, a stat it struggled with a year ago when it allowed opposing offenses to convert on 44 percent of third-down conversions.
“We got a really good effort from our defense,” Kiffin said. “There are so many questions about this team’s ability to finish. For us to go out there and keep stopping them really gives us something to build on.”
Pac-12 and USC officials changed the score from 17-14 to 23-14 more than two hours after the end of the game, ruling Harris’ touchdown would stand after it was initially negated by an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the USC sideline.
Next Saturday, USC hosts Syracuse at the Coliseum at 5 p.m.