SALT LAKE CITY — USC’s Thursday night game at Utah began inauspiciously for the visiting Trojans, who were making their first visit to Salt Lake City in 95 years. But they weathered the early onslaught, prevailing for a 38-28 victory.
“At the end of the day, as you go through your season, your team builds itself,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “Those things [adverse situations] are good. You don’t like them at the time, but if you can rally from them as we did and come back, it’s good.”
On the second play of the game with quarterback Matt Barkley in the shotgun formation, senior center Khaled Holmes bounced a snap. Though Barkley successfully fielded the football on the hop, Utah defensive end Trevor Reilly exploded into the backfield and wrestled the ball away from the senior signal caller, returning it eight yards for a touchdown.
Just moments later, on the fifth offensive play of the game, Barkley and Holmes muffed another snap exchange, this time under center, and Utah recovered the football. Two plays later, Utah quarterback Jon Hays completed an 11-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Kenneth Scott on a fade route over junior cornerback Torin Harris’ outstretched arms.
Just 2:45 into the first quarter, the stunned Trojans trailed 14-0.
“It was kind of a low point,” said Barkley. “It’s not how we wanted to start the game — to give the other team 14 points.”
Undeterred, USC mounted the furious comeback it couldn’t three weeks ago at Stanford, outscoring Utah 24-7 over the rest of the first half to seize a 24-21 lead at halftime.
“We did a lot better job as a staff today handling negative plays than we did last time on the road,” Kiffin said.
Sophomore tight end Randall Telfer’s spectacular one-handed 23-yard touchdown reception highlighted the offensive breakthrough, leaving a raucous Utah sell-out crowd momentarily silent and bringing the Trojans to just a four-point deficit, 21-17.
“It was a great job of pushing it out of the way and realizing there was nothing we could do about it,” Barkley said.
On Utah’s subsequent possession, junior cornerback Nickell Robey forced a fumble that junior defensive end Morgan Breslin recovered at the Utes’ 34-yard line. Though the receiver was initially ruled down before the fumble, the call was overturned after an officials review.
The Trojans took advantage of the Utes’ costly mistake, completing their drive with a six-yard touchdown pass to junior wide receiver Robert Woods — the final score of the half — for the second of Barkley’s three touchdown passes. On the evening, Barkley completed 23 of 30 passes for 303 yards.
“Going into the game, my two stats are to not turn the ball over and completions,” Barkley said. “Those were both evident today. I was happy with the completions, though I do feel like I could have put better placement on some of those balls. But overall, on the year, it was a good way to come back.”
Utah and USC played to a stalemate in the third quarter, but the Trojans began the fourth threatening at the Utes’ 32-yard line. USC couldn’t capitalize on the opportunity, however, as sophomore tight end Xavier Grimble dropped a surefire 27-yard touchdown pass in the end zone and sophomore kicker Andre Heidari missed his second field goal opportunity of the night, pushing the 44-yard chance right of the uprights.
The Trojans eventually broke through after a defensive three-and-out, with Barkley launching an 83-yard touchdown strike — the longest of his career — to sophomore wide receiver Marqise Lee, giving USC a 31-21 cushion. Lee finished with 192 receiving yards, nearly surpassing his season-high of 197 yards he posted in the season opener against Hawai’i.
“That’s something that goes through my head constantly,” said Lee when asked about his penchant for making big plays. “Even within the first two seconds of the game, I want to do anything positive to help my team — making big plays, making bog blocks or taking one-yard catches. That’s what I’m going to do.”
On Utah’s subsequent offensive possession, Robey clinched the victory with his first interception of the season, returning it 38 yards for a touchdown.
“It actually felt good to get some balls thrown my way,” said Robey. “Coach said just be patient, it’s going to be a long game, and then we just started feeling out the quarterback. They started running the same thing over and over again. I just felt it and got a pick-six.”
USC returns to action on Oct. 13 against No. 23 Washington for a 4 p.m. matchup at CenturyLink Field in Seattle.
— Freshman defensive tackle Leonard Williams earned his first career start for USC, supplanting redshirt freshman Antwaun Woods in the lineup.
— After undergoing minor knee surgery, sophomore running back D.J. Morgan ran for 46 yards on nine attempts for a 5.1 average per carry. His return to the lineup was critical, as senior running back Curtis McNeal appeared to suffer a head injury in the first quarter and never returned to the game.
— In other injury news, sophomore wide receiver George Farmer returned after missing consecutive games against Stanford and California. Farmer failed to record a reception. — Sophomore defensive end J.R. Tavai continues to be sidelined with an undisclosed injury and did not dress for the game.
— In a relatively sloppy contest, the two teams combined for 222 penalty yards on 27 penalties.
— USC tied the school record for consecutive games without being shut out at 186 (also occurred from 1967-83).
— With his six receptions, Woods moved into second place on the USC career receptions list.