For about four minutes last Thursday night, the then-No. 13 Trojans looked like they were in trouble.
They turned the ball over twice in their first two possessions, leading to a pair of Utah touchdowns. With 12:15 left in the first quarter, USC was already down 14-0.
Was USC coach Lane Kiffin going to be the victim of another tough road loss? Was senior quarterback Matt Barkley going to display that supposed lack of poise that plagued him in this season’s loss to Stanford?
The answer was a definitive “no.”
Barkley and the Trojans weathered the storm. They remained cool and collected on the sidelines.
Ask anyone who was at the game if they could find a look of distress on any of the Trojans’ faces. I guarantee that no one — not even senior center Khaled Holmes, who botched the snaps that led to Utah’s first 14 points — had any doubt.
I don’t believe the Trojans ever thought they were going to lose that game. Even when they were down 21-10, with the Utes’ student section at its loudest and the analysts preparing to dig USC’s Bowl Championship Series grave, the Trojans did not waver or appear the least bit concerned.
Never before had a two-touchdown deficit seemed so insignificant.
The tides began to turn on the first possession of the second quarter, when Barkley hit junior wide receiver Robert Woods across the middle on a crossing pattern. Woods made a few cuts and gained 41 yards.
A few plays later, USC notched the first of its many touchdowns of the game; it was a moment when every Utah fan fell silent.
Later, Barkley hit sophomore tight end Randall Telfer in the end zone on a fade route. Telfer caught the ball with one hand, making it look effortless. USC had reduced the gap, 21-17.
At that moment, even though they were still down, the game was over. USC was going to score as many points as it wanted, and there wasn’t going to be anything Utah could do.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard a louder crowd go so quiet in a three-second span as when Telfer caught that pass. All the energy the Utah faithful had when they went up by 14 was sucked out of the stadium.
For all of the criticism Barkley took for losing his composure in Palo Alto, he showed the opposite traits in this contest. He looked like the savvy veteran we all expect him to be after starting for three-plus seasons. He completed 23 of his 30 passes, threw no interceptions and made big plays when the team was down. He threw that momentum-changing pass to Telfer, converted big third downs and, of course, threw that 83-yard bomb to sophomore receiver Marqise Lee to give the Trojans a 31-21 lead. But Barkley wasn’t the only one who showed resiliency Thursday night.
Holmes, a team captain, rallied the offensive line, which was dominated by Utah’s defensive lineman Star Lotulelei during the opening part of the game.
Bad snaps and all, Holmes stayed composed and shut down Lotulelei to the point that his name wasn’t called after the first period. Holmes led a line that paved the way for 129 rushing yards and 303 passing yards on the day. They didn’t give up any sacks, either. It was a dominating performance by a unit that was heavily criticized after the Stanford loss. Unprompted by anyone, Holmes even apologized for his errors to his teammates after the game.
And then there was the defense.
The defense, which was put in terrible positions its first couple of times on the field, never caved. The unit did not blame its offense for its ineptitude or lack of ball security. Instead, they remained focused. It was the defense, led by junior cornerback Nickell Robey, which gave the Trojans their final score on the day — an interception return for a touchdown. The defense forced fumbles, put pressure on Utah quarterback Jon Hays and never hung their heads, despite the early deficit. They knew they were going to win, too.
For all of the bad things that could have happened during the game, the Trojans refused to let negative circumstances get the best of them. They did not play outside themselves and did not try to make plays where there weren’t any. They remained confident. The Trojans knew they were the better team; it was just a matter of making the scoreboard acknowledge it, too.
The victory against Utah taught me a lot about this USC squad. It’s a team that knows what it can do on both sides of the ball. It’s a team that remains confident despite things not always going their way. But most of all, the 2012 Trojans expect to win, even when the chips are down. There were no scared looks and no yelling among teammates. There was no desperation. There was only confidence. And as long as Barkley, Holmes and the defense retain their swagger, this team will be a force to be reckoned with come November and bowl season.
No 14-point deficits will ever change that.
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