The Trojans opened their matchup against the Utes strong, taking a 14-point lead early in the game. But USC slowly let the lead slip out of its hands, allowing 34 unanswered points throughout the first three quarters in a 41-28 loss at Utah on Saturday.
“I love their effort. I’m going to put everything on me, as far as performance,” head coach Clay Helton said. “My job as head coach is to make sure we’re performing at a high level, and we didn’t do go enough to win the football game.”
The loss has serious Pac-12 implications for the Trojans, as they will now need to rely on a Utah conference loss in order to have a chance to win the Pac-12 South.
“We have a three-horse race right now with three teams sitting at the top [with Utah and Colorado],” Helton said. “We have no time to feel sorry for ourselves.”
USC lost freshman quarterback JT Daniels to a possible concussion in the fourth quarter, with redshirt sophomore quarterback Matt Fink playing the last several series. Fink was able to put together some offensive production, throwing for 43 yards and one touchdown.
Quarterback coach Bryan Ellis took some of the responsibility for Daniels’ struggles,
“We’re doing this as a team together,” Ellis said. “When we can’t run, we have to throw it. And if we can’t throw, we have to be able to run. That’s part of being a football team. I think we have a lot to correct, and it starts in the quarterback room, and it starts with me first.”
The second half showed a USC defense that ran out of gas after a tough first 30 minutes. The Utah offense was able to march down the field drive-after-drive to continuously put up points. The offensive pressure started with the very first drive, resulting in a touchdown to extend the Utes’ lead to 27-14. Utah maintained control throughout the second half to close out the win.
“I thought we put a lot of stress on our defense,” Helton said. “Early, we get up 14-0 which is exactly where wanted to be, and then made some mistakes that allow Utah to get back in it and get back in their game to be able to run play-action rather than a drop-back pass.”
USC’s offense was stagnant after a 14-point first quarter. The lack of production forced the defense to spend an increasing amount of time on the field, which allowed the Utes to lay into the Trojans. The USC offense recorded just 73 rushing yards and 132 passing yards compared to Utah, which nearly tripled the Trojans with 200 on the ground and 341 through the air, despite USC recording its most sacks in a game (five) since UNLV.
“I got to look at the tape and talk about tonight. We had some times when we had successful runs. [Sometimes] we couldn’t bounce around. They were too fast, too physical to dance,” offensive coordinator Tee Martin said. “It was going to be a tough, grind-it-out running game, we knew that. But they were able to slow us down and play Cover 2. We haven’t had a night like that since Alabama in 16.”
Senior linebacker Cam Smith, who sat out last week with a hamstring injury, was not listed as a starter but came in on USC’s first defensive drive. He left the game not long after.
The Trojans first scored after a fourth-and-one stop by junior defensive end Christian Rector to grant the offense great field position. A face mask penalty against Utah advanced the Trojans to the 34-yard-line. After nearly being sacked for a big loss, Daniels completed a 34-yard touchdown pass to junior wide receiver Michael Pittman, which slipped through the hands of two Utah defenders.
Apart from that drive, deep completions were notably missing from the Trojan offense.
“You can’t just go into a game and say, ‘do this’ when you don’t know what they’re going to play,” Martin said. “You go in planning for all the different coverages, all the pressures, things of that nature when you see what they’re going to do. Tonight was a night where another team again comes in and totally changes their character to defeat what they felt was the strength of our offense.”
On the ensuing drive, USC’s pass rush was too much for junior quarterback Tyler Huntley to handle, as junior inside linebacker John Houston stripped the ball. Redshirt freshman defensive tackle Jay Tufele recovered the ball and scored a 48-yard touchdown to add to the Trojans’ early lead.
The Utes quickly responded with a 46-yard touchdown pass to sophomore wide receiver Britain Covey after a missed tackle by senior cornerback Ajene Harris.
That solid defense was lost halfway through the second quarter as a missed sack from Rector allowed the Utes to break into the red zone and score a touchdown at the hands of Huntley on an run-pass option that the Trojans couldn’t handle. This granted the Utes a 17-14 lead.
The last two drives of the first half ended in field goal attempts, with USC missing its attempt and the Utes adding another 3 points to close the first half with a 20-14 lead.
The Utes’ solid rush defense held the Trojan running backs to just 88 yards. None of USC’s three running backs were able to break 50 yards. The lack of a running game paired with a struggling passing game proved to be detrimental to USC’s offense.
“We were trying to apply pressure, we ran as hard as we could, and the O-line giving it their all,” sophomore running back Stephen Carr said. “Their defense was applying a lot of pressure, but they just had the upper hand.”
If USC wants to secure a spot in the Pac-12 Championship, it will need help even if it wins the remainder of its games. USC will return to the Coliseum with a 4-3 record to face Arizona State on Saturday at 12:30 p.m.