Despite playing with an injury-depleted roster, USC defeated Utah 19-3 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum behind a dominant defensive performance. The Trojans forced four turnovers and limited the Utes to just 201 yards of total offense.
Heading into Saturday’s game, the team adopted the mantra “Step up” in response to its growing list of injured players. Several backups were forced into larger roles, and they seemed to embrace the team’s new philosophy.
“We weren’t going to blink,” interim head coach Ed Orgeron said about how the team responded to its numerous injuries. “We weren’t going to use it as an excuse. The words ‘Step up’ and ‘Compete’ were talked about.”
Junior defensive end J.R. Tavai, starting in place of senior outside linebacker Morgan Breslin, led the Trojans with 11 tackles and two sacks. Redshirt sophomore linebacker Anthony Sarao was tied for second on the team with nine tackles on the day while starting in place of junior linebacker Lamar Dawson, who was injured during practice and will miss the remainder of the season.
“If you come to USC, you know you can’t have a drop-off [from starters to backups],” Sarao said. “We have a lot of people down, so the backups have to step up because we don’t have depth.”
As if the team’s injury woes could not get worse, the list of players dealing with injuries grew longer during Saturday’s game. Freshman safety Su’a Cravens suffered a strained groin after intercepting a pass near the end of the second quarter, leaving the Trojans with few options to replace him with. Redshirt junior safety Dion Bailey, who had originally been ruled inactive for the game with a foot injury, changed from street clothes into uniform in the locker room at half time and played the entire second half.
“That’s just family,” redshirt junior defensive back Josh Shaw said. “We really didn’t have another [option], so Dion told coach that he was ready and he suited up and went to war with us.”
Bailey’s return saved USC from being forced to use yet another walk-on during the second half, though he was admittedly less than full strength while playing on Saturday.
“I’m nowhere near ready to play at the level I see myself playing at on a normal basis,” Bailey said. “I can barely run, so nobody expected me to play at all.”
Safety Leon McQuay III was another player forced into a starting role against Utah, and the freshman did not disappoint. In his first career start, McQuay had three tackles and an interception, taking advantage of his first opportunity at consistent playing time.
“That guys is a great player,” Shaw said. “For the next three or four years, the Trojan nation should be very excited with the play of Leon McQuay. The guys is a freak, he can do it all. He’s just got it.”
After forcing just two turnovers in its past five games, the USC defense forced four against Utah, with three interceptions and one fumble recovery. Unlike the team’s last game against Notre Dame, the Trojans’ offense was able to capitalize on its good field position, with three scores in four red zone opportunities, though touchdowns remained scarce on Saturday.
“We’re going to watch film and fix it,” Orgeron said. “I thought the offense did some tremendous things today about putting the ball in the red zone. When we watch the film, in the red zone, there will be things that we have to fix, but I have complete confidence in [offensive coordinator] Clay Helton.”
Redshirt junior quarterback Cody Kessler had another efficient performance, completing 21 of 32 pass attempts for 230 yard with one touchdown and no turnovers. Despite playing with only three scholarship wide receivers and no scholarship tight ends, Kessler was able to develop a strong rapport with his available targets.
“It’s not ideal to have guys go down, and it’s hard to get timing down,” Kessler said. “I’m very proud of how hard these guys work. In the tight end situation, they stepped up and did great things. Those guys are just team players, family guys, and it’s awesome to know you have guys who put the team before themselves.”
Sophomore wide receiver Nelson Agholor continued his emergence as USC’s primary weapon in the passing game. With junior wide receiver Marqise Lee out, Agholor tallied six catches for 97 yards and one touchdown.
In the kicking game, junior kicker Andre Heidari responded well after having to compete for the starting job during practice. Heidari missed twice in the loss to Notre Dame, but made a career-high four field goals in five attempts against Utah.
“We wanted the competition to be open,” Orgeron said. “We were ready to put in another kicker if we needed to, but [Heidari] did great. I think it was more about a mindset and the competition level that helped him.”
USC plays next on Friday, Nov. 1 against Oregon State in Corvallis, Ore.
Follow Nick on Twitter @NickSelbe