Behind a career day from freshman linebacker Cameron Smith, the Trojans beat No. 3-ranked Utah, 42-24, at the Coliseum on Saturday night.
Smith, who led the Trojans (4-3, 2-2 Pac-12) with nine total tackles, became the first USC defender since 1991 to record three interceptions in a game.
“I kept feeling the people behind me and picking up routes as quickly as possible,” Smith said. “When the ball was coming, I just thought, ‘Catch the ball.’”
The team’s leading tackler picked off Utah (6-1, 3-1) quarterback Travis Wilson on three separate occasions and returned them for a combined 122 yards including a 54-yard return for a touchdown in the second quarter.
“He’s one of the more intuitive kids we’ve seen,” interim head coach Clay Helton said. “It’s unbelievable for a freshman.”
Before that, Smith ran one back 41 yards to the Utah four-yard line, which set up a fourth down leap by redshirt senior fullback Soma Vainuku.
“The offensive line did great, the defensive line did great, but the momentum changed, and what Cam [Smith] did tonight won us the game,” redshirt senior quarterback Cody Kessler said.
USC’s victory not only snapped a two-game losing streak and handed the Utes its first loss off the season, but it gave Helton a win in his home debut while revitalizing the team’s chance of winning the Pac-12 South.
“It was just amazing to see the guys fight and continue to get better and band together,” Helton said. “It was a big victory tonight.”
The Trojans’ success against Utah was largely in part to their ability to contain the Pac-12’s third leading rusher in running back Devontae Booker, who ran for a season-low 62 yards on 14 carries.
“A lot of credit goes to Justin Wilcox,” Helton said. “He said we’ve got to take Booker out of the game and force the passing game. To be able to shut it down and get into the passing game, we thought that was to our advantage.”
Conversely, the USC running game accounted for 165 of the team’s 380 yards of total offense led by the dynamic duo pf freshman Ronald Jones II and junior Justin Davis, who both got into the end zone during the night.
Davis put the Trojans on the board first after a nine-yard touchdown following an 88-yard drive, while Jones broke out for an 18-yard burst to the house that handed USC a lead in the second quarter that it would keep for good.
After throwing multiple interceptions in each of the two previous games, Kessler bounced back with a 21-for-28 performance for 264 yards and a touchdown in the air with no picks. He also snuck one into the end zone on fourth and one to cap off a 17-play, 83-yard drive that lasted just under nine minutes in the third quarter.
“That was a complete drive that I thought separated the game,” Helton said.
Sophomore wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster seemingly had his way all night against the Utes, catching nine eight passes for 143 yards. The Pac-12’s leading receiver connected with Kessler for a 25-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter that was the nail in coffin, putting USC up 42-17 over the previously undefeated Utes.
Smith-Schuster also got everyone in the crowd off their feet after propelling Utah cornerback Dominique Hatfield to the ground with a vicious stiff arm.
USC held the Utes scoreless in the second half up until four minutes left in the fourth quarter when wide receiver Britain Covey found the end zone on a 66-yard catch and run, which gave him his second touchdown of the game.
After completing each of his nine passes in the first quarter, Wilson finished the game 24-of-36 for 254 yards and two touchdowns and a season-high four interceptions. Wilson’s last interception, though, came on a Hail Mary attempt that linebacker Su’a Cravens picked off with just a couple seconds left in the game.
Going into next week, it will be important for the Trojans to get healthy, as they had two starters leave the game due to injuries during the first half. Sophomore center Toa Lobendahn, who was already filling in for the injured Max Tuerk, went down with a knee injury, while tight end Taylor McNamara suffered a shoulder injury.
Redshirt sophomore Khaliel Rodgers stepped in to fill the void at center for the remainder of the game after Lobendahn went down. Kessler commended the entire offensive line for stepping up.
“The thing I’m most proud of the offensive line,” Kessler said. “Toa [Lobendahn] went down, and Rodgers went in and played amazing, like he was the starter all year. Those guys don’t blink. They go in and are physical.”
The Trojans will jump back on the road to play Cal (5-2, 2-2) next Saturday in a Halloween matinee.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said the end score was 35-17. It was 42-24. The Daily Trojan regrets the error.