To consistently win football games, the most important thing to do is to win upfront. No matter what people say about flashy position players, the best college and pro teams throughout history have dictated the line of scrimmage and dominated the point of attack.
But there are rare occasions that a skill position group dominates so thoroughly that it overshadows a team’s lack of physicality and subpar coaching. That was the case with USC’s wide receiving corps in its 30-23 victory over No. 10 Utah Friday night.
USC’s prospects weren’t good entering the game. Utah was undefeated, destroyed a BYU team that beat the Trojans in Week 3 and displayed more of the physicality and discipline that helped them embarrass USC 41-28 last season. Things only got worse when freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis departed the game after taking a hard hit on the second play from scrimmage. Redshirt junior Matt Fink, who entered the season as the third-stringer, was suddenly thrown into the spotlight against the conference’s best defense.
USC was down two quarterbacks, had -7 rushing yards for the game at one point in the fourth quarter and lost the time of possession battle by nearly 18 minutes. How did USC put up 30 points and win this game? The answer is that USC’s three starting wide receivers were perhaps among the top five players in the game.
We have to start with senior wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr., who had a career-high 10 receptions for 232 yards. In a game that featured its fair share of jaw-dropping plays, Pittman’s 77-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter was arguably the most impressive, giving USC a 21-10 advantage. Pittman went up high to haul in the slightly underthrown pass, then held off senior defensive back Tareke Lewis while running 30 yards to the end zone. It was an absolute tour de force.
Pittman has showcased all the abilities that make him the best player on one of college football’s best receiving units. His NFL draft stock is rising after posting 19 receptions for 327 yards and three touchdowns in the last two games. Pittman’s route-running is more crisp than in previous years, demonstrated by his ability to gain consistent separation against Utah.
However, the most incredible part was that he physically dominated a Utah defensive backfield that features two potential All-American selections in junior cornerback Jaylon Johnson and senior safety Julian Blackmon. USC’s game plan at many times throughout the night seemed to be to throw the ball up and let Pittman go get it.
“At times we threw it into double coverage, up to [Pittman] twice actually, and he came down with it,” offensive coordinator Graham Harrell said after the game. “That’s just having a special guy.”
USC’s other top wideouts deserve credit too, even if their contributions weren’t as flashy as Pittman’s. After being held to one reception for 4 yards against BYU, sophomore Amon-Ra St. Brown caught three passes for 32 yards on the game’s opening drive. He then beat two defenders for a 31-yard score on another underthrown jump ball on the Trojans’ second drive.
Redshirt junior Tyler Vaughns beat Johnson down the right sideline for a 29-yard touchdown on USC’s first possession, helping the Trojans to a necessary fast start. He also made an impact at the end of the game, drawing a pass interference penalty on Johnson that set up redshirt freshman running back Markese Stepp’s 4-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.
The receivers were so good that Utah had to change its approach early in the game, switching out of man-to-man coverage because it couldn’t match up with USC’s playmakers.
“We’ve got wide receivers that are one of the most special groups I’ve ever seen,” Harrell said. “If they ever get one-on-one opportunities, they’re going to go win them.”
The receivers didn’t win the game single-handedly. Fink impressed with several fantastic downfield throws, particularly a 42-yard bomb to Pittman on third down that set the Trojans up for their final touchdown.
Utah’s offense left a lot of points on the table due to penalties and mistakes, and the USC defense made big plays when it needed to. Freshman defensive end Drake Jackson pressured Utah senior quarterback Tyler Huntley in the end zone in the fourth quarter, forcing an intentional grounding and safety.
But the receivers played the biggest role in the Trojans’ victory. Much of Fink’s yardage came from the receivers beating Utah’s defensive backs to jump balls, a fair amount of which came in double coverage. Everyone knew USC’s receiving corps entered the season as the team’s best position group, but few anticipated they would be the biggest factor in a win over a team as good as Utah.
“I could show you [Pittman’s] stats right now,” Fink said. “The guy’s a monster, you can’t guard him. And that goes with [St. Brown], it goes with [Vaughns], it goes with [freshman]Drake [London]. We’re stacked all across the board and, with weapons like that, you can’t do anything about it.”
Things won’t get easier for the Trojans as they head to Seattle this week to face No. 17 Washington, who defeated BYU at home 45-19 this past weekend. Washington has a recent history of fielding dominant defenses with elite defensive backs and that hasn’t changed this season. With multiple potential all-conference selections in the secondary, the Huskies’ defensive backfield presents a challenge for these receivers. If the Utah game is any indication, though, it’s a test they can pass with flying colors.
Aidan Berg is a junior writing about sports. He is also an associate managing editor for Daily Trojan. His column, “Berg is the Word,” runs every Monday.