USC football certainly didn’t eliminate mistakes Saturday night against Utah. The costly turnovers and penalties were all too familiar after the Trojans’ narrow victories over Arizona State and Arizona. But No. 20 USC pulled out a win, and unlike those first two games, it didn’t have to mount an improbable comeback effort to do it.
Despite a tight first half due to offensive miscues, the Trojans’ defense limited the Utes’ run attack en route to a 30-17 road victory, giving USC a 3-0 record midway through the season.
USC’s defense averaged 28.5 points allowed over the first two games but only gave up 10 points to Utah — the other seven points were the results of a scoop and score on a Kedon Slovis fumble. The Trojans held the Utes scoreless in the fourth quarter.
Head coach Clay Helton said USC’s main goal was to stop the run, as Utah has historically been a run-heavy offense.
“That means loaded boxes that put a little pressure on the secondary, but they held their own,” Helton said. “It allowed us to get to third down, and then our pass rushers did an amazing job tonight.”
Junior linebacker Kana’i Mauga played an instrumental role in USC’s run defense with 11 total tackles, including a team-high four solo tackles. Sophomore linebacker Ralen Goforth had 12, and junior safety Talanoa Hufanga had 10. To put that into perspective, no USC player had more than 10 tackles in either of the first two games.
Mauga said the defense’s biggest change was in its attitude, which he described as “vicious.”
“We were really getting after the ball and making sure everyone on our defense is zeroed in when the game starts,” he said.
The Trojans also had five takeaways — three interceptions and two fumble recoveries — that resulted in 13 points. This defensive scoring was crucial for an offense that wasn’t “firing on all cylinders,” as Helton put it.
Along with Slovis’ fumble, redshirt senior Vavae Malepeai’s touchdown run was called back due to a holding penalty, and Slovis threw an interception on the next play to end the drive scoreless.
“I don’t think I played very well as a whole,” the sophomore quarterback said. “We left a lot of points on the board mostly because of my play and not being disciplined enough.”
Although the offense made mistakes, there were ever-present glimpses of talent across the board. USC’s top two backs in yards and carries coming into the game — sophomore Markese Stepp and junior Stephen Carr — were out with injuries. But Malepeai and sophomore Kenan Christon, who was a key piece of USC’s offense last year after injuries to its top three backs, combined for 117 yards on the night.
When USC failed to convert on third down, freshman kicker Parker Lewis made all four of his field-goal attempts. His two longest kicks as a Trojan — 47 yards and 43 yards — came with under five minutes remaining and helped USC maintain a comfortable lead.
The Trojans will return home to take on Colorado Nov. 28 at the Coliseum. The Buffaloes are the only other undefeated team in the Pac-12 South, holding a 2-0 record.
“The approach that we’ve taken — and we’re not going to change — is that we just want to be 1-0 on the week,” Helton said. “We’ll go home, we’ll celebrate this one, we’ll put it to bed and then we’ve got a good Colorado team coming in.”