Sometimes, in a football game, you can put your finger on a turning point.
Utah had fourth-and-1 from USC’s 37-yard line, 17 seconds remaining in the first half Saturday at the Coliseum. USC needed just one stop to maintain a four-point deficit despite a subpar first-half performance, perhaps even working with a short enough field to draw closer (or ahead) before the break.
But USC’s defense had looked fooled across much of the first half, and the Utes highlighted that once again, busting out a flea flicker for a dagger of a 37-yard touchdown that put the Trojans down two possessions as they headed toward the locker room.
A chance at regaining momentum was lost. It remained lost. USC lost. Score: 42-26.
“They for sure had some energy shift,” redshirt senior safety Isaiah Pola-Mao said of the play. “We tried to keep it on our side, but at the end of the day, they made plays and we didn’t.”
At that point, the Trojans still theoretically had a chance. Utah had all the momentum and was set to receive the ball to start the third quarter, but 11 points is 11 points.
But the Utes’ two-minute, 19-second touchdown drive that ended with a 43-yard touchdown run by sophomore running back Tavion Thomas to begin the third quarter didn’t help. Nor did their one-minute, 32-second march on the ensuing drive, which concluded with a 17-yard touchdown scramble from sophomore quarterback Cameron Rising through multiple would-be USC tacklers. Indeed, 11 points was 11 points — until it was 25 points.
Not even a second half performance from junior receiver Drake London that mirrored his 11-reception, 108-yard first half would have saved the Trojans. London concluded the evening with a whopping 16 receptions (one shy of the USC single-game record) and 162 yards on the night, still easily enough to make him the first receiver to amass 100 yards against Utah this year. The nation’s leading receiver (through five games) entering Saturday, London has pulled in at least 130 yards in five of USC’s six games this season.
His performance — as well as the 85-yard outing by sophomore Gary Bryant Jr. — helped junior quarterback Kedon Slovis to a final line of 33-for-53 with 401 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.
Rising threw for 95 yards fewer than Slovis but in 25 fewer attempts, and a porous USC secondary helped him do that. Five plays of at least 25 yards — three of at least 35 — didn’t reflect particularly well upon the unit.
“It’s a matter of both,” head coach Donte Williams said when asked whether the big plays were due to personnel or scheme. “Any time a big play happens, it’s gonna be what we call, what we don’t call. At the same time, credit to Utah, because they capitalized on them. And we’ve gotta make sure those things don’t happen because there was way too many big plays on that field tonight not in our favor.”
But illustrations of the exposure weren’t limited to big plays: A wide-open 12-yard touchdown by freshman receiver Money Parks and a wide-open 1-yard score by junior tight end Dalton Kincaid further demonstrated the secondary’s ineptitude on Saturday.
No matter which way you draw it up, it wasn’t a pretty night for USC or its fans. Fifteen minutes before kickoff, the Coliseum was virtually empty. It filled out a bit before the game started, and even moreso early in the first quarter.
Maybe the late arrivals should’ve stayed home after all. Because as USC’s marching band performed its rendition of Olivia Rodrigo’s “good 4 u” on the field after the game, one couldn’t help but think that “deja vu” would’ve been the teen’s hit more suited for the occasion. Redshirt senior center Brett Neilon used that term to describe USC’s third straight home loss, which went much like the first two in terms of poor red zone execution and a lopsided final score that was perhaps a garbage-time touchdown closer than the game felt.
“It’s tough,” redshirt senior defensive lineman Nick Figueroa said. “We love this team, we love this program, respect this program. I hate to see us having these historic losses at such a great venue where so many legends have been made. It’s a lot bigger than us, and I know it hits us in the heart.”
USC is now 1-3 at home this season with a point differential of -25, compared to 2-0 on the road and +54.
“On the road, it’s only us. It’s a business trip. So you try to make everything at home the same way,” Williams said. “At the same time, it’s a roller coaster. It’s been up and down, which usually it’s the other way around for teams. Usually they play great at home and bad on the road. So we’re gonna continue to make sure things are tweaked the way they need to tweak to where we can perform either way.”
The good news for USC: Its next game is on the road. The bad news: It’s against a Notre Dame team that entered the day ranked No. 14 in the country. And if the Trojans want any chance at competing in that game, they’ll have to spend their upcoming bye week fixing a litany of problems that may outnumber those empty Coliseum seats from 15 minutes before the blowout began.
“We gotta make sure we come into the bye week and focus on us,” Williams said. “We’ve got a lot of things we need to clean up as a team … We’re fortunate enough that the bye happens right in the middle of our regular season, and we’re gonna come in and make sure we’re prepared to keep going.”
“Our goal is to go win every game on that [second-half] schedule,” Slovis said. “We’re good enough to. We have the guys to do it. That doesn’t change just because we lose a game here or there. So again, nothing changes.”