For a USC Trojans team that is fighting injuries and scrapping for every win, there was something that just seemed right about the way things played out in a 19-3 victory over Utah on Saturday.
Last week the Trojans were unable to take advantage of the opportunities presented to them in the loss to Notre Dame, but there were no such troubles against the Utes. In fact, Utah was able to drive for a field goal on its opening possession but that was it.
“It was an outstanding performance by our players,” USC interim coach Ed Orgeron said. “They had a good mindset throughout the week to pull together through adversity and the result is a happy locker room right now.”
It was the USC defense that set the tone by forcing four Utah turnovers -- three interceptions and a fumble -- and converting all of them into points to go into the locker room at halftime with a 16-3 lead.
First it was Josh Shaw, who had been moved back to corner after spending the past three games at safety. Shaw was able to intercept a ball that had been tipped by a Utes receiver, and it set up a 30-yard touchdown pass from Cody Kessler to Nelson Agholor for a 7-3 USC lead.
Next it was Antwaun Woods forcing a fumble on a sack of Utah quarterback Travis Wilson. Anthony Sarao recovered at the Utah 19. The Trojans went three-and-out, but Andre Heidari was able to convert a 35-yard field goal for a 10-3 lead. In the first quarter alone, the USC defense had three sacks, five tackles for loss and two takeaways.
Leon McQuay III, who got his first start for the Trojans at safety, was able to get an interception after Wilson rolled to his right and threw late, with McQuay moving in for the ball at the right moment. Heidari was able to hit a 38-yard field goal to make it 13-3 and then late in the half, with time running out, the Utes inserted Adam Schulz at quarterback in place of Wilson, who was having trouble throwing the ball with a hand injury. Schulz didn’t fare any better as his first pass was intercepted by Su’a Cravens, who returned it 54 yards to the Utah 10. Heidari added a 28-yard field goal as time expired.
“We had emphasized all week on getting back to our dominant selves,” USC linebacker Hayes Pullard said. “We wanted to give up nothing on the field. We just had to execute the plan the coaches gave us and transfer that to the field during the game.”
About the only things that went wrong for USC were injuries to Cravens and offensive tackle Kevin Graf. Cravens injured his groin on the interception return, while Graf left the game earlier with a left ankle/foot injury. The string of injuries for the Trojans is long right now with players such as Marqise Lee, Xavier Grimble, Randall Telfer and Morgan Breslin being forced to sit out the game. In fact, once Cravens went down, the Trojans were forced to suit up Dion Bailey, who had been on the sidelines in street clothes during the first half.
“We knew that at the nickel position we only had one guy to play,” Orgeron said. “He [Bailey] knew that and he told us he wanted to play so he put on his uniform and went out there. It shows that these guys believe in each other and are willing to sacrifice for the good of the team.”
J.R. Tavai, who was playing for Breslin, led USC with 11 tackles and two sacks. The second-leading tackler was Sarao with nine, and he was subbing for the injured Dawson. It has been that kind of year for the Trojans with injuries, but it’s easy to get well when the opposing offense puts up only 201 total yards and averages less than 3 yards per play.
For the Trojans offensively, it wasn’t exactly a banner day either. USC gained only 30 yards rushing when factoring in sack totals. Tre Madden led the way with 60 yards on 12 carries. Kessler had a solid day with 21 completions in 32 attempts for 230 yards and one touchdown with no picks, but he was also sacked five times. The Trojans did not turn the ball over, but third-down conversions (3 of 15) continue to be an issue.
A special mention needs to be made of Heidari, who saw his job put open for competition this week after he missed two critical field goals against Notre Dame. Heidari admitted at practice earlier in the week that he was in “a funk,” but he appeared to get out of it by hitting on 4 of 5 field goals in a nice rebound performance.
“Andre is money,” Kessler said. “He’s a great kicker. Unfortunately he missed some kicks last week, but he’s one of the best kickers in the nation in my opinion. I have 100 percent confidence in him. When he’s focused and locked in, he is spot on.”
The Trojans travel to Oregon State next Friday to face a Beavers team that will not likely struggle on offense the way the Utes did. Orgeron will be looking to get his team as healthy as possible on a short week in order to play at a place that has not been kind to the Trojans in recent memory and against a team that is more than capable of providing a much stiffer test.