What we learned about USC at Utah

October, 4, 2012
10/04/12
11:48
PM PT
SALT LAKE CITY -- It took the Utah Utes 165 seconds to score 14 points in Thursday night's game against No. 13 USC. It took them more than 56 minutes to score 14 more, as the USC Trojans' offense and defense both tightened up for a 38-28 win at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Here are five things we learned about USC in the win:

1. This team has some fight

Fourteen points in 2 minutes? USC essentially gave itself a real-life spread to fight back from in this game -- and, fittingly, the Vegas spread for this one hovered at about 14 points.

The Trojans handled it with aplomb, weathering the storm to an impressive extent and taking back the lead before halftime in a hostile environment. Coach Lane Kiffin said it was a situation that he'd be glad happened by the end of the season. That makes sense.

USC is going to face tougher teams than the Utes, for sure, but they're probably not going to face a tougher start than that all year.

Star receiver Marqise Lee said the 14-point deficit gave the Trojans "an opportunity to fully understand our team as a whole."

"Is SC going to break down or pick it back up?" he envisioned people around the country asking after that. "There you see: We pick it back up."

2. USC's defense is better than people realize

In Lane and Monte Kiffin's first season with the Trojans, the USC defense was downright awful at times. And the Trojans still had some bad moments in 2011.

But the truth is, this unit hasn't had a bad game, yet, this year. They're actually starting to become a force.

Taking away Utah's first two touchdowns that USC's D had almost nothing to do with and the fourth-quarter score against the backups, the Trojans allowed only seven points and created seven points of their own with a Nickell Robey pick-six.

A Lane Kiffin-coached team being good on defense? Yes, it's true.

Kiffin admitted after Thursday's game that his defense was playing the best it has in his 30-game tenure at USC.

3. Woods can still play

His numbers weren't fantastic, but Robert Woods was a big part of USC's offensive performance in the Trojans' win.

He and Lee were both given more room to work on Thursday night, probably because Utah saw the tape of the Cal game and saw USC's ground attack can be effective. And both guys did a lot with it, Woods pulling down six passes for 69 yards and a score and Lee flirting with 200 yards on 12 catches.

Woods had a first-half scare when he tried to deliver a block on Utah's Brian Blechen during a punt return, then stumbled to the turf while trying to run off the field.

His explanation said a lot, though.

"I just got dazed for a little bit and tried to get up, not stay down," Woods said. "For pride."

The junior receiver has a lot of that.

4. Holmes is an ideal leader

It's unusual in football to be able to correctly fault a single player for an opposing touchdown, but USC center Khaled Holmes really was directly responsible for both of Utah's early scores.

He had bad snaps on two of the Trojans' first five to give the ball to the Utes and a holding penalty mixed in there on a failed run play.

Here's the thing, though: From then on, he played great. And he took full responsibility for his mistakes afterward, apologizing to his teammates in the locker room after the game before Kiffin even had a chance to speak.

He said he made a point to forget the plays after Utah scored twice in the first three minutes.

"You have to," Holmes said. "Quarterbacks have to forget it if they throw a pick, cornerbacks have to do it if they get beat deep. Unfortunately I had two terrible plays. But I was able to get past them, and the guys never faltered with their confidence in me. And I couldn't be any more grateful for that."

Holmes didn't offer any excuses. He's had to come out of games twice in the past four weeks due to injury, but he didn't even mention that.

5. Barkley might yet have a chance at the Heisman

Based on his early-season play, experts around the country had been rapidly dropping USC's Matt Barkley on their Heisman Trophy leaderboard, and deservedly so: He hasn't really been playing as well as he did late last year.

But he had a fantastic game in Salt Lake City, completing 23 of his 30 passes for 303 yards, three touchdowns and no picks. He made only one or two bad decisions the entire game. And two drops by his receivers prevented his numbers from really looking supreme.

Sure, if the West Virginia Mountaineers's Geno Smith keeps putting up "video-game numbers" -- as Barkley called it this week -- he'll be the Heisman favorite.

But to count Barkley out now would be premature.

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