As games across the Pac-12 conference continued to be canceled, USC plays on as they headed to Salt Lake City, Utah for a matchup against the Utes. Rice Eccles Stadium has not been friendly for USC the last three visits as Utah came out victorious in each of those games.
This year, Utah opened their season on Saturday, Nov. 21 and played their first game since stalwarts Tyler Huntley and Zack Moss left for the NFL after the 2019 season. The Trojans took advantage of Utah’s miscues and unlike their last two games, USC did not need a late rally to win the game as they took care of the Utes 33-17. Here is my breakdown of the game.
In my last two Trojan Tribune columns, I mentioned how offensive coordinator Graham Harrell needs to call plays which allows quarterback Kedon Slovis to push the ball down the field before the fourth quarter so USC does not fall into early deficits. Against Utah, this came true as Slovis opened it up early and as a result, USC was in a rhythm before their final two drives of the game. It was not all perfect as Slovis threw a bad interception to Nephi Sewell late in the second quarter and was stripped-sacked two possessions earlier, which Sewell returned for a touchdown.
However, Slovis was still his usual productive self with 264 yards and two touchdowns on 24 of 35 attempts. What was encouraging from this performance was Slovis spread the ball around to his different receivers and all stepped up with huge receptions. Bru McCoy led all Trojan receivers in receiving yards with 66 yards on five receptions. Tyler Vaughns, Amon-Ra St. Brown and Drake London gained 62, 53 and 43 yards on the days. Tight end Eric Krommenhoek caught his second touchdown of the season as well.
Slovis needed to push the ball down the field because the running game was sorely lacking. Vavae Malepeai gained 62 yards on 20 carries and a touchdown, averaging 3.1 yards a carry. About half of their 93-yard rushing total came on a 47-yard run by Kenan Christon to set up the second of their three field goals in the fourth quarter. While it ultimately did not matter against Utah, the running game will need to step up more if they are to truly compete against better competition going forward.
USC’s defense has had their struggles to start the 2020 season as they were gashed by Arizona State’s rushing attack and were lit up by the balanced Arizona offense. This game was a step in the right direction as they forced five Utah turnovers and held them to 327 yards of total offense. Chris Steele, Drake Jackson and Talanoa Hufanga all came away with interceptions while Isaiah Pola-Moa and Connor Murphy all came away with fumbles to give the offense possession. Three of these takeaways came in the second quarter as USC seized control of the lead and built a two-touchdown lead.
This was the best the defense has looked as their secondary pounced on the mistakes of Utah’s QBs and got penetration into the backfield, racking up three sacks on the night. While Utah made some big plays by getting their playmakers in open space, the damage was limited to 10 points on offense and no running back rushed for more than 32 yards in the game. The unit played much more aggressively, something they need to continue to do going forward. While Utah proved their inexperience, the game provided a good foundation to build on going forward.
Freshman kicker Parker Lewis rebounded from his missed 28-yard field goal last week and drilled all four of his field goals, including the last one from 47 yards out. The fact he is providing quality production as a freshman should get USC confidence they have a dependable kicker for the next several seasons.
The Trojans were supposed to return home after a two-game road trip for a matchup against the Colorado Buffaloes. However, due to several positive cases within the program, the Pac-12 canceled the game. USC is scheduled to host Washington State on Friday but the status of that game remains up in the air.